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There’s No Crying at Work!!

What will it take to see crying as just another expression of genuine emotion and not a sign of weakness? And what do we who cry do in the meantime?

Speaking out to equalize opportunity in Ethiopia with my daughter is a tear trigger for me.  Photo by Damian Angelidis

This is a tough subject for me to write about. Because to do so, I need to admit something I would prefer was not true. I am a crier and I cry at work. There I said it. I can almost hear the incredulous voices, “You cry at work?!?!

Yes, I do. I don’t yell or blow up. But I do cry on occasion. I have tried my best not to do so. I can give you chapter and verse on what I tried that didn’t work. However, I concluded if I am to be authentically myself, crying now and then is part of the package. I find I am susceptible to cry at work in a couple of specific circumstances.

I cry if I feel someone else’s pain.

Either they are crying or are going through something that cuts me to the core because I can sense their pain but can’t alleviate it. I find this type of crying is generally viewed as more acceptable so I won’t spend much time on it here.

I get emotional when I am frustrated and it’s personal to me.

Usually the situation involves some violation of my sense of fundamental fairness. I have had this happen with challenging discussions that were deeply personal, either related to me or someone I cared about who worked with me. Most times, I could avoid crying if I don’t express my honest emotions. But as I matured in my career, suppressing these feelings felt inauthentic and ultimately led to more frustration.

I tear up when I am angry and don’t feel I am being heard.

A friend of mind posted this (slightly edited) which summed up that situation well:

“Some people cry when they are MAD, where others boast/yell/brood. Let’s re-label crying for what it is: a genuine expression of anger- just as powerful as arguing. We aren’t sad. Don’t feel sorry for us. We are pissed. Don’t fear our tears- respect them.”

I cry if I am touched by positive feedback I didn’t expect.

I was at a leadership conference at Amazon a number of years back. After a business simulation, your peers give you feedback. Mine was surprising. I heard a number of them praise my ability to bring ideas and people together. And they wondered why I didn’t do it more often and earlier in the process. The reason I had held back was I thought there were many smart people there so I should wait and hear what others had to say first. I felt my eyes well up. I remember biting my inner cheek hoping to avoid a full cry. But when I had to respond, the emotion those words of affirmation released triggered the waterworks despite my best efforts. I was deeply embarrassed and desperately wished for a different response (and if possible for a deep hole to open up and swallow me).

What shocked me was a number of my male colleagues thanked me for being
willing to be vulnerable, expressing my true emotions and trusting the
group. This was a revelation to me of the positive power of tears. A
leader I respect challenged his team to avoid making fun of crying which
I think is a more common response that it should be. It led to an
interesting discussion where some leaders appeared to me to get it;
others appeared perplexed, and still others seemed like they didn’t
agree with the direction. I get all those responses because I imagine
each of them has experienced others crying and their own need to cry in
completely different ways that lined up with their reactions.

I have thought about this a lot over the years and wanted to share some advice for those who might be like me and cry and also for those who are not and might have wondered what to do if someone cries in their presence.

If you are a crier, own it. It is not your fault. It is not a sign of weakness.

Crying is part of what makes you uniquely you. Embrace it. There are benefits in that it allows others to be vulnerable. If you see someone else tear up and get embarrassed, share, “I have cried too and you have nothing to feel ashamed about by crying.” Trust me this is powerful!

When you start crying, take a moment to explain what is going on.

In a situation where I find myself crying, I tell the person or group as matter of factly as I can. “I am not sad. You don’t need to feel sorry for me. I am fine to continue this conversion. And I am not trying to emotionally blackmail you. If I could chose not to cry in this circumstance, I would do that. But unfortunately, that is not an option for me.”

If you are approaching a situation that might trigger you to cry, prepare yourself.

Practice what you will say so it feels natural and you can work much of the emotion out ahead of time. This generally works for me although not always. I gave an International Women’s Day speech in 2015 and I was going to talk about my grandmothers and my daughter – the latter is a crying trigger for me. I practiced in the mirror and could deliver the speech without even a catch in my voice. But when I did it live, the emotions came and were reflected back at me in the audience. My voice caught as I spoke and the tears filled my eyes. I laughed with a fellow presenter afterwards who said, “You broke a cardinal rule. You are not supposed to make your fellow presenters cry.”

If you are not a crier and someone cries in your presence, don’t freak out.

Treat it like a normal response (which it is). Offer a tissue if needed and ask the person if they can continue. If they indicate yes, continue with the dialogue you were having. Normalize the behavior as much as you can so the person doesn’t feel ashamed. The person doesn’t want your pity. Let the person know you appreciate that they felt safe enough to express themselves genuinely with you. Crying makes you hugely vulnerable and that acknowledgement is a lifeline. Challenge your mental models that says crying is not okay in the workplace. Where did that perspective come from? How do you feel about yelling? Why is that different?

I read an article that resonated with me. I am sharing my story in the hopes we can get to a place where crying is seen as just another expression of genuine emotion.

Previously published on Working Mother.

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