People Cry At Work, Deal With It
“Get it together Hannah, you’re fine, your eyes are DRY.”
I used to think that if I convinced myself I wasn’t crying at work, it’d be true. “It’s a mental game,” I’d say, “and you will WIN.” I didn’t win. My tears were, and are, like Pringles; once they pop, they can’t stop.
And then, for all of us criers out there, the panic sets in. “Nooooo, now they think I’m weak, unprofessional, a hot mess, mentally unwell, incapable of hearing feedback, unable to cope, sensie-defensie. I’ll never be trusted with anything again everrrrr!” To be fair, this panic isn’t altogether outlandish. The modern American workforce is built on a traditionally masculine code of ethics: don’t tear up, don’t show emotion, there’s no crying in business!
While crying at work is almost universally frowned upon, 41% of women and 9% of men have admitted to crying at work. Apparently, I’m in good company, and though people often try to dismiss crying as a sign of weakness, there are myriad reasons people might cry in a professional setting. A few of my own include:
Stress – Stress manifests in various ways, and one of them is through tears. At one point in my career, I was working at midnight with a couple colleagues trying to finish a project while simultaneously dealing with things going on in my personal life and with a direct report. It was a lot. I cried.
Exhaustion – I was so burned out that I found myself on a never-ending emotional rollercoaster. I couldn’t keep up and wanted to prove that I could while still staying at the top of my game. There were tear-filled panic attacks at home, and some waterworks in the office too.
Overwhelmed with happiness – My team bought me flowers one day to celebrate the success of a huge project. Another time we did an exercise where we had to say why we were grateful to work with each person. I cry at moments like this because people are being vulnerable and thoughtful. It gets me.
Defending myself and others – At the angriest—and most empowered—I’ve ever been in my career, I was defending my character to a boss. There were tears. Strong, amazing tears.
Over-empathizing – I tend to pick up on others’ emotional states before they’re ready to talk about it. I’ve learned to better handle this, but there was a time when trying to manage everyone’s emotions brought out the tears in me.
Clearly, I’ve had my fair share of crying moments, and I’ve experienced the full gamut of reactions. I’ve seen everything from, “you’re weak and unprofessional,” to “oh no, I have to hide from her. I’m so uncomfortable!” Despite the range of responses, the general consensus seems to be that crying at work is bad, and that one should try to suppress emotions and be more “put together.”
What are we doing by rejecting this very basic human instinct? In a way, we’re stunting a natural emotional reaction. But we’re not robots, machines, or processing tools. We’re people, and sometimes people cry. According to Michael Trimble, a professor emeritus at University College London, “there must have been some point in time, evolutionarily, when the tear became something that automatically set off empathy and compassion in another. Actually being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human.”
It’s an important part of being human, so therefore it’s an important part of being a supportive colleague/boss/manager/leader. So the next time you see someone cry, keep in mind that a.) it’s a natural human reaction, and being human at work is not a bad thing (in fact, we’d argue it’s important), and b.) don’t write the person off as weak, sensitive, or unprofessional. If you can, try to understand the why behind the cry, and be an empathetic listener. Bonus tip, ask “Where are the tears coming from?” instead of “why are you crying?” It carries less judgment.
If you, like me, are a crier at work, I’m here to say I understand your pain. It’s not easy wearing your emotions on your sleeve, especially when the workplace says you’re supposed to shut them down. When you feel those tears coming on, here’s what I suggest: take a walk, discover where the tears are coming from, and own them! The best thing you can do is say, “Clearly this is getting to me! Carry on, I’ll sort it out.” Don’t think your tears are something you need to change. It’s a part of who you are, and it’s a part of being human. Others can learn to deal with it.