Ask any woman and she’ll have an opinion, a personal story, and a strategy surrounding crying at work. Whatever your gender, we all have emotions, and despite our best intentions, these emotions can boil over during stressful work situations. After years of fighting against my natural tendency as a crier, I realized I was doing more harm to myself than good, and I know that many other women also struggle with this issue. Rather than trying to change the way we naturally express emotions, I argue that we should defend our right to express emotions the way they come to us.
I am a crier. It doesn’t take much, from an ASPCA commercial to a moment of high stress to something I find funny—crying is just the way I express a range of emotions. As a manager at a hedge fund, I was often one of only a few women in a room and in my department. Furthermore, there were many times when I was the only female manager in the room. I was repeatedly given the advice of, “Whatever you do, just don’t cry.” Or, “Crying will undermine all your credibility.” In my early twenties, I took this advice to heart. I didn’t want to come across as unprofessional, and I didn’t want to do anything that would single me out as a “female manager.” I just wanted to be a respected and competent leader. So for years I did my best to hide my emotions. When I couldn’t control it and I did cry in front of co-workers, I apologized profusely and felt a great amount of shame.
I continued to hear this advice throughout my time in business school at Georgetown. After reflecting on this advice, I came to a realization about how crying is viewed and what I had done to perpetuate the widely-held view that crying at work is something to be avoided if at all possible. I thought back to the way that my male co-workers and bosses expressed their emotions. There were many times when they raised their voices or yelled, slammed doors, pounded on the table, or silently withdrew from the conversation in obvious anger. And yet I have never heard advice that men should never raise their voices or stand up when they feel strongly about something. These are all different ways of expressing our emotions. So why, then, is crying deemed so much less acceptable than all the other ways? Or, more importantly, what can we do to level the playing field and create space for each of us to vent our emotions the way that comes naturally to us?
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One answer is to stop being ashamed of crying. If the men around me weren’t ashamed when they raised their voices, why should I be ashamed when I shed a tear? It also helped to acknowledge the emotion. I used to have a mantra with my boss, who initially had very negative reactions to my crying. He was prone to yelling and standing up when he became upset, but he frowned upon my crying and told me it was unprofessional. When I pointed out to him that one way of expressing emotion shouldn’t be considered more acceptable than the other, he questioned whether I could continue talking when I was crying. This helped us to understand each other: his concern was that if I was crying I was no longer being logical and that I was unable to continue working. That’s not true for me—while I may need a minute to calm down, a few tears do not obfuscate my ability to think, just as him raising his voice does not mean that his words lose their value.
Once we worked this out and came to an understanding that “your yelling is my crying,” we were able to be honest about what was happening. If one of us got upset we could stop and say, “Do you need a minute?” Sometimes one of us did, sometimes we could stay logical and discuss the problem. Often, acknowledging the emotions present allowed us to calm down and get back to the issue at hand.
I think there are two powerful takeaways for others like me who struggle with the “No Crying at Work Rule”: First, own your emotions, rather than being ashamed of them or trying to repress them; it is powerful and within reach of our control. Secondly, when we give other women the advice to never cry we are giving everyone the permission to judge a more female expression of emotions as inherently less professional than another.
Let’s stop holding ourselves accountable to an unattainable standard of emotional control, and start communicating honestly about the emotions that are bound to happen.
Kate O’Sullivan is a Career and Executive Coach who helps professionals make career transitions and accelerate their leadership development. Kate has a decade of leadership and coaching experience with corporate and individual clients around the world. Kate has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Georgetown University.