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Crying at work: how bad is it?

December 10, 2015

I assume any person would choose to never cry at work, and to never see someone cry.  That seems obvious.  But how to prevent it, what to do if it happens, and how bad is it?

I was in a rather extreme work situation last month, at least extreme for the relatively calm career I’m in.  I’d flown to another city (for < 24 hrs) for a meeting I was absolutely dreading.  Events that are too boring to detail led to me being in tears, in front of people.  Obviously, it was not ideal and I was mortified.  Although the situation was terrible and I was right to be upset, I definitely didn’t intend to display this.  I’ve kept my composure (at least in public) during a multiple rounds of screwed up crap leading up to this, but I was pushed over the edge by the events of that day.

I googled “crying at work” to try to figure out what the internet had to say (because of course).  I was shocked at the number of people (in comments on blog posts) who suggested they thought people cried to be manipulative. Seriously?  People do this?  I was crying out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness, and would have done anything to prevent it.  I was also intrigued by people who suggested that criers should “practice reacting unemotionally.”  How exactly does one do that?     I get upset because I care.  I want to care, but I really prefer not to show it.  This is not a rhetorical question – if you have learned how to practice hiding your emotions, I want to know how.  Believe me, I tried very very hard to distract myself and think of other things, but it didn’t work.

The most practical things I read were to avoid triggers, to physically take a step back, and to squeeze the webbing between your thumb and your forefinger. Of course therapy (or a new job!) is appropriate if it is a recurring issue.

Regarding avoiding triggers: In this case, I should have declined the meeting under the terms I was given, and planned a different sort of meeting that was more sensible or sought out more information before showing up. I knew I was on edge, and there was a high probability it would turn out poorly. I’ve been raked over the coals by this over the past few months, and I’d had ENOUGH. I went into the meeting in that state – that is on me.  They put me in a really awkward situation – but I let them.

I do need to keep my stress level under control.  I have a variety of ideas of how to implement some changes there.  Now that my side project is over, it has already started to wind down to my “normal” levels.  I can work from here.

As far as “damage control” (recommended by some), I couldn’t figure out much to do except move forward. I took a couple of days of avoiding triggering people/situations to get some mental distance, but we eventually charted out a path forward. There is still some relationship repair going on, but it is more related to the overall situation rather than the incident of me crying.  The best way to recover is to bounce back to normal.  That’s as much as I can figure, at least, and things seem to have gone back to normal.

Readers, do you have practical tips to avoid showing emotion in a stressful situation?  Do you have any thoughts about tears at work?  Have you had them or witnessed them?

(Grumpy Rumblings also asked their readers this question on my behalf.)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2015 3:01 pm

    I almost lost it a month ago at work. I had to go into a room and breathe…

    I’ve also witnessed tears at work and I shuffled them off into a little corner to let them cry it out while I hugged them.

    To avoid showing emotion in a stressful situation is hard. There is no way out of it

    The best advice I can give is give it 48 hours before anything. Before an email. Before a confrontation. 48 hours or at least 24 hours, and talk to a close friend NOT AT WORK who can listen to you vent and maybe offer some advice.

    DO NOT (as you and I have done), go to meetings that you should not have gone to, and lose it the way that we both did…

  2. December 10, 2015 7:09 pm

    I’ve cried at work. Mostly from either telling my manager that I was leaving (though not the second last time!) or from a critical review. I’ve gotten better at the review one with practice at taking feedback less personally.

    Honestly getting less attached to my work is part of how I cry less at work these days. It’s not the best solution, but it helps.

    • December 10, 2015 7:11 pm

      Oh my trick for reviews that are critical now is to be in a good place while meeting with my manager and if I can tell tears are coming, thank him for his time and end the meeting quickly.

      It’s taking a lot of time to detox from my default of jaded assumptions in stressful situations.

  3. December 13, 2015 1:06 pm

    There were two specific incidents where I was close to tears (but not actual crying) at work. The first one was in front of one of my project managers and another time I managed to get to the ladies room in time.

    In both instances it was because I was angry and extremely frustrated with what I perceived as being powerless in an unfair situation. I can’t see how crying at work can be seen as manipulative. However, I am very conscious of the stereotype of crying females at work, and in my line of work where there’s one female engineer for every seven (I am in oil and gas), I simply did not want to play into the stereotype. It is unfair I know, but I honestly feel if I had indeed cried at work, that would be remembered more than all the other good work that I had done. Unfair also that I have seen many male engineers losing it in arguments and acting really unprofessionally, and yet “it was all in the heat of the moment” and people let it go. I heard about another female engineer who cried at work, and it was a big deal. It came up to upper management, leading them to investigate the underlying reason why the engineer was in tears.

    I think you have the right ideas on how to proceed from here. Over time I have recognized my “triggers”: long hours and not enough sleep, stress (personal or work-related), reading too much into or caring too much about off the cuff comments, etc. Over the years, I am learning that I can still care and be passionate abt my work but not take things personally.
    It’s just business.

  4. Gwen permalink
    December 14, 2015 1:31 pm

    So, I heard (online) once that you literally can’t cry while drinking water (obviously, you can cry in between sips of water, though). So, one of the things I do is: if I know that it’s possible I’ll be overwhelmed, I make a point of taking something to drink with me. Then, if I need to, I can take sips, and focus on composing myself.

    I definitely also suggest going to grab some water when other people start to look overwhelmed.

    The only downside so far is that I’m a little worried I could basically spit-take, if I were really upset about something, but I always get cups with straws (which they have downstairs at work), and remember to take small sips.

    So far, it has definitely helped me when I’m feeling bad; for me a lot of times my throat tightens up and feels like there’s a huge knot in it, and forcing myself to drink water and swallow feels like it loosens things a little.

    Also: I really love – I’ve never written in myself, but it’s basically a review of lots of real-life case studies and seeing what other people believe is reasonable. For me, it feels like ‘training data’ (a term for data, which is often annotated, used to train machine learning systems), and when I encounter challenging situations being aware of larger social norms, etc can definitely help me with in-the-moment perspective. Good luck!

  5. December 14, 2015 7:03 pm

    I cried at work once. I was distraught because Dad was going for heart surgery. I was actually okay throughout the day until I was talking to my coworker and then she talked about her own father dying and his heart problems. After that I started sobbing.

    There were other times I almost lost it but I always remained composed. I usually walk out and get some fresh air and some time for myself. After that, I almost always feel better. Stepping away helps me think better.

    • December 16, 2015 3:47 pm

      I feel like when you are crying for personal reasons, it is more accepted. You may not want to do it, but people understand – we all have family (well, the lucky ones of us).

  6. Kay permalink
    December 16, 2015 6:59 am

    Don’t apologize; just move on. Next time, feel free to come across as agressive than frustrated. It really helps to emotionally disengage from the situation as well and ‘act’ a bit cold hearted, but slowly you’ll figure out a balance between both.

    Fake it till you make it! By ‘it, I mean, a big burst of confidence and self assuredness.

    Self talk helps too. ‘You think you can push me around? Ha! You got it wrong!’ etc.. whatever works to draw out your mad instead of sad and keeps you going.

    Feel free to say – This needs more time to look at; I need to get back to you on this… whenever you are put on spot for anythign you don’t have answers for. Take charge of the meeting and run it; deflect questions where you need to. Show them you are the boss of yourself and nobody can push you to frustration.

  7. December 16, 2015 6:22 pm

    I remember a moment at work when I could feel the stress, disappointment and realization that I had screwed up mounting in me and I knew I was going to cry (this is how I would deal with this at home!). I was able to get out of the room in time and make it to the bathroom stall. But it was close. I think many of us have been there (either actually crying or being close). I would suggest, just trying to move forward. For future, just try to picture yourself angry rather than upset. I have found this has helped me.


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