Let’s face it, getting “emotional” on the job is a taboo most employers are pretty bad at handling — this single Reddit thread has more than 300 competing opinions on whether it’s ever appropriate.
When someone breaks down at work, it can be wildly embarrassing for everyone involved. And if you’re the cryer, it can make the people around you start to reevaluate your place in the company,or your general capacity for keeping your shit together. And even more, if you’re a woman, that’s one more bump on a career path that’s already stacked against you.
What, then, are we to do with all of these eMoTiOnS??? Is there an easy way to bounce back from a bad day that gets the best of us? Is there a bright side to bawling like a baby in front of your coworkers?
I blasted these question into the ether, via a completely unscientific social media, email, and Slack poll. I asked people to send me stories about a time they cried at work, and to describe what happened afterwards. Seven people (all women, their names have been changed) shared their thoughts.
Here’s what I learned.
It comes from a place of anger
“I have cried at every single job I’ve had,” says Kendra, a New York-based video producer. “Every. Single. One.”
The severity of these episodes vary, Kendra says. Sometimes she gets misty eyed, sometimes she “full on ugly cries to the point of nearly hyperventilating.” But the source is always the same.
“I know my crying at work comes from a place of anger,” she says. “It makes me so mad that I do that, but I think it’s like my circuit breaker before I start throwing things or something.”
At the start of her career, Kendra worried that her tendency to break down in tears made her look weak, or inexperienced. She’s held a series of high-stress jobs that require her to juggle multiple projects, tight deadlines, and competitive coworkers. The stakes are high, and she cares about her work — when something tanks, or when someone undermines her work, it’s hard not to get emotional. But Kendra’s good at her job, and people respect her, so she’s learned to shrug it off.
“I’ve stopped caring about how I’m perceived for crying,” she says. “Enough people who matter know I’m great at what I do.”
A secret spot is clutch, if you can find one
Ah, the sweet reprieve of a windowless conference room, or the handicap stall on the opposite end of your office. A good hiding spot lets you bask in your own self pity without sacrificing your dignity — Lily, a New York-based communications director, swears by this.
“I used to have my “crying park” near my old job,” she says. “I would regularly get frustrated to the point of tears, but was afraid to let my boss see. I would force myself to leave the office, then would hide in the park until the tears were spent.”
Nina, a Brooklyn bartender, also has a “favorite” place to cry. At her last job, an expensive restaurant in Manhattan, she had plenty of opportunity to use it.
“When I was trying to save for a vacation, I would regularly work 14 days straight without taking a break,” she says. “I have wrist problems, and it hurt so bad then that I had to wear a brace. One day, my general manager pulls me aside and says, ‘What’s going on with your wrist? Do you really need to use that thing?’ And then he tells me to bring a doctor’s note proving I have to wear it, or I can’t work there anymore. Like I was lying or something. The next day, he brings in an HR lady who tells me the same thing. So I got a doctors note. I was miserable. So I would go to the trash area to cry every day.”
A little camaraderie goes a long way
Katie, a New York-based media professional, has worked in the social media departments of several major news organizations. When the going gets tough, she says, employees at young, digital brands are usually pretty good at dealing with their colleague’s tears.
“One place I worked at felt like a flat organization [and] my manager was only two years older than me,” she says. “Everyone was in touch with their emotions, so you could cry and your peers wouldn’t think any less of you.”
At another magazine Katie worked at, which has been around for half a century, and does not have a workforce that is “young,” “flat” or “in touch with [its] emotions,” things were quite different. Reporters could cry, she says. But they couldn’t do it openly.
“There was this women restroom that has a nice lounge area and keyed entry, that everyone knew was ‘the crying couch,’” she says. “When we were really stressed out, or something had happened at work that had made you emotional, it all went down on that couch. Not everyone had a key, so if you saw someone asking for it, you knew what was going on.”
It can be professionally damaging
The aftermath of a good office cry hinges on the people around you. If your coworkers aren’t hollowed-out misanthropes, letting out a few tears every now and then shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. In some workplaces, though, showing any emotion can have consequences.
“One time, when I was working in marketing for a tech company, I messed up on a campaign deployment (i.e., a big email send),” says Erin, a writer and media consultant in Portland, Oregon. “It wasn’t a huge deal and I knew my boss didn’t care, but I was so frustrated with myself that I started tearing up. Immediately, she got really uncomfortable and then later asked me privately if I felt like the job was ‘too stressful.’ Soon after, she hired somebody else in an ‘unrelated’ position and started having them take on more of my job duties. Lesson learned: when you make mistakes, pretend like it’s no big deal. Showing genuine remorse = weakness.”
Or it can be a learning experience
Chances are, if you’re crying because of something that happened at work, one of your coworkers, or managers, has been in your shoes. And even if they can’t relate, they’ll probably want to help anyway. Let them!
“I cried twice my first year teaching,” says Elizabeth, a fifth grade teacher in Illinois. “Once because a student claimed that I treated them differently than other students in the class, and once because a parent yelled at me after her son got a B on his report card, and told me I was the reason he’s not going to become a scientist, which is ‘what he has always wanted.’”
Fresh out of college, Elizabeth started to question whether she was cut out for the teaching world. But after a tearful conversation with the principal of her school, who told her that he sees teachers cry all the time, she started to see things differently. If even veteran teachers break down, why should she be embarrassed for doing so her very first year?
Now in her third year of teaching, Elizabeth says her boss’s support has helped her develop some thicker skin. “I have not cried this school year and I do not anticipate doing so,” she says.
There are other worse ways to react
Anyone who’s ever witnessed an office temper tantrum knows that shedding a few tears is, in fact, a pretty healthy way to express your emotions.
But bottled up anger, and the occasional rage explosion, is a more stereotypically “masculine” response, so that’s the more widely acceptable workplace behavior.
Lucy, a New York-based journalist, struggles with this double standard. The same people who lecture her on “not getting emotional” are dismissive of the toddler-like behavior of some the men in her office.
“I’m not a yeller, I’m a tear-er-upper,” she says.
A few years ago, an editor told Lucy to stay late and write a story a male colleague, who happened to make a lot more money than Lucy, had failed to deliver.
“[My editor] needed to fill the copy hole and barked at me,” she says. “I barked back, but in angry tears. He freaked out. I confronted him with how I made 30% less than [her male coworker], although we were the same age and had similar experience. He sulked and gave me the silent treatment for two days.”
Eventually, Lucy got a promotion, and was assigned to a different editor. She still gets misty occasionally, but the time she spent with her old boss gave her a fresh perspective on the whole thing.
“If we’re going to assign irrational behavior to the ladies, he was the biggest bitch of them all,” she says. “Everything with him was personal.”