“Hey there…is everything okay?” As I stood on the sidewalk outside my company’s Manhattan office building, a woman I didn’t know tapped my shoulder. I turned around, sniffled, and looked at her with tears streaming down my face. I had cried at work again.
A few minutes earlier, my boss made a belittling remark to me during a team meeting. My workload was overwhelming, and his disparaging comment was the final straw. I wanted to respond assertively and immediately prove him wrong. But I was too upset to muster my ideal response. Instead, I blushed furiously and fought to hold back tears. Struggling in vain to retain my composure, I excused myself and fled the room with as much dignity as I could summon.
I was flooded with shame and deep regret by what happened that day. Now I know that 45% of professionals share the experience of having cried at work. It’s certain that some of these individuals are highly sensitive, which means that they think and feel everything deeply. 20% of people fall into this category, including me. Researchers have been studying sensitivity for decades, and have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is not a weakness. In fact, sensitivity is associated with increased processing in parts of the brain which govern self-awareness, feelings, and vividness of experience.
Perhaps you, too, have broken down and cried at your workplace. Maybe it was a project gone wrong that pushed you over the edge. Or perhaps you learned some bad news about someone you love. Although crying is most often viewed as an expression of grief, or of loss, it can also be associated with anger. It’s common to cry out of anxiousness, frustration, or even a sense of being deeply invested in and passionate about your work. A number of my coaching clients have had questions about crying at work over the past year. Since stress levels are higher than usual, and burnout is more common than ever before, strong emotions are widespread, even though many teams are dispersed and working from home. It’s not surprising that many workers have been pushed to the point of tears. There’s even a new, work-from-home version of going to the restroom to cry: turning off your camera until you calm down.
If you’ve ever wept at the office, you know how embarrassing it can feel. It’s possible that you’ve felt concerned about what your coworkers think about you, or worried that your emotional expression could damage your reputation (particularly, but not exclusively, if you’re a woman.) Wondering how you can protect your image and mitigate the effects of crying at work? These guidelines will help you rally and recover with professionalism and resilience.
Reframe the experience.
Shedding a few tears at work is not going to end your career. Studies indicate that the average person is gifted with more empathy than you might think. Fully 44% of C-suite executives said in a survey that it’s okay to cry at work from time to time. And 30% indicated that in terms of how you’re regarded at work, crying has no negative impact at all.
Regard yourself with compassion while internalizing those statistics. Don’t give into the temptation to judge yourself harshly or criticize yourself in an unsympathetic way. That would only make you feel worse. Offer yourself reassurance instead. Remember that you are not defined by any single moment, and that everyone’s life includes adversity. Reassure yourself that feelings are not just normal, but expected in the workplace, and that they can even be a superpower if you use the properly. The time you cried at work might not be something you’re proud of. But the upside of your feelings is that they enhance your empathy and help you make better choices. Your emotions are a positive source.
Take the space you need.
If you feel like your feelings have hijacked you, you won’t deliver your best performance. Ask to take a break if you start to cry. For instance, you might give yourself five minutes to regain your composure and either turn your camera off or leave the room. Taking a couple of deep breaths and moving to a different environment can transform and dissipate strong emotional responses.
Research shows that the leaders who are most effective at emotional regulation are the ones who practice “situation modification,” which means that they minimize the effects of their emotions by altering their surroundings. If you identify your need for space and express that in a tactful way, you’re showing high emotional intelligence and a facility for self-management. These two leadership qualities alone account for 90% of what makes high-performers so exceptional.
When addressing tears, be brave.
Although you may feel an impulse to apologize for expressing emotion or causing discomfort for others, giving in to that urge would put you at a disadvantage. You would make yourself seem disempowered in addition to making interpretations that might not be true. You may also feel the urge to ignore your feelings or try to push them away. “What you resist, persists,” as the saying goes. In other words, emotions become more potent if you try to combat them.
A much better strategy is to approach from a position of power. Recognize your emotional response right off the bat. You could frame this with a statement like, “I care deeply about making this project a success, and that’s why I am/became emotional about it.” Research has shown that when employees explicitly state that they’ve cried out of passion, they’re seen as more competent and also more worthy of promotion.
Follow up with excellence.
People seem to have the strongest memories of whatever behavior they’ve seen from us most recently. This phenomenon is called the recency effect. If you’ve cried at work and want to rehabilitate your reputation, focus on your next opportunity to make a positive impression. Your response should be solution-oriented and focus on the future. Here are some examples of what you might say:
- The success of this project is important to me, as is our working relationship. Can we set up a time to talk about this and decide what our collaboration will look like moving forward?
- I appreciate the feedback you gave me earlier. I came up with an action plan to make the changes we talked about in our meeting.
- I’ve found it challenging to accommodate the shifting priorities at the company, and that’s why I became emotional earlier. Let’s discuss my workload and figure out what can be eliminated or delegated either temporarily or even permanently.
Overdeliver on your next project. When you provide more value than what’s expected of you, you demonstrate commitment, resilience, and competence.
Decide what to do next time.
When we reach the point of tears, it’s often because we’re caught off guard. It can be difficult to process how we feel on the fly. If you see yourself as a highly sensitive person, this may be particularly hard for you. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead for future moments when you may be at risk of emotional overwhelm.
You can reach a state of calm with no crying by using controlled breathing, like “box breathing.” This popular technique used by Navy SEALS can be helpful before, during, or after stressful moments. By drinking an ice-cold glass of water when you feel weepy, you can lower both your body temperature and your physical response to fear. This also helps banish the lump in your throat, which is called the glottis. Another option is to hold a small object like a pen, a stress ball, or a medallion and channel your upset feelings onto that.
If you need more help, get it.
It’s perfectly normal to cry at the office on occasion. But if shedding tears at work becomes a regular occurrence for you, you may want to find a therapist. If your crying is related to mistreatment by co-workers, like bullying, then get the appropriate parties involved in your solution. Ask yourself if your workplace is offering you optimal support for your growth and your mental wellness.
Emotions are part of being human. Part of being a great leader is making great decisions about how to communicate and respond when your feelings threaten to overwhelm you. Others will respect the confidence and strength you show by owning your emotions and reactions.
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We spend approximately 70 percent of our lives at work. It’s no wonder, then, why our careers are a defining aspect of our identities. The risk is in becoming too emotionally invested in your work.
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