Ask the grumpies: Crying at work

SP asks:

Crying at work. Have you ever done it? Have you seen others do it? How bad is it? …

I cried at work this week in a pretty embarrassing way, although the people I already like a lot were totally great about it and most people did their best to let me ignore it. Plot twist: I work with almost all men, but the person who brought out the tears was the only other woman in the room of ~20. Although it was really really just a completely screwed up situation, and it was more the situation than the person itself. But she absolutely did not help! … I’m basically mortified by it. I think my emotions were correct, just didn’t intend on displaying it!

I wonder how one practices reacting with less emotion. I suppose I could avoid going into known war zones when I’m on edge, but I’ve had no luck willing myself to respond calmly.

That’s a hard one. Personally, I am against crying at work in front of people and suggest that you apologize to whoever you cried in front of (assuming that we’re not talking about someone getting hurt or dying etc., which are socially acceptable reasons to cry at work) in a way that is both professional and slightly embarrassed in demeanor.   It looks like ask a manager has similar advice on apologizing in a slightly embarrassed way across a number of different posts (so this is a common question).

Ana notes

My thought on this is that, yes, try your best to avoid it, but if it happens, its clearly out of your control. Sure I can be “against it” in theory (because it makes me super-uncomfortable!) but who cries at work in front of their colleagues on purpose? Its sometimes a physiologic response that you couldn’t hold back, like a burp.

Apologize self-deprecatingly and move on. I wouldn’t think badly of someone for doing it once, particularly if the situation was truly terrible. If its happening a LOT, and you can’t leave the job/situation, then figure out how to change your reaction (therapy!) because crying on a regular basis at work does come across unprofessional.

Chacha adds

I have never out-and-out cried at work, but a little teary-eyed – yes. Sometimes due to personal stuff like a sick cat; sometimes due to rage and frustration caused by the work.

But sometimes it is that reflex thing, and oddly most likely to happen when I have a very *pleasant* exchange with somebody. It’s like little tears of happiness trying to escape. I am not a crier by nature and this particular manifestation always astonishes me.

Nowadays I make a point of reminding people that I am perimenopausal and not 100% stable. :-)

As to how to not cry at work.  That’s probably going to be different for different people.  For me, personally, because of my physiology, I got much better control of my emotional responses after I quit hormonal birth control and stopped eating refined carbs and sugar.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped a bit before then in graduate school (I automatically start deep breathing when stressed), but the eating more whole foods seemed really miraculous, probably because I wasn’t expecting that side effect.   I also teach a really hard required math class and have pretty much eliminated student crying by forcing chocolate on students who start getting sniffles.  Do not underestimate the power of chocolate.  (Indeed, Willpower suggests eating something to replenish your willpower.)

#2 says:  Haven’t we all cried at work?  Step one:  close office door.  If no office door, hide out in bathroom stall.  Most of us have done this.  It’s embarrassing, but it happens, like farting in front of your boss’s boss or something.  It’s biology.

Grumpy nation:  Any advice for SP?

19 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Crying at work”

  1. oldmdgirl Says:

    I work in a profession where many consider making their subordinates cry on purpose part of pedagogy,* so, my reaction to this post is flavored by that. I think the most important thing is DO NOT GIVE THAT PERSON THE SATISFACTION. Not sure the best way to prevent yourself from crying, but I assure you that diet change and CBT is probably not the answer. Imagining a voodoo doll that you are sticking pins into works well enough for me that I can usually defer crying until after they are gone. Pinching my own skin also works reasonably well. Probably the best way to avoid crying is not to go into medicine in the first place. You absolutely should not apologize for crying under these circumstances, since that just gives even more power to the person who made you do it.

    *I was recently told my an attending that if he didn’t make me cry, then he wasn’t doing his job.
    **Think it’s just my department? Ha. A few years ago, I overheard one of the former internal medicine chief residents joking with his colleagues about how they really needed to make XYZ junior resident cry for some transgression she had committed. And yes, they were serious. Then they made fun of other residents that he had done this to before.

    • Ana Says:

      uh..YES! My response was NOT related to the hazing of medical training. I was thinking of more recent examples of people in labs crying when the PI dressed them down in lab meeting or something. Pinching myself is exactly what I did, or just completely dissociating in my head until I could be somewhere private (like literally shouting in my head la la la la I can’t hear you asshole shut up shut up shut up). Sometimes the most private you could get was with your resident team/colleagues, though, and THAT is when I would apologize. Like, “yeah sorry I totally lost it there for a minute, thanks for listening. Back to work! Hows your day going?”

  2. kt Says:

    I have to say I have a slightly different reaction: don’t apologize — own it! Some people cry more easily than others. Oh well. It’s the trying not to cry and then being super-embarrassed and then groveling in front of someone who maybe did you wrong that makes it all worse. If you cry, then you cry — then get over it and carry on. Normalizing your response gives other people direction in how to proceed. So if you cry, don’t run away. Maybe you need to step away for a moment to wipe your nose & marshal your resources. Then come back ready for a fight (or a discussion or a reconciliation as appropriate).

    If your boss made you cry because he’s a jerk, come back & say he’s a jerk. If someone made you cry because you did something wrong, take responsibility for the thing you did wrong. Crying’s a physical response that shouldn’t distract you from the real issue. If you need to, say that: “Listen, although sometimes I cry when I’m frustrated, I’m not ignoring this issue nor am I done discussing it. Let’s get back to (whatever).”

    I learned how not to cry by practicing martial arts for many years. It helped with both dealing with pain and practicing dealing with conflict. Doesn’t always work, of course, but practicing conflict can be really useful. Maybe my point of view comes in part because if you’re in a real fight the other person is not going to stop because you started crying, so you need to just keep at it.

    • crazy grad mama Says:

      I agree with all of this. Despite spending much of my life trying to figure out how to stop it, I’m a crier. I’m not going to apologize for it as a general rule. (I can imagine situations where apologizing would be necessary, but they’re the exception.) Acknowledge it, take a moment to compose yourself, move on.

      • What Now? Says:

        Yes — I totally agree with both kt and crazy grad mama. I’m a crier and have never been able to stop it, and I’ve mostly come to accept that this is part of my personality, part and parcel of being an emotionally engaged and passionate person. And I love kt’s advice to own it — apologize if you’ve done something worth apologizing for, but crying in and of itself does not need an apology. (It does help that I work in a mostly female environment in which having emotions is for the most part not considered a problem.)

  3. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Have cried in bathroom! Following a particularly bad meeting. I was crying out of frustrated RAGE and then I went and looked at job ads for a while.

    Practicing replies in mirror to anticipated awfulness helps build up a pretty good ‘F you’ reflex that can help, if the crying is in response to aggression of any kind. (This response is influenced by going to grad school in a shark tank, where crying gets you trampled, so ymmv, of course.)

  4. David Stern Says:

    I don’t know why you should apologize for crying. Somebody who made you cry more likely should apologize. But cases I see are just where people react to their situation (parent died, student struggling in study) which you are talking with them about. Can’t see why they should apologize for that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Because it isn’t about morals or right or wrong, it’s about saving face at work.

      Exceptions are, as stated, injury, death, etc., which are socially acceptable reasons to cry, even at work.

      Tears because of work-related professional things should be avoided. It makes for an uncomfortable work environment.

      • becca Says:

        I dunno. I had minimal problem avoiding crying at work when I miscarried, or when my Mom died. I was at a conference when my Dad died and that was pretty dramatic, but I was surrounded by Good People and falling apart didn’t cost me anything. On the other hand, avoiding crying/freaking out when feeling claustrophobic when pregnant didn’t happen. Once you’ve had such *different* physiological baselines toward crying propensity, it’s a lot easier to see it as not subject to conscious control.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sure, but that’s why it is important to apologize in a slightly embarrassed manner. Just like when you accidentally hurt someone. It probably doesn’t hurt to apologize for crying when there’s been a tragedy in your family, but conventionally when someone has had a tragedy one doesn’t require apologies, because they’re going through a tragedy.

  5. SP Says:

    Thanks for soliciting more opinions!

    I’m still thinking about this. The ask-a-manager-like opinion is probably the norm, but I wish for a more ideal culture where everyone would just brush it off as a human response. It is best avoided, but ultimately not a big thing. Sure, apologize in the moment – or not. From there, just move forward, especially in a one-off situation. But that is an idealistic viewpoint, and out of synch with many office norms.

    Obviously therapy (or a new job!) if it is a regular thing.

    The most useful advice I read was to avoid triggering situations. Generally, this should be easy to do at work! I was put in a really bad situation and I went into the day very much on edge – but I let myself be put there, at least that day. I could have told you that morning that there was a 50% chance I wouldn’t make it through the day without crying. I’d kept my composure (at least in public) during a lot of screwed up crap leading up to this moment – but I was pushed past my limits. The other practical advice was to physically take a step back, and to squeeze the webbing between your thumb and finger HARD. I have no idea if either work, but it is at least something concrete to do in the moment.

    (So far) I’ve decided it is fine and I’ll just go forward. No one at work seems to disagree. Everyone knows the situation was really terrible and affected me the most. I cried because I care. Of course, in the future I want to care w/out showing quite so much, and I think I can do that. But I very much do want to keep caring.

    • SP Says:

      Also, had tried the chocolate – but not in the moment! In the stressful day before :)

      Isn’t most chocolate a refined carb though?? Because of the sugar?

      Interesting idea though. Running more often helps me stay level headed. Maybe that would have helped.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It’s like diabetics needing to carry a piece of candy. So useful in the moment. (Also, use dark chocolate. I recommend Green and Black 70% or higher.) Prior to the moment, a handful of nuts (or a fried egg or a burger) would be better (if your physiology is like mine which it may not be).

  6. Alyssa Says:

    I have just written a post asking a similar question, which is scheduled for Monday. So, I’m very interested in reading the response here.

    I’m not sure I agree with having to apologize for crying. I think it depends more on the situation and/or how often it happens.

    Some people just cry more readily than others, and I’m one of them. It frustrates me, because I know how some people see it (as weak).

    There is also a distinct different between tearing-up and outright crying. I tend to do the former easily and have to really fight it.

  7. eemusings Says:

    I can only think of one time I cried at work – when I resigned my last job. Was messy. Swore and apologised about a million times- not smooth.

    I have also been on the brink of tears many times over the last couple years at work for personal reasons (personal stuff affecting me during work hours.)

  8. Revanche Says:

    I’m not a work-crier because of the same mentality as oldmdgirl – my hate for the people who’d want to see me cry was a far stronger emotion than the stress that would have let the tears flow. I don’t highly recommend going to work fueled by rage, though it sure seems to work for me. While I hate work-crying and understand that there are people who are very uncomfortable with it (and will penalize you when considering things like promotions in some cases), I’m also not particularly comfortable with the idea of apologizing for it. I think it puts my back up that we are socially expected to apologize for crying but people flying off in a rage yelling or demeaning others are so often excused. Generally speaking.

    My perspective is from having worked with people whose natural reaction was to tear up when stressed, just physiologically, and we discussed ways for them to get that under control in the moment. It did include keeping a stash of chocolate for them handy, as well as reminders to break eye contact and take a deep breath instead of forcing themselves to answer when under the spotlight. Also there were situations when I also suggested that they turn to me or another higher-up for back up so they didn’t feel like they were left dangling over the cliff, and thus be even more stressed.

    I think that being open about the fact that it’s a reaction that they hated and felt embarrassed about (which of course made the urge to cry worse!) also helped them stay calmer knowing that I wouldn’t penalize them for a natural reaction, at least.

  9. Astra Says:

    I’ve cried at work a couple of times behind closed doors, but only once in front of someone else. I apologized, excused myself, and came back to finish our conversation after I had calmed down. (He was not the one who made me cry and fortunately was probably the best possible guy at work I could have cried in front of. I obviously still haven’t forgotten about it despite that.)

  10. Tears | Apple Pie and the Universe Says:

    […] Nicole & Maggie had a post about this the other day, but I had written and scheduled this before so I figured I’d still post it.  […]

  11. Crying at work: how bad is it? | Stacking Pennies Says:

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


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