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Michelle Hainer

Michelle Hainer

December 22, 2014

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Crying at Work

It comes upon you suddenly. First you feel your lip quiver uncontrollably, and then your eyes start to well up and sting. Before you know it you’re into the full-fledged “ugly cry,” as Oprah so elegantly put it. That sobbing, mascara-running-down-your-face hysterical mess that we become after a good blubbering. But about the only thing worse than bursting into tears is bursting into tears at the office. With that first trickle goes your hard earned reputation.

But just how bad is it to cry at work? Early in my career I had a boss who made everyone in our department cry at least once. It actually became somewhat of a joke among my co-workers, kind of like a secret club only we knew the password to. But in the corporate world, crying at work—barring war or natural disaster—is no laughing matter. “I tell people die before you cry,” says Margaret Morford, president of HR Edge, Inc., a management and consulting firm in Nashville, TN, and the author of Management Courage: Having the Heart of a Lion. “When people see you cry they want to fix it. So it sets up this dynamic: when you cry, you get what you want, but they walk away thinking this person is weak.”

No one wants to start crying in the conference room, but as anyone who’s done it can tell you, sometimes you just can’t help yourself. “The key is to catch it before you get to that point,” says Larina Kase, PsyD, a psychologist in Philadelphia and author of Anxious 9 to 5: How to Beat Worry, Stop Second Guessing Yourself, and Work With Confidence. “Get outside of your head or focus on what else is going on around you.” However, if you’re about to cry because your boss is reprimanding you, Morford suggests telling them that you appreciate their feedback, but you need some time to think about what they’ve told you. “Then leave the office. I’ve taken lunch at 10am, but I’ve never cried at work,” she says. If you do let a few tears escape before making an exit, blame it on your overachieving personality. “Tell your boss that you’re upset because it’s important for you to do well in your job,” says Kase. “Then take an active role and ask how you can do better.”

If you are having a particularly rough day, and can’t control your tears, do it in a co-worker’s office—one who you don’t report to and vice versa. They’ll often lend a sympathetic ear and let you sit there until your face doesn’t look like an overstuffed beet anymore. Also, make sure it’s someone you trust, who won’t use this moment of vulnerability against you. (The girl who’s going for the same promotion you are probably isn’t the best choice.)

For me, I was a big fan of the bathroom cry. I’d go into the last stall of a bathroom that was hardly ever used and sit there until I calmed down. I always felt so much better afterward. Maybe that was a sign of weakness. But for me, it was worth it.