OK, most of us have done it: Whether it’s over a stressful meeting, a terrible boss, or a bad breakup, many women have cried in the office at least once.
Emotions are powerful, and the desire to let them out through tears may be particularly strong during the first years of your career. But understanding how crying in a professional setting can affect others’ perceptions of you may help you rethink where and when you weep. Read on to learn why and how you should divert those tears until after work hours.
First of all, understand that crying–though normal—is stigmatized in the workplace.
As women, we know that sobbing every now and then is a natural form of emotional expression. But unfortunately, as professionals, we need to understand the consequences of crying at work. Tears can come across as a weakness and be attributed to females not being able to “hack it” on the job. Others may view crying as immature, melodramatic, or even manipulative.
Stephanie Shields, a Psychology Professor at Penn State University, explains that “the way tears are judged by others is affected by many factors, including the gender of both the crier and observer, whether the tears are perceived as angry or sad, and perhaps most importantly among adults, whether the observer ‘reads’ the crier’s tears as genuine or manipulative.” (Are Adults Judged Negatively for Crying?)
Furthermore, as Dr. Linda M. Poverny and Susan Picascia note in an article for WomensMedia.com, “women and men in positions of leadership are socialized to believe that crying equals vulnerability, and that vulnerability connotes incompetence, or the inability to handle difficult situations.” [Source]
Even though shedding tears is rarely a sign of weakness or manipulation, it’s highly likely that crying in a professional setting will reflect negatively on a PYP’s reputation in the workplace.
Before you despair, understand where the tears are coming from. Crying is a sign that you are experiencing strong emotions. When you feel tears coming on, step back and evaluate your situation: Are you frustrated? Angry? Hurt? Understanding the root cause of your feelings may allow you to address the situation in a different way.
If you can, take a small break and have a conversation with yourself, or call someone who can help you think through the emotions you are experiencing.
Take action immediately to head off tears before they start.
2. Take a step back. If you have the opportunity to put some distance between yourself and a stressor, do it. Wait for your emotions to cool down. Where possible, avoid scheduling potentially emotional meetings until after the dust has cleared.
3. Distract yourself with pain or other sensations. Some people suggest biting the inside of your cheek, or digging a fingernail into the palm of your hand.
Another trick is to hold an ice cube to your wrist or run it under really cold water. Do whatever you safely can to shift the focus of your attention-hopefully enough to avoid shedding tears. The key is to create a sensation intense enough to distract from the emotional distress.
4. Use props. Prepare an agenda for your meeting-a physical piece of paper that you can set on the desk in front of you or hold in your hands. If that doesn’t fit the situation, carry a legal pad or your PDA to take notes. Look down with the pretense of jotting notes; read from them if you find yourself choked up.
5. Let yourself get angry. Is your tendency toward tears in a professional setting coming from a discomfort with your own anger? Girls are not often socialized to express anger or engage in conflict. Our childhood habits are hard to unlearn, but we can teach ourselves new skills as adults. Allow yourself to get angry. More comfort with conflict may mean fewer tears.
6. Try behavioral modification. The general idea of behavioral therapy is to pay more attention to problem thoughts and behaviors, so that you can habituate better ways to deal with them. If you notice a behavior pattern-say, you always tear up before meetings with your boss-practice implementing coping mechanisms. If classical music calms you down, get in the habit of popping in your headphones 15 minutes before the start of predictably tough meetings.
You control your emotional responses. You are empowered by that control. The more you can reinforce this message to yourself, the more successfully you may manage your responses to stressful situations.
7. Do it for somebody else. Reframing a personal confrontation as a confrontation on behalf of someone else can make it easier for women to overcome stressful situations. In this vein, getting past ourselves and our own insecurities can get us past a lot of tears.
For part 2, check out our follow-up article on Dealing with tears when they happen
This article was originally published on PrettyYoungProfessional, an online life & career resource for professional women.