Manage Emotions at Work: When and Why Crying Should Be Acceptable

We've all had those moments when we feel helpless. Our chest starts to tighten, we stop breathing and the tears start to well up.  The weight of the world becomes too heavy and there's no rational response to the situation. So we cry.

Being a manager is hard enough, but being female adds an extra layer of difficulty. When we have stress, society, and our bodies working against us, navigating our responsibilities can be a minefield.

However, if we can equip ourselves with a hard hat and learn to stay on our toes, we can get through the work day without an emotional explosion.


Perception is Everything

For some reason, our society has a particular aversion to women crying in the workplace. While men who cry at work are often seen as revealing a softer, more emotionally-in-tune side, women who cry are perceived as unstable, incompetent and desperate for attention.

The social stigma comes from the underlying notion that successful leaders have full control of their emotions. For some reason, when men show emotion they gain power; when women show emotion they lose power. Therefore any time a woman cries, her team deems her unfit to lead.

The key to effectively expressing emotion is to do so while keeping your power intact. 


Feelings Are Healthy

Let's start by considering the nature of crying. Everyone is born with the ability to react to stimuli and the type of reaction can vary along the emotional spectrum. Everyone has feelings and to deny them is to deny a basic function of human nature. 

Many people believe that emotions have no place in the workplace. They think if everyone is having an emotional fit all the time, society would crumble. However, we spend about one-third of our lives working. How can we simply "turn-off" our emotions for one third of our lives? We're also taught to do work that we're passionate about, but we're not allowed to express our passions? It's a Catch 22.

Women Can't Help It

Biologically, females are inherently more prone to crying than men. Researchers report that the male hormone, testosterone, may inhibit crying. Women have higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which may actually promote crying. On average, women tend to cry five times more often than men do. It's not easy for us just to "suck it up."


Tears Are Cathartic and a Form of Communication

 Another study found that those who cry around others tend to feel better afterward. Infants cry as a signal that they need help. The same goes for adults. Crying communicates the need for support. Sometimes our bodies can express what we need when words might fail. 


Gauge The Situation

Since crying is a natural part of the human experience, where do we draw the line? When does healthy expression become inappropriate behavior? It's all subjective and based on the person or situation, but there are some basic guidelines to frame what should be acceptable.

Do You Sweat the Small Stuff?

If you find yourself sobbing over an employee who failed to meet a deadline, you might need to work on putting things into perspective. If you get hysterical over someone stealing your sandwich from the breakroom fridge, you might need to find better solutions for managing stress. 

When you start to feel upset, try to ask yourself, "Is this a life or death situation?" Consider how this one moment affects the grand scheme of your life. Chances are you can overcome these small unfortunate mishaps.


You can work with your employee to find a better solution to keep up with his responsibilities. You can go out and get another sandwich. Even if you're already having a bad day, it's not the end of the world. 

Does it Affect Everyone?

Some situations might open the door to collective expression. If there was a death in the company, or a major accident, most people are more accepting of emotional behavior.  If the majority of the team understands exactly what you're going through, they are more accepting of your response to the situation.

How Often Do You Cry?

The frequency of tears has a huge effect on perception. If you cry once every few months, then most people will forget. If you cry every week, that will raise a few red flags. If you find yourself frequently bursting into tears, try considering a few factors. What was the stimulus? What was your stress level at the time? Do the episodes relate to any biological patterns?

Try to find the triggers in these situations and learn to anticipate them. Learn what sets you off and remember what made you feel better. Try to build an arsenal of emotional uplifters and actively monitor stress levels. Make a habit of breathing more, taking more breaks and have a stash of chocolate at the ready!

Cry Privately, But Don't Apologize

In some circumstances, there's just no avoiding it. You have to cry and there's no amount of rational thinking or cute cat videos that will fix it. In these moments, there are some best practices to keep in mind.

Experience a Personal Tragedy

If you have a personal life-altering experience, then your body will react accordingly. There are some issues where an emotional response is unavoidable.

  • Betrayal
  • Accident
  • Disease
  • Trauma
  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Children
  • Termination

In these moments, don't be ashamed of crying. If you're having trouble focusing at work, you're allowed to take a few moments to process your feelings. It's only natural.

Find a Private Spot

While you need to cry for your own well-being, it's important to avoid disrupting everyone else's work. Politely excuse yourself from the situation. You can simply say that you need to use the restroom or step out for a few moments. If you're in the middle of a serious conversation or presentation, state that you'll need to table the discussion for the time being. No details are necessary. Everyone should understand that you simply need a break at the moment. Go to the restroom, go to your car or go for a walk. Take the time you need to cry, calm down, and then clean up.


Don't Ever Apologize


After you cry, return to your responsibilities and continue on the best you can. Your job is to be the best leader you can be. You can't help others, if you can't help yourself.  Don't beat yourself up. Don't internalize your episode as a failure. Simply acknowledge that you needed a break for yourself and move on. 

Remember that the main issue our society has with women crying is that it portrays weakness. If you draw attention to your episode, it will make it worse. If you make a big deal out of it, your team will perceive that you don't have control. If you are able to process your feelings and simultaneously not interfere with work-flow, you'll be a master manager.


Emotions Are Empowering

Think of taking time to cry in the same way you take time to go to the gym or the dentist. You need them to maintain a healthy lifestyle. You find the most appropriate moments to fit them into your schedule and work around them. While you can't schedule bursting into tears, you can learn how to work around it. 

Own your feelings and accept them as part of your journey. If you're comfortable in your own skin, your team will be comfortable with you. If you stay confident, then everyone will continue to perceive you as a capable leader. You can navigate the mine field of your job with true honor and dignity!


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