I pride myself on my professionalism, grit and grace under pressure -- but there have been some rather painful reminders that after years of corporate decorum, even I can’t stop the water works. Perhaps the most painful of all was my second day back at work after maternity leave.
With my first daughter, I didn’t prepare my baby, my boss or myself for the emotionally charged, life-changing transition back to work. My newborn was in good hands but refusing to take a bottle while I was hormonal and sleep deprived. My guilt-ridden mind couldn’t focus on my spreadsheet, I just kept thinking how I was failing as a mother.
I was a hot mess crammed in my old work clothes, hunched over my PC and crying in my cubical. My very supportive boss spotted me and encouraged me to go home. Relieved to be set free, I now had to run the gauntlet of awkward co-worker interactions, frantic mascara fixes between elevators and the mad dash to get outside the building without everyone knowing I had real-life emotion escaping from my face.
According the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, working parents spend 8.8 hours a day working - which adds up to 25-30 years of their entire life is at work! Is it realistic to expect a person NEVER to cry at work?
Congratulations, you are human.
Parenting Educator Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, says that “feelings are not good or bad; right or wrong, they are simply what make us human. Honoring our emotions involves acknowledging them without shame or judgment.”
Emotions bubbling up at work are signals that something needs to be looked at. Debbie maintains that “fear moves us into fight/flight/freeze in a situation that we perceive may be dangerous or tenuous.” In the work environment, that often looks like:
-A hostile conversation with a co-worker
-Relentlessly demanding work
-Feeling a of lack of control
-Being a victim of “mean girls” at work
-A chronically stressful environment
There are valid reasons why you would get emotionally triggered at work. But it’s how you handle the situation that makes the difference.
Signs that you might cry at work
The best way to prevent crying at work is to be aware of the signs. Are you getting enough sleep? How do you feel physically? Is your face getting red or is your heart beating fast?
Next, observe your thoughts. Are you focusing on the negative or enraging thoughts? If you are exhausted, stressed out or emotionally-charged, there is a high chance you are going to lose it at your meeting. Self-care is the best thing you can do for your career.
What to do if you cry at work:
If you have been triggered, take deep breaths to slow down the intensifying emotions. If you are not able to subdue them, physically remove yourself from the situation. You will need a cooling-down period.
Don’t ignore it
You will need to crawl out of the hole you probably want to live in. After some time and distance from the incident you will need to address it. Ignoring it means the unresolved problem will likely be repeated. And if you cried because of your home life, like I did, you must advocate for your well-being right away. Avoiding your crying episode creates more awkwardness among employees and won’t solve the underlying cause.
Apologize when needed
Crying at work, whether it stems from outrage, frustration or conflict, may not need a formal apology. Keep in mind that it’s not the tears themselves but your coworkers' perception of the incident that matters. For example, in some work cultures, an apology is a sign a weakness.
A simple conversation in which you acknowledge that you cried, you explain the circumstances that led up to your outburst and you thank your colleague for their understanding is all that is needed. If your outburst was directed at someone and the working relationship has been damaged, then an apology is appropriate. As uncomfortable these conversations may be, it’s worth making amends to regain your credibility and reestablish connections with co-workers.
Process it and forgive yourself
Debbie suggests: “gently acknowledge the fact that you cried without judgment or shame. Self-compassion is a major part of self-care.” You may want to journal about it, talk with a trusted friend, co-worker or spouse and then let it go. You already work hard; don’t be so hard on yourself too.
Crying at work happens. Tears are a sign that there is an underlying issue that you need to address. It’s an opportunity to strap on those high heels and face it head-on with dignity and self-compassion.
Elaine is a Working Mom Support Coach on a mission de-stress maternity leave and propel a nation of thriving working mothers. From her own emotionally traumatic return-to-work after her first daughter (HOT MESS!), ThriveMomma.com was born. She coaches new moms on of return-to-work readiness, time management and mindful living. And consults for corporations on paternity transition planning and work/life policies to retain and nurture working parents.
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