My senior year of college, I worked part time at an investment bank during the academic year. On my last day, my manager took me out to lunch. Once we were done picking through our Caesar salads, she leaned across the table and peaked out from under her very large back sunglasses.
She gave me three pieces of unsolicited advice which would set me on the right track as I entered corporate America full-time, full-force:
1. Invest in an expensive pair of heels.
2. Get a manicure every week.
3. Never cry at work.
I never saw this manager again after we parted ways that day. And her advice, well, some of it stuck with me. I still wear Nine West heels. (Why invest in expensive heels that might end up stepping in dog poop?) And I still leave my nails mostly short and bare. (Who has time to get their nails done? And after doing laundry, packing kids lunches, and vacuuming, the color chips fast and furiously.)
But then there’s number three. Never cry at work.
For most of my career, I was conditioned not to express emotion at work.
On the occasions I couldn’t hold back the tears, I would race out of the meeting and to the bathroom stall. Or I'd let loose on my drive home as I bawled my way through the McDonald’s drive-thru. No crying at work.
“Never cry at work” was about more than just the physical act of crying. It was advice to ensure you never showed emotion. Don’t get too angry. Don’t get too sad. Don’t get too frustrated. Don’t get too disappointed. Don’t let them know it bothered you. Just don’t be vulnerable. Why would you ever want to do that?
But as life continued to happen, the crying inevitably happened.
And sometimes it didn’t stop. I couldn’t get to the bathroom stall fast enough.
I had coworkers get laid off. I was laid off. I had two kids and went back to work full time. I transitioned to new companies and missed my old coworkers. And I lost my dad suddenly.
I got comfortable crying at work. I embraced the physical act of crying — water welling up, a tear or two or three rolling down my cheek, eyes red. (And admitting: no, it wasn’t allergies or a cold. I had actually been crying.)
Oddly enough, I still wasn’t comfortable using any words or language to express myself when something bothered me at work. That proved to be more difficult.
“You hurt me,” my friend Jill Katz, founder of Assemble HR Consulting, once said to me. “That’s all you have to say when someone has upset you at work. Start with those three words.”
Huh? "You hurt me"? Why would I ever say that at work?
It seemed strange and out of place. It seemed like odd advice (for someone like Jill, who consistently gave great advice.) And, it seemed a little too deep and a little too vulnerable. So, I buried those three words in back of my head, like a scarf I was gifted that I would never wear, wouldn’t regift and couldn’t bring myself to donate.
One day last year, in a late afternoon conversation with a coworker when I hadn’t had my afternoon cup of tea, I suddenly blurted it out.
Those three words. From out of nowhere. Almost a whisper, yet loud enough to hear.
“You hurt me.”
We sat in silence for a few seconds. I thought about crawling under the table, dashing out to the ladies’ room or pretending my phone was ringing.
“I am sorry… You shouldn’t feel that way and that wasn’t the intention…”
Suddenly, we had broken ground.
We didn’t have to dance around, fill the air with some nonsensical language, and continue to place blame or go around in circles. In that moment, those three words helped me express myself. And the person on the receiving end heard it, acknowledged the three words, and accepted their role in what unfolded. It was, I have to say, pretty incredible. And we could move forward.
“You hurt me.”
Sometimes, when you are knee deep in your emotion, the best way to get out of the spiral is to regain control with those three words.
I had held onto Jill’s advice for a long time. Somewhere along the way I realized that if I was encouraging myself and everyone else to bring their best selves to work, part of that journey was being able to express yourself at work and allowing your colleagues to have that same space.
Skeptics like my former manager would say: "We are running a business! We don’t have time for feelings. Take your hurt home with you. Burn it off on the treadmill. Down it in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Sleep that hurt off. Don’t be too sensitive. Tomorrow’s a new day. We don’t have time for hurt."
We don’t have time for hurt. We don’t have time for hurt that festers, that lingers, that seeps into our work communities.
We don’t have time for hurt that we hold onto. Hurt that stops us from bringing our best selves to work and from contributing as much as we can.
We are all human and it happens: We get hurt. And guess what? We hurt others, too. I am working on continuing to say those three words and accept those three words when others say them to me.
And downing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Well, that's still a good outlet for me to work through my hurt, too.