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Is it Okay to Cry at Work?

8 women share their stories.

By Caitlin Abber

One of the worst things about crying at work is how alienating it can feel. First, there’s the fact that you’re totally vulnerable in that moment, and then, there’s the realization that you are now that person (or, more aptly, that woman) who got emotional on the clock. Will your coworkers ever let you live it down? Will people be weird around you now? How soon until you can leave so you can go home and cry in private about crying in public?

But these days—and especially in 2020—we feel like crying at work should become more normalized (maybe not more frequent, but definitely less traumatic). After all, crying is a standard human reaction to a wide array of emotions, from anger, to fear, to general overwhelm—and, regardless of dated, and pretty sexist ideas around crying, both men and women do it (in fact, when I was looking for quotes for this story, many men reached out to say that they were big-time work criers).

That said, some women are still of the belief that crying is best saved for behind closed doors. When asked why she was against crying at work, one 40-year-old woman simply told me, “I mean, it’s embarrassing, so I avoid it for that reason.” Fair. 

Below, 8 women (anonymously) share their own crying at work stories, and how they feel about it now.

I was sharing something personal, which made me emotional, which then made her emotional.

I feel like in the women-dominated work environments I’ve been in, crying is just part of the deal. I do remember a particular time when I was telling a story about something to my boss over coffee, and I just burst into tears. I was sharing something personal, which made me emotional, which then made her emotional. Cue: cry-fest. I think it’s best to develop other strategies for communicating emotion at work, and whether or not crying is appropriate has to do with the specifics of the situation (why you’re crying, where you’re crying, who you’re crying to, etc.). Nor should crying ever be used as a tool in those environments. But sometimes, something happens, and you can’t help it. My feeling is that—especially now—we should be as gentle and understanding to one another as possible.”

I’m really self-conscious about uncontrollable emotion.

“I go by the Kelly Cutrone mantra of, ‘if you have to cry, go outside.’ I’ve had numerous colleagues or people I’ve managed cry to me at work, and I didn’t think any less of them. But for me, I’m really self-conscious about uncontrollable emotion and that it may reflect poorly on my leadership skills. As women, we go against so much to get ahead, and I wouldn’t want an emotional outburst of any kind to overshadow my hard work.” 

My emotions were a sign of something untenable.

“The last time I cried at work, it was a result of the frustration I had around my position and the daily fight I had been having in a role that was non-traditional for the business. The metrics were proving that my lofty ideas and I were a success on paper, but I was exhausted from the infighting on my team about ‘roles and responsibilities.’ My boss and I were having a touchbase, and I just became a fountain of tears. Of course, I was then told that perhaps the future job I could take on (as my role could potentially be eliminated) may not be best suited for me if I couldn’t keep my emotions in check. And she was partially right about that: my emotions were a sign of something untenable. About a year later, I left the company, and though times were hard as I searched for my next position, I’m surprised that I held it together as well as I did. 

When people cry at work, I think it’s a sign of something deep that every manager and HR department should look into. Of course, it might be the personal trickling over into the workplace (because, humanity). But I’ve found that more often, crying at work is symptomatic of a toxic culture that pushes employees to their breaking point and asks them to reside there, all while trying to be ‘professional’ and not rock the boat. I hope that during this public health crisis and racial reckoning, people are being more sympathetic and empathetic to the environments they’re creating and looking out for their employees’ best interest, no matter what their title is.”

Any sort of negative feedback or criticism usually resulted in my crying.

“For my first couple jobs out of college, I almost always started crying when meeting with a boss, unless they were saying something instantly complimentary. Any sort of negative feedback or criticism usually resulted in my crying. I honestly still can’t really say why. I don’t really do that anymore, but I had a horrible review earlier this year, and I definitely cried during it. My boss was unmoved and very defensive, though at the end of it, she wanted to give me a hug (which honestly rubbed me the wrong way).”

I used to be embarrassed, but now I know that shit happens.

“Along with dealing with typical office bullshit, there were at least three times I found out someone died or got in a serious accident and I hid in the bathroom and cried because I was too scared to ask to leave for the day. I used to be embarrassed, but now I know that shit happens, and at the end of the day, people are human and life events happen that are out of your control. I do also think that in some office work cultures, there is a lot of pressure and stress, but not a lot of empathy if people get overwhelmed—especially if they are just a few years into their career. I think we’d be in a much better place if work culture were more open about anxiety and stress, so people could learn how to cope while being a good employee, versus feeling like they have to hide in the bathroom stall to sob quietly.”

Let them see you cry so they know how much you care about them.

“I am a high school teacher. One time, I was breaking up a fight, and a female student pulled out a knife. Me and the principal were able to deescalate the situation, but as we were calming down the students, the principal noticed that I looked like I was about to cry. ‘You should cry,’ she told me. ‘Let them see you cry so they know how much you care about them and how scary this was for you.’ So I did. And you know what? She was totally right.”

Everyone gets exactly one chance to cry at work.

“A few months into my first job out of college, I randomly experienced a burst of blinding pain and numbness in my neck and limbs. It was pretty terrifying, and I knew I needed to get to an emergency room. I pulled my boss aside and privately asked if I could take the rest of the day off as a sick day. I was nervous and in so much pain that I struggled to get the words out. I started to cry. My boss gave me permission to leave, and she also gave me a stern warning. ‘Everyone gets exactly one chance to cry at work,’ she said. ‘This is yours.’ I’ve never forgotten that. Now that I’m a boss (and I’ve seen my employees cry for completely valid and respectable reasons), that comment strikes me as appallingly inappropriate.”

She must have had her own shit going on.

“During my recent break-up, I cried a few times at work. Once, when a colleague had asked me how I was, I mentioned that my boyfriend had broken up with me and started to cry, and she started to get emotional, too. She must have had her own shit going on.”

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

See more of Caitlin's articles

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