“I can’t go back in there,” I sobbed, again, into my phone. I was slumped on a park bench, crying with my whole body. My boyfriend’s voice on the other line was sweet and patient. His tenderness made me cry even harder.
After yet another miscommunication with my boss, I was starting to feel like I couldn’t do anything right. Crying on park benches had become a weekly occurrence.
At the time, my crying-at-work habit made me feel, well, like a child. But I actually fall into the 45 percent of people who’ve cried at work. That’s right, out of more than 1,000 people surveyed, nearly half have been in my shoes. So chances are, if you’re here, you have too.
You may have felt ashamed, exhausted, worried about your mental health, or even just relieved. All these feelings are normal. In the long run, it’s not a big deal. The same survey mentions that 44 percent of executives says it’s acceptable — as long as it’s not everyday.
So feel the emotions and then learn how to bounce back with these steps. Plus how to tell if it’s a sign of something more serious.
Take a moment to calm anxieties about tears derailing your career (heck, even Sheryl Sandberg of “sit at the (boys) table” admits to crying at work). Give yourself a little self-compassion and remind yourself that crying is a sign of humanity.
“Life and feelings happen across contexts, and it is understandable and perhaps unavoidable to have emotions like crying at the workplace happen at some point,” says Dr. Catherine McKinley, professor of social work at Tulane University.
Though it’s normal to feel shame when we act in a way that doesn’t align with our ideal or professional self, it really won’t serve us to dwell in that shame.
One study found that 61 percent of 96 women didn’t feel better after crying. Researchers suggested social support and affection were more effective for feeling better than crying.
But how can someone support you if you’re not honest about how you’re feeling — aka why you’re crying?
“I would recommend leaning into the vulnerability,” says McKinely. “We are human, and accepting ourselves in our vulnerability and authenticity is important, and better than building walls or suppressing these feelings.”
If you’ve just had a bout of work tears, the most productive way forward is to give yourself compassion and look within to determine what you need to feel better.
It’s hard to do anything when you’re busy crying and work is no exception. If there’s a task at hand that needs your close-to-immediate attention, here’s are ways to land on your feet.
1. Breathe through it
Breathing is a tiny form of magic. I learned this at my old job, hiding in the private room reserved for breastfeeding, while feeling my heart racing toward meltdown mode.
I’d just started poking around mindfulness articles so I decided to give breathing a shot. It helped amazingly fast. After 10 elongated inhales and exhales, my whole body relaxed and I was able to think more clearly.
Indeed, deep, abdominal breathing is known to soothe frustration by slowing a racing heart and settling high blood pressure. If you feel those emotions bubbling, it doesn’t hurt to employ deep breathing as your first line of defense.
2. Cry it out
If you’ve reached the point of no return, it might make the most sense to surrender to the waterworks. “Although it may be uncomfortable, crying can serve as a release for intense emotions, and help people process grief and other feelings,” says McKinley.
Indeed, there’s research that supports the idea crying is a way to self-sooth.
Unless you’re gifted as a soft crier, you’re probably going to want to leave the building to do this. “Excusing oneself and getting back to an equilibrium is perfectly acceptable,” says McKinley.
3. Talk to someone who gets you
There are so many possible reasons to cry at work. It could be work-related, or it could be upheaval spilling over from your personal life. Regardless, you’re going to want to process what happened and a very helpful way to do that is by talking.
If you’re blessed with a close work pal who gets it, let them know how you’re feeling. Or maybe take a little break to call or text someone close to you.
This conversation doesn’t have to happen immediately. Maybe it’s best saved for your next therapy appointment or reunion with your bestie. The point here is to avoid letting the negativity fester.
One study found that people who felt like crying was unhealthy and controllable had a high-avoidant attachment style. The real takeaway from this though is the discovery that avoidance of crying often leads to increased tendency for crying. Ultimately, repression won’t serve you.
There are days when, despite our best efforts, we don’t have a choice but ask for a sick day. If the tears simply can’t be managed, consider taking the rest of the day off.
It all comes back to self-compassion. You can feel embarrassed about making this request and still get yourself rest. Don’t forget you’re human.
If you’re nervous about how to ask to go home, try using one of the following phrases:
- “Today has been extra hard for emotionally. I’d appreciate taking the rest of the day off to rest and get back to a productive state of mind.”
- “I wish I didn’t have to ask this but I’m going through a lot right now and it’s feeling difficult to interact with customers in a professional way. Would I be able to go home to recharge for the rest of the week?
- “I’ve just gotten some bad news about someone I’m close with and I really need some privacy. Would I be able to take the rest of today off?”
That being said, going home shouldn’t be a regular practice. Even the chillest of jobs have their limits.
Also keep in mind, if you’re regularly crying at work, you may want to seek help or guidance with a mental health professional to see if the issue is circumstantial, situational, or requires ongoing therapy.
The peak of my office cries happened during my first foray with a 9-to-5 job. Everything from the abrupt change of pace to commuting and showing up to an office 5 days a week proved to be jarring. Throw in an acute case of imposter syndrome and most days felt like an uphill battle for my mental health.
Because of this, seemingly mild work stressors, like misunderstanding instructions, felt like the end of the world. It took going to therapy to make the connection that the regularity of my tears was a sign I wasn’t managing my anxiety.
When it’s a sign of depression
“If crying occurs frequently and intrusively over a period, it may indicate something else is going on, including depression,” says McKinley.
If this sounds familiar, be on the lookout for additional signs of depression, such as:
- you’re perpetually tired and sluggish
- you’re sleeping all the time or hardly sleeping at all
- it’s hard to concentrate and/or remember things
- you’ve grown disinterested in things that once gave you pleasure
- your appetite has changed, maybe your weight too
- you’re feeling all kind of negative emotions, such as worthlessness, pessimism, anger, and emptiness
- you entertain thoughts of suicide
- you’ve attempted suicide
When it’s a sign of anxiety
Crying can also be a response to anxiety. Although we all feel anxious from time to time, if you’re regularly experiencing the following symptoms, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare professional:
- fatigue is your new normal
- it’s hard to pay attention
- your heart races for no apparent reason
- you grind your teeth
- you sleep too much or too little
- you’re dealing with lots of negative emotions, like restlessness, irritability, dread, panic, and excessive fear and worrying
It bears mentioning that in Homer’s Iliad, the entire Greek army bursts into tears. Three separate times! And that in Japanese literature, it’s totally normal for a samurai to break down and weep.
The idea that tears are inherently weak and counterproductive is, like so much of our reality, socially constructed.
“Crying around others, even if unintentional, can give way to compassion and connection with others, providing an opening for authentic relationships and meaningful connections,” says McKinley.
So be kind to yourselves. Seek help where you need it and realize that at the end of the day, your tears do not define you.