Horrified, I thought about the times I had cried in front of my officemate, upset over something she said to me. Holy crap. I’m doing this all wrong. No wonder she is on my case. She thinks I am weak and incompetent because of my silly emotions. And I am afraid that she may be right.
I am naturally a sensitive person who cries easily. I cried at the end of Black Panther. I cry at sentimental moments on TV. And, I cry when I am angry, sad, or hurt, because it is a human reaction. But that day, in my tiny apartment in Columbia Heights while I sipped a glass of cheap wine, I was now learning that crying is the last thing you should ever do if you are a woman who wants to get ahead or be taken seriously.
From that moment on, I decided there was no way I was going to cry in front of my coworkers or colleagues ever again. Even if I think I can trust them. Even if my feelings are valid. I can’t be out here crying and making people think I’m bad at my job because of it.
On my really bad days, I’d run to the bathroom, lock myself in a stall, and sob quietly. Or, I’d walk around the block and let the tears fall. I could only allow myself to cry in front of significant others and vetted friends and family.
Fast forward to today. 12 years into my career, I have better control of my emotions thanks to a good therapist and practicing self-care every day. I also have better tools to process negative emotions.
But still, at 34, I apologize for crying. Even to those closest to me. Even to people I should feel safe around.
It happened again last week. I sat down to catch up with a friend of mine and to discussed a collaborative project she told me about. She asked me how I was doing, and as I was talking about the challenges and frustrations I had faced since leaving my job last year, I started to cry.
I was immediately embarrassed. This was someone who was a new friend but also one of the most talented communicators in the business. And here I am, doing the very last thing good ol’ Dr. Frankel told me not to do, lest I be seen as weak and incompetent. Damnit. I still haven’t learned my lesson.
Before I could stop myself, I started in with the apology to my friend. “I’m sorry, I really tried to hold it in,” I stammered. The weight of chasing invoices, not having a full-time gig with benefits, and the obstacles that come with adulthood got to me. I couldn’t keep a brave face anymore.
“Don’t worry about it,” my colleague said, squeezing my hand. She got up, grabbed some tissue, and handed it to me.
That simple gesture made me feel less guilty about starting to cry. 11 years ago, I would have thought that crying in front of a colleague would have meant a sure death. I wish I could go back and tell 23-year-old me that it was quite the opposite.
Crying won’t ruin your career. You can learn how to control and process your emotions so that you don’t cry as often, of course. But if you are sad because you didn’t get that job you wanted, or frustrated because a client hasn’t paid you and you are behind on the bills, and those tears well up….let them fall. It is still infuriating to me that women are told to what not to do and what not to be at any given moment. We are told that if we just avoid doing This One Thing, we can be a Boss™. But we are humans first and foremost. So if you are in pain, allow yourself the humanity of expressing that pain.
I used to think my sensitivity was my biggest possible weakness. Who wants someone who is touchy feely on their team? Who wants someone who cries watching The Lion King as an adult? What good are emotions in a professional setting? You can’t pay bills with those.
Then I realized that sensitivity was actually a strength. It allows me to approach my work with compassion and authenticity. It allows me to be in tune with the rest of my team, making sure that they have what they need to do the job well, both professionally and emotionally.
Being comfortable expressing my emotions and comfortable with allowing others to express there is a part of gaining emotional intelligence. And in a world that treats employees like workhorses with no regards to their needs as human beings, that skill set is criminally underrated.
Emotional intelligence is the gateway to compassionate leadership. We might as well feel the damn feelings and learn how to process them. Take care of yourself. Then, take care of the work.