About six years ago, I found myself crying at work more than I would have liked. To be clear, I would have liked to cry zero times at work, but I wasn’t able to control it.
I’ve always been an emotional person, and in particular, a crier. I tear up when I see people in pain, experience awesome works of art, and watch sentimental, cheesy tv commercials.
My tears at the office sprung from a different well. I held them with a hot shame. Looking back, I can now recognize that my window of tolerance had been shrinking as a result of frustrations with work and suboptimal management of my mental health.
The concept of the window of tolerance comes from Dr. Dan Siegel, and it describes our capacity to function and deal with life’s stressors. When we’re operating within our window of tolerance, tough situations may cause us to sway, but we don’t lose our balance. When we’re outside of our window of tolerance, we can veer into hyperarousal (think flight or fight response, big emotions expressed bigly) or hypoarousal (think freeze response, shutting down and numbing out).
With my window of tolerance only cracked ever so slightly, it was challenging to manage my reactions, and sometimes those reactions took the form of big fat tears.
While there are starting to be shifts in how we define professionalism and attitudes towards mental health, most people would say that crying at work is inappropriate. I do think my managers were right to bring this up as a concern and something I should focus on managing. I was still personally performing at a high level and hitting all my targets, but it had an effect on my co-workers, and I couldn’t deny that. (Here’s a fun pop quiz: When I was told that my crying was problematic, what do you think happened? If you guessed that I cried, you’re nailing emotional intelligence and reading comprehension.)
In the years since that intervention, I’ve spent time processing, practicing strategies, making life changes, and meeting regularly with a therapist. Here are specific recommendations I have, whether you’re experiencing uncontrollable emotions at work, or are managing an employee who exhibits sadness, anger, or disengagement that is challenging for the work environment.
If you’ve got big emotions
When you’re outside of your window of tolerance, you’re not able to access your best reasoning. Regulating and grounding can help return you to that balanced place.
- For many, breathing can be the quickest way to center yourself. Stopping to take some deep breaths is an accessible, immediate strategy for regulation. Try inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils and slowing your heart rate by trying to make your exhales longer than your inhales. (For further resources on breathing techniques, check out Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, and the Othership breathwork app.)
- You can take a pause to temporarily excuse yourself from a situation by turning off your camera and muting your mic or telling your co-workers that you’re stepping away from the room for a few minutes. Removing yourself from a situation can help you come back to yourself and proceed with intention.
- In cases of anger and frustration especially, it bears repeating: take a pause before acting! If I got an email and felt volatile, I learned to step away or draft a response but NOT press Send. When I return to these drafts, sometimes I still stand behind my statements, while other times the intensity has fizzled.
- Another approach is being open and direct. Acknowledge what is happening head-on: “I’m getting emotional right now.” You can follow that with telling people you’re taking a pause, and to whatever degree you feel comfortable, you can provide context, like, “I didn’t get any sleep last night and I’m feeling worn down,” or “I am really invested in the success of this initiative, and it means a lot to me.”
- I’m a strong advocate of building a support network to help you understand and process emotions, which can include a physician (your mind and body are extremely linked!), therapist, and trusted friends and family outside of work. These relationships take time and require nurture. I know from experience that it can be easy to let appointments and catch ups slide when things are busy or when things are going well, so come up with a maintenance system, like regular calendar reminders to check in.
If you’re a manager and your employee is expressing strong emotions
I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic, and even with my own experience as a reference point, I didn’t always get it right with my team. As managers we’re often trained to deal with emotions. But when you’re working with humans, you’ll likely need to engage with human emotions in order to get back to meeting your KPIs. Here are some considerations and steps you can take.
- If you are managing someone who is having big feelings, a great first step is making them feel seen and heard. You may not do this in the moment if you’re in a larger group setting, but finding time to talk one-on-one to discuss what’s going on is helpful. Ask what brought on that response, and if there are any actions you can take to support them.
- An employee might not always feel comfortable sharing what’s going on with you. In these cases, let them know what internal resources are available and what psychological services are covered under your benefits plan. You do not need to make yourself available to discuss the details of their personal life, but as a manager, you should remind them that you’re there to support how they do their work and engage with the workplace.
- Be mindful of how you are affected by these conversations that may be challenging. If you are a “feelings sponge,” try some of the regulation strategies shared above. Create an aftercare plan for yourself.
- I’d encourage you to reflect on how you react to different displays of emotion, and how these are gendered. I believe women are criticized for crying at work, while men who cry are celebrated as vulnerable and brave. I witnessed the typically masculine behaviour of lashing out in anger by people of all genders, and it didn’t bring up the same concerns or interventions as my crying. Checking your biases may allow you to respond with greater compassion and equity.
A few months ago, I shared how I had been thinking about and working on emotional regulation over the years with a new therapist, and she gently pushed back. She reminded me that emotions are natural, and that not expressing them can build up suffering. “Instead of trying to not feel emotions, what if you focused on your behavioural regulation–what do you do next when those feelings come up?”
Self-awareness has been key to behavioural regulation. I now recognize the signs when my window of tolerance is shrinking and find ways to prioritize actions that stabilize me. When things are not working I acknowledge when I am frustrated, and seek solutions for things I can control. I do my best not to be ashamed if I get choked up, shaky, or say something short or sarcastic. I take accountability, along with more pauses and deep breaths.
I’m learning to embrace my emotionality. Feeling big allows me to engage with the world and my relationships deeply. I imbue my work with passion, and that makes me excited to show up day after day. I’m glad I care, even if it means some tears are shed along the way.