During the Q&A session of a panel discussion I was a part of recently, a woman stood up and asked, “Is it okay to cry at work?”

Previous to that moment, I would have said, “Of course, it’s okay to cry.” But I held my tongue because of the words I’d heard Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, say during a speech just a few months before.

“We teach our female students not to cry at work,” he said.

At the time, I remember thinking, “You’re a guy—what do you know about women and emotions?” I found myself irritated with the fact a man of great influence was actively teaching women to hold back their emotions.

Clearly, he didn’t get it. Or, did he? Am I blind to something that he, along with several prominent women in history, sees?

Waiting for my panel-mates to share their own version of, “I’m a crier,” my mind went back to a few years ago when I listened to a speaker share about his mothers approach to emotions. “I watched her,” he said, “in the heat of difficult business conversations. She held her emotions until we got behind closed doors and then she’d let it out. ‘Don’t let them see you sweat,’ she’d say.”

Back then, the idea of hiding your emotions felt foreign and wrong to me. In fact, it felt wrong until the moment the woman in the audience asked the question. Imagining what it might be like to be on the receiving end of her emotional release, it occurred to me that the impact could easily become overwhelming and exhausting.

Depending on the capacity of the person receiving her emotion, it could also be no big deal. But, considering how few people know how to handle even the smallest amount of emotion, releasing the pressure valve on your boss, employees, or those looking to you for leadership is probably not the best option.

Let’s be honest, most of us want to believe that the person leading us is strong, can handle the pressure, and will communicate their needs. In the same vein, most leaders want to be able to hand off a project, trusting their employees will give their best and ask for the help when needed.

Large amounts of emotion on either side consume energy and take time to process regardless of whether you’re the boss or the employee. When it comes to progress (and profitability) in business, reducing the expense of difficult emotions makes sense.

Of course, this conversation about tears at the office would be incomplete without addressing the tremendous benefits vulnerability brings to high performing individuals and teams. In fact, Brene Brown travels the world teaching on this very topic, leading companies and teams to breakthroughs in innovation, collaboration, and profitability.

While there’s no question that difficult emotions have a place at work, the critical questions to consider before releasing are;

—Do I respect and trust them?

—Do they trust and respect me?

If there is trust and respect in the relationship, you probably have a sense of the impact your emotional release will have on them. While their ability (or inability) to handle emotions are not your responsibility, recognizing your potential impact may give you just the nudge you need to process in a safe environment first. Giving yourself the resources (time with a trusted friend, advisor, or therapist) necessary to process emotions could mean the difference between destroying opportunities and distinguishing yourself as worthy of trust.

The following are three great exercises to strengthen your ability to distinguish the most effective use of your emotions in the moment:

  1. Reflect and Recharge. Let’s face it, irritation, frustration, and even anger are a natural part of being alive, though few of us give ourselves the time and support we need to understand and grow from these emotions. Set aside fifteen minutes every day to reflect. The key here is to do it every
  2. Use Difficulty. When someone says or does something that triggers emotion (anger, fear, sadness, frustration, etc), pause, focus on your breath, and stay present. Recognize where your discomfort is really coming from—the stories you tell yourself, take mental note, and then use your reflection time to go over your stories. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
  3. Wiggle Your Toes. My comedic yogi friend, Kelly Harman, suggests that if you feel like you are going to cry, wiggle your toes really hard. Your brain for some reason, cannot process crying and toe wiggling together and it will help keep you from crying.

With such divergent opinions on this topic, it’s easy to jump to criticism, rather than appreciate the gift of being human—we make up stories. Rather than spend time criticizing, consider giving yourself the time and space necessary to understand and relate to your own needs.

Here’s to Your Greatness,

Misti Burmeister

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