Recently I learned something really surprising about myself. I learned that I’m entirely human. What? You don’t think this realization warrants a blog post? Well, friend, stick with me. There’s more.
A couple of weeks ago I was having a particularly stressful few days. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just the regular stuff that makes life such a trip. None of us are immune to the complexities of being human. We just think we are. We put ourselves under enormous pressure and we try to balance work and home and hobbies and causes and commitments and kids and romance and taxes and other people. It’s plate spinning, really. We do our best to keep as many of them in the air as possible for as long as possible. But eventually, I don’t care who you are, a plate, or two, comes crashing down. Let’s face it, it’s never anything really catastrophic. Although it may feel like it in the moment. Plates are replaceable. Even your best china. But in the moment, life can get a little out of control and even the best of us get emotional. Turns out, I do too. And so, a couple of weeks ago, several weird, high pressure issues converged into the same day and, after losing some sleep over them, and letting my head swim around in it for a while, I had a decidedly human moment – completely out of my control.
The details around what lead up to this moment aren’t important. This was two weeks ago. The problems I had then have long since been solved. And while they felt overwhelming at the time, I’m amazed at the relief and reason a little distance brings. But on this particular day I came into work after a mostly sleepless night and I tried to just function. Like you do. I tried to operate with a business-as-usual attitude and it was probably a mistake. I had meetings most of the day. My first one came and went without incident. But I can’t say I didn’t feel myself getting a little weaker with each passing hour. And when I say ‘weaker’ I don’t mean so much physically as just energetically. I was carrying myself through the day but I wasn’t feeling it. My second meeting was with a client. Which one is not important. But let’s just say I like this person very much. We have an excellent working relationship and I consider her a new friend. The meeting was tense, but not something I normally couldn’t get through. There were some unanswered questions that had caused confusion and we were processing through them. Only right in the middle of our discussion I felt it happening. That thing. The thing that can never happen at work. I felt my chest tighten. My throat followed. Suddenly I was overcome with emotion and I was desperate to suppress it. Tears welled up in my eyes and, shocked and sort of terrified of my client seeing tears, I quickly brushed them away. My head was spinning and I was thinking about how I might escape. But there was no comfortable way to get out of that room. And then the tears came. Rolling down my cheeks as I stared at my client. Both of us in total disbelief. She asked me what else was going on. I responded honestly, ‘Nothing. I don’t know what this is about.’ I really didn’t. I am not a weeper. This is not something I do. Those were the words that were screaming in my head too. ‘What the hell are you doing? What is happening. OMG WHY AM I CRYING?’ I can’t say there wasn’t some momentary relief in those tears. My client knew me well enough to know that this was a wild and rare occurrence. I apologized. We reached the end of our discussion. My tears long gone, I escorted her out and that was that.
Only it wasn’t. The shame spiral that I threw myself into after she left was no less than unreasonable self torture. I walked into my office, shut the door, and I died of embarrassment. The tapes playing over and over in my head punished me that much more. ‘How could I cry in a meeting? There is nothing worse than crying! I am weak. God. Weak! Credible, tough business people DO NOT CRY!’ It went on like that for most of the rest of the day. I called a friend and fellow business owner and confessed to her. I was looking for redemption. She was shocked. But she understood. Still, I didn’t find the forgiveness for which I was looking. And I spent the rest of the day swirling in and out of this terrible shame.
The thing is, I know I’m not alone. I know other people have cried at work. I’ve had both men and women come into my office and get emotional. I’ve seen men and women cry from frustration or overwhelm or mistakes or fear. I don’t recall ever judging anyone for their tears. I only remember trying to help them see things clearly again so they could return to their centered selves. So why was I so hard on myself? I think it’s because there’s this unspoken (or maybe it’s spoken, loudly and unavoidably) rule in business that to cry makes you weak. And if you’re a woman it’s a mortal sin. If you’re a woman it identifies you as being ill equipped to be a leader, or a thinker, or to be rational. I had committed the unthinkable. In my mind, those few seconds of tears were negating everything I knew about myself and everything I thought I’d proven about myself over the years. In MY mind. My client had probably long since forgiven me. Maybe even forgotten. It’s my work, and the work of my cohorts, that proves my mettle in that relationship. So why wasn’t I letting it go?
Men cry. We all know it. Many of us live with them and we work with them or we ARE them and we’ve seen them cry. Maybe for some it’s rare. But it does happen. Men get emotional. I have worked in a largely male dominated industry for a long time. I know that men get emotional at work. It looks like a lot of things. They shut down. They get aggressive. They get mopey. And, on some occasions, they cry. But for whatever reason men who cry (and I’m not talking weepers who cry often, I am referring to the occasional tears from a rational person who just feels things) are not necessarily frowned upon. They get a pass. We call them ‘sensitive’ and that is an asset in the male of the species. Those other responses to emotion are equally as forgivable. Mopey is thoughtful. Shut down is pensive. Aggressive is tough. But when a woman cries it doesn’t even matter what the rest of the world thinks. Because what we do to ourselves is enough punishment to last a lifetime. It’s probably the worst thing (in our own minds) we could do. At work. The worst thing.
Well. It’s two weeks later and I’m here to tell you I lived through it. I am no less the business person or leader or professional I was three weeks ago. Do I want to make a habit of it? No. Of course not. But I’m human. I had a human response to a day. And I wish I would have forgiven myself. A lot sooner. I wish I could have saved that afternoon and just let myself have it. I wish I didn’t feel like I had to apologize 13 times to that client. I wish I didn’t feel shame at the very thought of other people EVER finding out. Because this is who we are. We are all the same. We all have bad days. We all deal with overwhelm. And, on occasion, we all cry.
I’ve written this post in the hopes that I can spare someone else the shame I felt. It’s pointless, wasted energy. My work and my attitude and my knowledge and my purpose are still all very intact. My focus is the same. My interests are the same. I am the same professional I was before I cried. Only now, I’ve admitted to the world that I cried in a meeting. And I lived to tell about it. And maybe we should all go just a little easier on each other. Because as work culture changes and communication changes and our expectations change we’re going to need a little more humanity in the work place. We’re not making widgets any more. And we’re not hiring robots for most jobs any time soon. We’re hiring humans. And humans are flawed. All of them. I ought to know. I am one.
This post is also featured on the Clockwork Blog because it’s not just a lady issue, it’s an issue we all should be discussing.