Why We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves That Strong Women Don't Cry

Let's not be so quick to dismiss a show of emotion as a weakness.
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Let's not be so quick to dismiss a show of emotion as a weakness.
crying-workplace

Art Credit: via Flickr

“I’m impressed you haven’t cried yet. A lot of women would be in tears by now.”

I knew what he was trying to say. Work had been crazy for weeks. I was the training manager, and with several changes having taken place in office management lately, I was receiving piles of work.

Crying from the stress, though? Nah. Sure, I had wistfully fantasized about sweeping everything off my desk in histrionic frustration the next time someone dropped off another “quick write-up.” But crying? No. Heck, no. That was the last thing I would do.

You see, I am an emotionally repressed stoic who deflects with humor. If I’m sad, scared, vulnerable, stressed, or angry, I make a joke to distract everyone from witnessing my raw emotions. I was one of those people who used to claim, “I never cry.” Except when I did.

But I know I’m not the only one who is cry-shy. When people say that, what they usually mean is that when they can no longer repress strong emotions, they are embarrassed and try to ignore them. I think we women in general have a deep discomfort with emotional highs and lows, particularly in the workplace, because we think it feeds into the perception that we’re not up to the job. There’s a persistent myth—particularly in pop culture—that emotions interfere with and undercut rational judgment. The more emotionless, the more rational you must be. Think of Spock in Star Trek or Dr. Brennan in Bones.

And I think that’s what bothered me about my coworker’s kindly-meant comment. Beneath the compliment was that undertone of subtle sexism, presuming that we women are skittish—that, by virtue of our gender, we are likely to cry at random over the stress of a regular day.

I bought into that for a long time. Early on in my life, I had resolved to be a strong, independent woman, and I somehow came to the conclusion—supported by that cultural myth that emotions equalled logical impairment—that feelings were girlie, weakening, and unnecessary. If I was hurt by another’s callous behavior or felt taken advantage of, I would rationalize my feelings away. Strong women should not be affected by another person’s behavior . . . right? I assumed that my emotions were a hysterical over-response and that my rational mind would recognize if something really became a problem.

THE PURPOSE OF TEARS

But why do we make that assumption? So what if I did cry at work? And so what if women cry at work more often than men? What if crying is sometimes the appropriate response to a situation—even at the office?

What annoys me most, besides the vague “women be crazy” dismissal of tears, is the underlying presumption that tears don’t have a real purpose. I’d like to pretend that in all my years in the workforce, I’ve never been overwhelmed at work, but that would be a lie. There may have even been salty liquid in the ocular region of my face at one point. Several coworkers and friends have likewise admitted to being overcome with emotion during the workday. We do not cry because we are fragile or neurotic or can’t handle stress but because life is ugly and painful sometimes. Life comes at you, whether you are working in the office or are safely sequestered at home.

But what if having strong emotional responses could even be an advantage?

Turns out, they are. Studies that focused on brain damage to the orbitofrontal cortex—the seat of emotions—have indicated that the lack of emotional insight severely inhibits decision-making and problem solving. Emotion serves as a primal guide that, when integrated with rational thought, helps bring us to fully developed and logical conclusions. As it turns out, strong emotion is not a weakness but a cognitive indicator and a guide. In a healthy brain, life experience results in the brain creating “factual–emotional sets,” meaning sets of facts associated with certain emotions. In later situations, those positive or negative emotions provide alarm signals when a similar set of facts arises, to tell the cognitive brain to begin cost–benefit analysis. (Those emotional alarm signals are often identified as a gut instinct, hunch, or intuition.) Without this fusion of fact and emotion, decision-making is severely impaired.

I’m not suggesting that you make a habit of crying in staff meetings. But if and when tears come, be honest with yourself. Take a break. You can’t completely switch off your feelings during the workday. Sometimes allowing for a few minutes to collect yourself is enough. And if it’s not, it may be time to reassess.

If you're losing it on the job with regularity, sure, that may be a sign that you need help figuring out how to manage your stress better. But it could also be a sign that your work environment—not you—needs to change. If you play the emotional stoic like I used to, you may be missing the important information your emotions are feeding you. If your boss is making you cry, it could be hormones. Or it could be, well, your boss.

I now know that those emotions—whether sadness, hurt, vulnerability, or defensiveness—tip us off that something’s unsafe or wrong often faster than our rational mind can recognize a problem. People who habitually ignore emotional red flags are far more likely to make excuses for and tolerate toxic or even abusive, treatment. We don’t need to be ruled by our feelings at work or otherwise, but we’d be wise to listen to what they are communicating.

After all, to communicate well with others, we must first listen to ourselves.