Have you ever felt an ominous lump form in your throat during a meeting? Maybe you’ve noticed tears forming and then slowly gathering, giving the office a slight blur as you try to sniffle them away. Or maybe you’ve felt your breath catching and you pray no one will look at you, let alone ask you a question, because you’re certain that if you open your mouth to try to speak, you’ll break down. If you’ve been there, you might also have wondered how to stop crying, or how to avoid or delay getting there in the first place.
You’re certainly not alone. A recent survey from the staffing firm Accountemps found that 45% of respondents, who were all workers in the U.S., had cried in an office environment.
Common as tears in the workplace may be, you might still feel like you’re breaking some sort of unwritten rule of conduct. Denise Dudley, a behavioral psychologist and the founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, says that no one ever reaches out to her to ask about “how not to cry in a movie or how not to cry in a funeral, how not to cry in social situations with my friends.” But people do frequently ask her how to stop crying at work. In other words, what’s considered a normal reaction in other settings feels taboo at work.
We’re going to start with some background on crying at work, but you can also jump straight to our tips on how to avoid crying by clicking here.
When and Why Crying at Work Could Hurt You
Is it okay to cry at work? The short answer is that it depends—on what kind of situation you’re in when the tears come, how frequently it happens, who’s around when it does, what kind of environment you work in, what your personal philosophy around crying is, and more.
But most people believe crying can have negative consequences. According to the Accountemps survey, roughly 70% of both workers and CFOs agreed either that “crying is OK from time to time, but doing it too often can undermine career prospects” or that “crying is never OK at work—people will perceive you as weak or immature.” Only about 30% thought that “crying has no negative effect—it shows you’re human.”
Kimberly Elsbach, a professor of management at UC Davis Graduate School of Management who’s studied perceptions of crying in the workplace, found in research with her colleagues that, at best, you can expect a neutral response. When someone cried because of a personal issue (such as a death in the family, a divorce, a layoff), they were perceived neutrally, “as long as the person didn’t cry extensively or disrupt work of others.” But crying in other circumstances—during a performance review, while facing a stressful deadline, or in a formal meeting—could lead others to “perceive you as weak, unprofessional, manipulative.”
Dudley agrees that there are situations in which it’s best not to cry. “Not that I approve of the environment I’m about to describe. I’d prefer to say let’s make an effort to change it, but in the meantime let’s face facts,” she says. And so until the culture around crying can change, she advises trying to avoid tears when you’re in a “one-down position.” That might mean you’re an employee talking to a supervisor (especially if you have a complicated relationship), a woman in a group of men, a presenter standing in front of a board of directors or others in power, in a tense situation, or at odds with a colleague.
“The dangerous part of crying is it repositions us into a farther one-down position,” Dudley says. “In any situation when we cry we run the risk of losing our power and credibility and our believability even.”
What’s Gender Got to Do With It?
It’s impossible to talk about crying at work without talking about gender. In a survey of 700 people by Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, 41% of women admitted they’d cried at work, compared to only 9% of men.
Women are more likely than men to cry at work, Elsbach agrees. By the time she and her colleagues had collected 109 “crying stories,” as they called them, they had only nine from men. Although they didn’t collect enough data to come to any empirical conclusions about men crying at work, the handful of stories they did hear mostly led to positive perceptions, suggesting a possible double standard. As Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke once said, “a man gets a standing ovation for crying because he’s so sensitive, but a woman is shamed.’’
There are biological and physiological reasons that play into why women are more likely to cry at work as well as socialization factors. “The expectation in our society is girls should not be expressing anger, but it’s okay for girls to cry,” says Mollie West Duffy, co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.
But although girls are socialized to cry, when they become women and cry at work, that’s not necessarily considered acceptable either. In That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together, Joanne Lipman says that many of the men she spoke with for the book told her they dread women’s tears. That dynamic can end up hurting women’s careers if their male bosses hold back crucial feedback for fear of tears in a way they don’t for their male reports. So crying at work—or even the notion that you might cry—can have real and lasting consequences.
7 Ways to Stop Crying (or at Least Avoid or Delay It)
So let’s start with the caveat that you don’t necessarily have to consider crying at work a career crusher—or even something you need to be so afraid of, depending on the situation. But here are a few things you can do to tamp down oncoming tears, to delay them long enough to find a safe place to let them out, or to make you less likely to cry in the first place.
Keep in mind, though, that none of these are magic bullets, and you may not always be able to stop yourself from shedding some tears. Read on all the way to the end for a few words about why that’s okay.
1. Take a Deep Breath
A common suggestion for avoiding tears is to practice deep breathing when you feel the waterworks coming on. “I think that’s ambitious,” Dudley says. It’s not quite realistic to think you can go into full deep breathing mode when you’re sitting in a staff meeting (at least, not if your goal is to fly under the radar).
Instead, Dudley suggests trying a mini version of the technique. “Inhale one deep long breath, hold it for a moment, not too long, and then exhale,” she says. “Even if it takes 10 seconds, it resets a few things in your brain or throat.” And you might just stave off those tears until after the meeting.
2. Use Your Tongue, Your Eyebrows, or Your Muscles
If you’re trying to stop crying without drawing attention to yourself, you can also try one of a handful of other tricks that won’t be too obvious in public. “Simply push your tongue to the roof of your mouth,” body language expert Janine Driver told The New York Times, or try to relax your facial muscles, particularly those behind your inner eyebrows, which tend to come together when you’re sad.
On the other hand, Ad Vingerhoets, a researcher at Tilburg University who studies emotional tears, told The Cut that “increasing muscle tension and moving may limit your crying response.” As with most advice about how to stop crying, you might have to try out a few strategies to see which actually works for you—and keep in mind that none of them are sure bets.
3. Take a Break and Get Away From the Situation
If you think you might start crying and you’re in a setting where you don’t want that to happen, the best thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation. If you’re leading a meeting, you can tell everyone to take a 10-minute break and reconvene. Otherwise, you can quietly step out—people go to the bathroom all the time, after all.
“Research shows that we usually feel better either if we’re crying alone or if we just have one other person there,” Duffy says. “More than one person and we get overwhelmed because we’re thinking about how we are being perceived,” which might make us cry even more. So go somewhere you can be alone—whether that’s to your office (if you have one), the bathroom, or outside for a walk—get a drink of water, take some deep breaths, and tell yourself it’s okay. And if you could use the support, grab a trusted colleague on your way or text them and ask them to meet you.
“Try during that time to focus on something else, so that you’re not ruminating on the issue that was leading to the tears,” Elsbach says, especially if you’re hoping to collect yourself and get back in there. If you think you’re ready, “test yourself,” she adds. “Can I think about that thing and not start to get emotional? If you can, maybe rejoin the meeting.”
Removing yourself from the situation might be more complicated if you’re having a one-on-one meeting. If you’re talking to an otherwise kind and supportive supervisor or colleague you know won’t use it against you, Dudley says, you can ask for a moment. Try: “This is difficult for me to hear, but I know we need to talk about it. Would you mind giving me a couple minutes in the hallway?” But if you’re speaking with someone you’re not sure is 100% on your side, you might want to try another technique.
4. Stop the Thoughts That Are Making You Cry (This’ll Take Some Practice)
If you can’t physically get away from the situation, that doesn’t mean you can’t mentally get away. You can borrow from an intervention technique sometimes used in therapy called thought stopping or thought replacement. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Whatever it is that’s provoking your crying response, try to put that out of your mind and think about something totally unrelated instead.
Dudley recommends having a go-to replacement thought. Maybe it’s your dog, who always makes you laugh. “I love my dog so much,” you might think to drown out the thoughts about how poorly your co-worker just treated you. “She’s going to be so happy when I come home.”
You’ll want to practice this one in lower-stakes situations before you try to rely on it in a crucial moment, Dudley says, because it’ll take practice to do it successfully. “In the beginning you might keep hopping back, but practice really does help,” she says. Even so, it “may not work for everybody in every situation.”
5. Pretend You’re an Actor in a Movie
Dudley has another suggestion that’s a bit unconventional, but she insists it’s helped her get through difficult interactions when she worked at psychiatric hospitals and in frustrating moments at home (for example, finding her kids drawing on the wall after a long day).
“If you feel you might be about to cry or are going to scream or say something you might regret, pretend that you’re an actor in a movie. What’s the script?” she says. “Now it’s not just me, Denise, who’s really upset because my boss just told me I didn’t get a raise,” she explains. Instead, you can distance yourself and play “the role of the employee who is a quintessential professional,” one whose words are “calm and well thought out.”
6. Eliminate or Reduce Stressors in Your Life, if You Can
You can take steps to avoid crying well before you find yourself in a tear-inducing situation. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and that you’re properly fueled (i.e. fed) and hydrated. Try to reduce or eliminate other stressors in your life, too. For example, if you’re constantly fighting with your spouse or roommates, doing what you can to address those situations could help you establish a less precarious baseline.
“If you’re out of balance, you’re more likely to cry,” Dudley says. So “check in with all the usual suspects” and see “if there are weird things going on in your life that you can control or eliminate.”
7. Figure Out What Might Make You Cry, and Why You Cried Last Time
If you go into a performance review expecting a glowing assessment and instead get some pretty significant criticism (constructive as it may be), the shock of it may make you react more severely. But “if you’re expecting it, if you know going in, you can kind of prepare yourself for that, gird yourself,” Elsbach says. So try to anticipate situations that might be difficult and prepare yourself. It could help you keep your composure until you can get a moment alone.
And if you have cried in a similar situation in the past, don’t just brush that aside. Often, “the tears happen and then we like to immediately forget about it because...we feel ashamed or we feel angry that it happened so we’d like to just never think about it again,” Duffy says. But that approach “can cause you to cry more in the future because you haven’t paused to figure out why you were crying,” she explains. “Tears contain really important emotional signals. But you only learn from those signals if you take the time to pay attention to them.”
Particularly for women, tears can be a sign of anger—as Duffy says, “men yell, women cry.” And while yelling isn’t necessarily a better way to go, she adds, “unfortunately crying in the workplace when you’re angry isn’t going to necessarily express to others that you’re angry, it’s going to express to others that you’re sad or ashamed or out of control.”
So once you’ve calmed down, try to figure out why you started crying and what the underlying emotions and factors were. Whether you’re angry or overworked or hate your job or anything else, think about how you might address the root cause (or causes) when you’re not feeling so emotional. It might help prevent the tears from coming up again in a similar situation.
If you notice that crying has become a regular occurrence, it might be a sign that there are bigger issues to address than how to stymie tears in the moment, such as depression or a truly toxic work environment you need to figure out how to leave behind.
The Argument for Not Avoiding Tears at Work
Next time you’re thinking about how to stop crying, consider that it might not always be such a terrible thing, and you can help make it just one more normal response in the spectrum of what’s acceptable at work. Dudley, for one, would like to live in a world in which crying is normalized and just as unremarkable as laughter, though hopefully less frequent.
Duffy echoes that sentiment, and is convinced we’re moving in the right direction. “Crying at work is not going to ruin your career,” she says. “I think there is still a stigma around that but it’s a pretty dated stigma...from 20 or 30 years ago when we worked in a work environment that was male-dominated and so women had to put on this coat of armor to go into the male workplace and crying was not appropriate.”
And don’t forget that you can play a role not only when you’re crying, but also when you notice someone else in the office crying. “We can only start changing this if we start to change how we think about [it] with others as well,” Duffy says.
So don’t be so hard on yourself if you feel the tears coming at work once in a while. And don’t be so hard on your colleagues if and when they cry at work. As Duffy says, “I actually think crying is a sign of our humanity and we want to see humanity in our colleagues and in our leaders.”
Photo of person upset at work courtesy of praetorianphoto/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author