Hush don't cry
February 26, 2011 1:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop crying at work-related criticism?

Okay, I'm a crier when it comes to emotionally-charged situations. I hate it, and it makes me feel really undignified and that people start paying more attention to my tears than my reasoning once I start. For just about any other kind of interpersonal relationship, I take breaks, but I can't do that at work in a one-on-one meeting. It's unprofessional and unjustified; everyone has faults, I need to know them, and I know all this, but the waterworks cue even if he/she takes pains to be as fair and nice as possible.

For example: Work this week has been a gigantic clusterfuck; I moved to a new position and my supervisor wasn't there, and more senior coworkers seemed to all have six different opinions about what I should be doing. I was super stressed and my performance suffered. Our manager had individual chats with all of us yesterday because of this, and he was extremely sympathetic, and actually really, really nice--I had a chance to (politely) vent/explain/etc. But the fact of the matter is because of my inexperience and the sixteen different opinions of what I should be doing, I dropped the ball on what I was actually supposed to be doing, and my manager--very, very gently--pointed that out. He explained a lot of things, made it clear that he didn't think it was my fault, per se, but still, that stung.

So two minutes into the conversation, I started crying. He gave me tissues and said I was free to take a couple of minutes, made it clear that I'm always free to ask him questions, and gave me his cell phone for when I had to ask him something off-hours. Seriously, as these conversations go, this was downright cuddly. He was fair and took massive pains to be nice, and I still couldn't stop myself from looking like a mess, even though I know he was right.

I read this too, which helps, but unlike performance reviews, I don't get warnings for this kind of meeting so I can't prepare/rehearse beforehand. (And since he's soliciting my opinion, it's not as one-sided as a performance review, either, which makes it worse.) Distracting pains, visual distractions, and breathing hasn't helped (and I'm an ISTJ, I'm not even a super emotional type normally). Crying is a valid, if not a preferred, way of venting stress, but I'd like to at least delay it until I make it to the bathroom. So, how do I stop the tears during the meeting itself, and save my dignity?
posted by Hakaisha to Work & Money (23 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
You should pretend you're having a conversation and anticipate that he'll say some things to upset you, and you have to imagine yourself being positive. Then go cry in the bathroom if you must later.
posted by anniecat at 1:51 PM on February 26, 2011

Yeah, I'm not really sure but I would think mental practice is a start. Rehearsing similar types of conversations in your head and trying to figure out a way to respond to them that you would feel good about.
posted by molecicco at 2:02 PM on February 26, 2011

In the midst of it, distract yourself physically: hold the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply through your nostrils. Tell yourself something really kind in that moment, as if you were comforting someone else, like "you're doing great, sweetie, this is really tough but you'll get through it just fine" and concentrate on your breathing. Knowing how to soothe and compose yourself in a difficult time is a valuable skill.
posted by judith at 2:05 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you don't have success with any of the strategies you may be provided with, you may need to roll with it. You can say "I'm sorry I'm crying; there is nothing I can do about it, please ignore it" and carry on. It lets the other person know they don't need to deal with the crying, which keeps the conversation on track. It's what I do when this happens.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:09 PM on February 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

This might sound weird. When I was young I used to cry a lot. Sometimes when I was upset but mostly when I was angry or frustrated. I hated it, and could never come up with any way of preventing it. In college, I majored in Acting. My Junior year, we had to learn to cry on cue. This involved weeks of homework consisting of sitting around figuring out what thoughts/music/whatever make you cry; crying; and paying close attention to what you were doing, exactly, when you cried. Eventually you had to fine-tune it to the point where you could cry at a certain line in a script. Or, if not actually cry real tears, do a good enough imitation with your facial muscles and breathing that it would look exactly like you were crying.

After that, without thinking about it, my crying all the time just stopped. Since then I hardly ever cry. I mean, maybe once a year, if that. I have no idea why it worked, but I think it was knowing on some level that I could control it, and/or being very aware of the physical signs - which little muscles tighten when you're about to cry, etc. - and subconsciously stopping them before they start. Crying is a very physical thing; we think of it as emotional but there's so much going on with muscles tensing, breathing changing, etc.

I feel sort of bad telling you to make a concerted effort to cry more in order to cry less - I don't know if it would work, but there it is, if you think it's worth a try. I can't see how it would hurt, in any case.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:14 PM on February 26, 2011 [13 favorites]

For a physical trigger, you can very strongly flare your nostrils, accompanied by kind of pulling the tip of your nose down. It makes kind of a funny face, but sometimes you can disguise it by furrowing your brow and compressing your lips so you just look sort of generically pissed off. This both squeezes off your tear ducts, making it harder for the tears to physically start, and gently stimulates some facial nerves to head off the other physical sensations of crying. I'm a classical singer, and I use this trick whenever I'm singing a particularly emotional piece or in a particularly emotional setting, like weddings or funerals. It doesn't work perfectly, but it helps a lot.
posted by KathrynT at 2:15 PM on February 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'm in a similar situation, or I was when I started at my job, although after four years I've adjusted. I'm not going to say "toughened up," because it's not a matter of toughness. Crying is a symptom of real pain. If you had a sharp pain in your back every time you went upstairs, would you plan on gritting your teeth and taking Advil forever, or would you check it out with the doctor?* You need to check out what's causing the crying, what the trigger is, and cut the wire. That's the only thing that worked for me.

* Assuming you had insurance or were not American.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:17 PM on February 26, 2011

I like DarlingBri's idea. It just gets it out there you always cry like this and not to worry about it. For me, when I ever start laughing really hard, I start crying. I can't help it! D: i always drop the comment "omg I always cry when I laugh this hard" so people know I didn't get offended.

Going for the psych approach, could it be a reflex from when you were a kid? Maybe when your parents started yelling at you, you always broke down and cry so they would soften up?
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 2:21 PM on February 26, 2011

But the fact of the matter is because of my inexperience and the sixteen different opinions of what I should be doing, I dropped the ball on what I was actually supposed to be doing, and my manager--very, very gently--pointed that out.

This probably won't work for most people, but when my thoughts get racing and I begin to get upset, I try to remember that a lot of what is upsetting me is beyond my control. It either already happened and can't be changed, or is a state of affairs imposed upon me. I'm not religious, but I kinda worship the Serenity Prayer. Remember that the only thing that you can change is what you do in the future.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 2:21 PM on February 26, 2011

I too am a crier. My therapists tell me I should feel grateful, because she has worked with people who can't cry. It was a hard thing to change my attitude about my crying, to get over my embarrassment, but I found once did it was easier to control it,as i no longer had that added little boost of panic that always preceded a public cry, that feeling of "shit! I'm going to cry!" Accept that your emotions are close to the surface, love yourself for it, give yourself a break.
posted by Sara Anne at 2:27 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

The thing about tricks to keep from crying is that they require enormous focus, and most of the time, I think it's better to stay and have the conversation - particularly where you have reason to defend yourself - than to mmm-hmm your way out of the room so you can cry elsewhere. I say go ahead! Fuck the patriarchy! Crying is normal, and when you let it happen - laugh at yourself - and say "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was this upset"... then you'll probably be ok to take a deep breath and get on with the meeting. Based on the story you told, it sounds like you were angry. I cry when I'm angry too, and if dudes can raise their voices and stomp around then we can be seen crying for a second. It's the same thing. (I realize I'm generalizing wildly, men cry, women lose their tempers, of course, but I think the idea that one is ok and the other isn't is because women are more likely to tear up).
posted by moxiedoll at 3:02 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a crier too. For some reason, thinking of smells helps me. I try to imagine the taste of different Harry Potter jellybeans.
posted by quodlibet at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a crier too. Three things, not necessarily particularly immediate:

First, to a certain extent, I "outgrew" it. As I got more mature, more settled, more even-tempered, more experienced, it just happened less often. Still happens, though.

Second, I realized that work isn't personal and that gives me enough distance to not cry MOST of the time. If something personal IS going on at work, I will still probably cry. But criticism of my WORK mostly doesn't result in tears since I realized it's not personal, it's just work.

Third, it's not the end of the world if you cry at work. Plenty of colleagues will be perfectly understanding and not discount you. (Some will, but oh well. I once got told I had the wrong hair to be a lawyer and no one would take me seriously. There are people out there with dumb-ass reasons for discounting others.) If you're doing it every day, not so good. If it happens once in a while, in certain situations, and you otherwise perform, you'll be surprised how little your colleagues care.

Sometimes I pinch my forefinger nail into my thumb to try to at least get a delay on the crying. Or bite the inside of my cheek. I've heard that making a loop with your thumb and forefinger, but NOT closing it, but holding those fingers really tense, can distract your brain enough to prevent tears. It seems to at least give me a delay. So those are more immediate things to try.

I was going to say, "At least I never cried in lecture" (I teach some community college classes), but then I realized THAT'S TOTALLY NOT TRUE. Last semester in an ethics unit we were discussing some really heavy topics and I shared a fairly harrowing story that happened to a friend of mine to illustrate what had influenced my thinking on the topic, and I got teary. I said, "Wow, I'm getting really choked up, I'm sorry -- it was just very upsetting and I feel very strongly about it still." It was a little embarrassing, but it was certainly the kind of issue that would be legitimately upsetting to ANYONE close to it, so I'm not ashamed of feeling strongly upset by it, and since it WAS a normal reaction, I just acted like it was a normal reaction and it didn't get awkward. It actually made them listen MORE closely because I guess we don't often see people show that much emotion in formal settings. I felt like we had a better student/teacher rapport after that class, not like it was in any way diminished. (And nobody mentioned on my evals, "prof is a crybaby" or anything so I don't think any damage was done.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:28 PM on February 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I don't think it's necessarily that the OP has an unusual or unhealthy emotional investment in her job, it's that for some of us, crying is a physical response to stress that requires effort to stop and control. Some people tap their feet or fingers or fidget or whatever, and I guess those are more socially acceptable for some reason?

Anyway, the thing that helped me gain more control is to pay attention to the physical feelings that precede crying--breathing changes, throat constriction, etc., and work on tamping those down (or excusing myself.) A lot of the time, you can feel it coming on and the key is not to panic or think "Oh God, I'm going to cry right here in front of my boss," but to work on controlling the individual physical aspects. This takes practice to really get good at, but I've found it works surprisingly well.
posted by kagredon at 3:53 PM on February 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I take a deep breath and focus my eyes upward and off in the distance (it's as though I were looking at a two-story building that's across a wide boulevard). Then, I emotionally ground myself by going forward and backward in time quickly, like this: "in middle school you ran track every day [I imagine the solid and confident way that running made me feel]; this morning you ate cereal for breakfast [I remember my small happiness at a nice bowl of cereal in my comfortable kitchen], ten years from now you will still go on nice walks [I picture myself in a place I like walking out in the sunshine]." This quick past-present-future series reminds me that I'm bigger than the current situation and that no matter what happens, I'll still be me and get to enjoy life. That detaches me from the current situation enough that I can really listen to what the person is saying without thinking that they're telling me I'm a Failure or a Bad Person.
posted by salvia at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: few comments removed - let's try to kee this constructive?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:09 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

When we're stressed, we become more sensitive to things (and thus, more likely to cry) than we would be if everything is going smoothly. It seems like you have an opportunity to nip crying in the bud if you can mitigate the stress and maybe the feelings of inadequacy that I'm hearing. It's helpful to develop (and even more important to practice) strategies for this for day-to-day stresses so that you can easily handle the bigger ones. One such strategy is meditation or guided relaxation. I've used the short podcast linked here in situations where I start to feel stress increasing. If you keep it in your mp3 player, you can pop into the bathroom or step outside and listen to it. Generally, doing common-sense things like getting enough sleep, eating well and regularly, and addressing physical discomfort will go a long way to help you handle stress.

You may also want to work on reframing crying in your mind, as I know (as someone who also cries a lot) that the fear of crying can be bigger than the actual consequences of crying. It's embarrassing as shit, yes, but trust me that it's far more embarrassing for you than for the people you are crying in front of. Their natural reaction (unless they are jerks or sociopaths) is to comfort you. Have you ever had a one-on-one conversation with someone who you didn't get along with who cried in front of you? Chances are, you felt sympathy for them, not disdain. There's lots of other great reassurance above.

I hope that works becomes less stressful for you!
posted by quiet coyote at 5:35 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to all this good advice: Please don't take to heart pop-magazine articles along the lines of "If you cry EVEN ONCE you'll never live it down." Unless you work in one of those industries where every little thing is held against you - chances are, the occasional cry at work isn't going to be some kind of huge deal. So please don't catastrophize.

Sometimes, those of us who are raised by parents who did things like yell at us and send us to our rooms for accidentally spilling milk feel like even a gentle "here is a mistake you made" is the first step on the road to "You're fired!" If you constantly find yourself feeling this way, that is something you can seek help for. It also helps to gain experience at your workplace and/or your position.

For actually calming down and not crying, I find body-awareness and grounding to be a help. Breathe in through your nose. Breath out. Be aware of your body. Feel your feet on the ground. Keep a mental "happy place" in mind to focus on when things get stressful - picture yourself on a sunny tropical beach, or eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake. These things have helped me keep calm when all I wanted to do was cry.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:53 PM on February 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Constructive advice: do not let work get you emotional. The easiest way to not cry is to not want to. Nip things in the bud before they become overwhelming.
posted by gjc at 7:15 PM on February 26, 2011

Criticism is compliment. It is an acknowledgment on your ability to produce results, and that you are not producing those that are expected of you. Do not view it as a stressful attack on you, but rather a helping hand. Now if they are being assholes, well call them on it, that too is at least as unprofessional as crying.

I tend to cry when feeling strong positive emotions (I am a guy), not negative emotions or stress. The best way I have found to deal with it is accept the emotions, embrace them and feel them. The crying appears to be a reaction to me pushing away the emotions and then fighting the physical reactions. Accepting I feel a surge at something dorky or moving usually means I don't cry. I think this a leftover reaction from some fairly tough middle school years and lots of teasing, I am getting over it.
posted by bartonlong at 10:22 PM on February 26, 2011

I'm not a crier but this sounds like your body's habit-formed reaction to this particular type of stress.

For me, I started blushing profusely after an extremely bad presentation I had to give at uni. From then on - for about 8 years - I would turn bright red at the drop of a hat. Huge spider web red rash right across my chest. Sometimes all up my neck and up my cheeks. Red, splotchy, ugly, and highly noticeable.

The more worried I got about it, the worse it got. Whatever we resist persists. I mean, this was not just when giving presentations, this was during ANY social exchange whatsoever. It was horrendous.

So I started 'acting'. Essentially, I 'became' someone else. I had a great role model - a young, vibrant individual who didn't care about a damn thing. In fact, he would blush profusely and blink at a million miles an hour due to nerves but he would plow on regardless and be awesome. So, in my head, I became him for several months. "Be like x".

Get a role model, real or otherwise, and 'become' them the minute you sense you're about to get criticism. I think what it basically does is cushion your sensitive ego because it's as if it's not really happening to you personally - it's happen to this other person. It does not happen overnight, but gradually you build up a lot of inner strength and this kind of reaction to the stress does seem to dissipate.
posted by mleigh at 1:16 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I used to do this too. My reaction to lots of stress at home is still crying, but at work I've managed to convince myself that any feedback is good feedback and that I should be grateful for the opportunity to improve. So now I remind myself that it's good to have open communication and it's not stressful, it's useful. But it took a lot of learning about and practicing negotiation skills to do this, and I don't have specific tips for you about how to change your mindset.

Instead, I'm going to suggest that when you're about to start crying, you say, "Excuse me, I need a moment. I'll be right back," and walk out of the room. Keep walking. Take deep breaths. Focus on anything other than what was being said in that room. Then when you've calmed down enough, go back and say, "Sorry about that. Is now still a good time to discuss this?"
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:47 PM on February 27, 2011

I have exactly the same problem with crying as a result of too much of any emotion, but especially criticism.

With regards to criticism at work/in college the only thing I've found that helps is to train myself into saying 'Thank you' in response to every piece of feedback, and then asking for more detail if it's needed. I also write every piece of feedback down. I try to focus on getting to the point where I know what I should do differently next time.

This seems to help me stop focussing on what the criticism says about me as a person and more on how the other person is trying to get me to change what I do next time.

You have to be slightly careful that you don't come across as flippant or sarcastic! If there's a danger of that, I find 'Hmm, that's a helpful comment' works just as well.
posted by kadia_a at 1:36 PM on February 27, 2011

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