Big girls don't cry
September 24, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to keep from crying at work when I'm in a performance review?

I'm a professional woman working in the finance industry. I am normally assertive and have no difficulties with meetings or public speaking. However, whenever I'm in a performance review, the tiniest bit of conflict triggers the tears.

Today's example was me having a one to one meeting with my immediate supervisor 'Bob'. In this meeting, I told him about a meeting I had with the department manager 'Mary'. (Mary is Bob's boss.) Mary had criticised me, and I mentioned this criticism to Bob to see if he agreed with it, and whether I needed to make any changes in my performance. As soon as I brought it up, the tears started. I apologized, and carried on as well as I could, and to his credit, Bob did not make a big deal of it. (I also cried in the meeting with Mary when the original criticism was given.)

I don't want to be a crybaby. I'm an adult, and I can handle criticism. I could use help with any of the following: How to keep from crying at all. What to say/how to behave to the person I'm crying in front of when it happens. And how common is this? I can't be the only person who cries at work. Or am I? Am I a freak?

I've set up a throwaway address at if you want to respond privately.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
These questions may interest you:

Stop crying, go away, you aren't helping!

How to prevent/stop tears?
posted by LoriFLA at 10:57 AM on September 24, 2007

You're not a freak. What works for me, in no particular order:
  • Raising my eyebrows (blocks off tear ducts)
  • Deep breathing
  • Visually focusing on something other than the person such as a picture behind them
  • Creating some physical discomfort to focus on (such as pressing my fingernail against my thigh or palm)
  • Auditory "skimming" (not fully listening, only keeping an ear open for times a response is expected.
  • Excusing myself - "upset stomach" - then calming down in the bathroom
  • Detaching myself from the outcome of a meeting through self-talk ("Who cares what they think? What's the worst that could happen?")

posted by desjardins at 10:59 AM on September 24, 2007 [3 favorites]

I don't have a solution. But I also have this problem in the exact same setting. So, there are at least two of us!
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:02 AM on September 24, 2007

I make sure I have water or something with me when I have to deal with situations like this (I'm really emotional, and react very quickly with little time for rationalization). As emotion comes on, I sip at water, it just helps me keep it together. Sipping at tea or water is often totally innocuous in those situations (it's when you sip at vodka you need to be worried).
posted by bunnycup at 11:02 AM on September 24, 2007

This is not uncommon. I say this as someone who has given performance reviews. And although men haven't broken out in tears, some of them get very emotional too.

My best guess is that performance reviews are very personal. Its all about you and your qualities. You're being assessed - as it relates to your job, theoretically - but its impossible not to take it as a comment on yourself as a person. And this stuff is not coming from some faceless client or audience (ha! what do they know about you!) but by someone who works with you closely and thus should know you well...

If it helps, I always found it endearing. It reminded me that I was dealing with human beings.
posted by vacapinta at 11:08 AM on September 24, 2007

I have a friend who is a theare director that does this. She usually goes out of her way to warn people during times of peace that she is easy to tear up when confronted, and lets them know that it makes her feel foolish, but that she can't help it, and that she hopes that knowing that will make people more likely to speak their mind and not be deterred by her tears.

I always noticed that however overemotional she may have seemed because of the tears, it was obvious that her thoughts were clear and her words well chosen. So ulttimately everyone just accepted it as a quirk and it wasn't a problem.

In other words, you can tell people at the beginning of such an encounter, or even make it general knowledge, that you are easy to tear up, but to please not let that keep people from telling you whatever they need to. That way when the waterworks start, they aren't caught off guard and can continue without feeling bad.
posted by hermitosis at 11:27 AM on September 24, 2007 [3 favorites]

I don't know how much help this will be (as it never seemed to do anything for my wife), but I've always approached this kind of situation by asking myself, "What's the worst that could happen?" Because even the worst-case scenario ("I get fired by the kind of company that would let me go.") isn't really that bad. Relatively-speaking, it might not be great, but it pales in comparison to how shitty your day could be going (e.g., hit by a bus).

The problem here is I've never bothered to tease apart the chicken-and-egg proposition: do I feel this way because I don't let social situations get to me or do I not let social situations get to me because I feel this way.
posted by yerfatma at 12:02 PM on September 24, 2007

I dig my fingernails into my palms. You're not actually damaging yourself, but the little bit of pain will distract you.
posted by Evangeline at 12:09 PM on September 24, 2007

I just watched the amazing video of San Diego's mayor emotionally reversing his stance on gay marriage. He relied heavily on the drinking water approach. It seemed to calm him down, and also gave him an excuse to pause for a few moments to compose himself.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:18 PM on September 24, 2007

Anonymous, are we the same person and did I send this in in some sort of drunken haze?

To me, it's like jumping off a cliff. Okay, more like falling off a cliff. I can feel myself get all hot and my cheeks start burning and my eyes start prickling and I know it's about to be over, which means that I feel despair at what is going to happen, and then bam! I'm committed and crying.

It's a mental battle, and as soon as you think "oh no, I'm gonna cry," it's over. So try to anticipate the warning signs. When you get that tickle of anxiety prior to your review, think of something funny, something light, and fix it in your mind. When you feel like you're getting caught up, tune what is going on outside out for just a second, think of that light, easy, good thing, and then tune back in. Try to keep that feeling of "keep on truckin'" in your mind when you return. When all else fails, raise your eyebrows and look up.

It helps me to remember to keep it in perspective. Like, this is just one day at work, and when this is over I don't have to do this again for a long, long time, and this is just some job, and just one dumb hour out of your entire life, and there's is something to look forward to after this.

I realize that this approach might distract you from hearing the criticism, but I have a feeling that those of us who tend to lose it in situations like this don't really have a problem internalizing criticism in the first place.
posted by mckenney at 2:24 PM on September 24, 2007

Pinch the inside of your thigh.
posted by cuban link flooded jesus at 2:30 PM on September 24, 2007

Instead of treating the symptom (the crying), perhaps you can address the underlying problem of receiving criticism in those situations. The book Difficult Conversations may help. I know it sounds a little hand-wavy, but several people I know swear by that book.
posted by arco at 2:39 PM on September 24, 2007

At my work, we did a Meyers-Briggs training, and established that some of us are Fs (feeling types) and some of us are Ts (thinking types). Now, whenever anyone starts to cry about anything (I don't mean bawling, but choking up beyond ability to speak - most often in the context "this is my last staff meeting and I love you guys"), they just say "sorry, it's just my F side coming out,"* and the Ts in the room realize that about half the staff really understands the crying, and that if they're uncomfortable, it's because they're unfeeling automatons. Well, no. But they've realize that being emotional is okay, and they should be tolerant and normal about it. In fact, even before this I cried in another business setting, and it was okay there, too. So, it's possible to have a work culture where it's okay.

* even though I don't actually think F vs. T correlates to the likelihood of crying in a staff meeting
posted by salvia at 2:42 PM on September 24, 2007

As a guy in the hypermacho environment of the armed forces, this is something I had to figure out too.

My first trick, that may or may not be possible for you, was to not care. That seems flip, but it's really not, it's how I got through basic without losing my shit. I just sort of told myself it was all a big joke, a genuflection to what the drills thought they should be doing and was able to let the screaming roll off my back.

Unfortunately, once I got into the "real" Army and especially once I was deployed, I had to work closely with a variety of people, and it's sort of impossible to tell yourself it's a joke the morning after an attack. So! The second trick has sort of two parts:

1) clenched teeth, clenched hands, tightening all the muscles I could think of without looking too weird
2) as much as possible not talking, at least until the urge has receeded some

So even if a response was expected, I refused to say anything for as long as it took for me to be sure I wouldn't betray myself. It's as if I teeter on a ledge, and any motion or sound other than, you know, breathing and pumping blood, would send me over. So I just stood there until I teetered back.
posted by kavasa at 2:47 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I do this too, I was just thinking the other day about how to pose this question to AskMefi! I can argue the toss at home, but when given a formal environment and some conflict, I turn into a mess.

desjardins, thank you for your post, I've found it especially useful.

I also feel less alone now :)
posted by saturnine at 4:02 PM on September 24, 2007

I do this too! In fact I just did recently while in a placement interview for a second-language program. The whole thing just had me rattled. But I've done it in numerous one-on-one meetings with bosses.

I always console myself thinking about my poor friend who cried during a job interview -- and still got the job!
posted by loiseau at 7:07 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't have any tips, but you're not alone - I cried in front of my boss's boss a couple of weeks ago and wanted to die. Hopefully some of the advice here will help both of us!
posted by srah at 8:30 PM on September 24, 2007

ugh i have this problem as well and i wish i had a solution for you but i don't =(
posted by Soulbee at 5:48 AM on September 25, 2007

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