I am a person with high expectations for myself. I am a person who doesn’t want to disappoint others. I am a person that doesn’t want to fail. Yet I’m also someone who messes up all the time. I am someone who does things that I am ashamed of all the time. I am someone who misses the mark all the time. Obviously I don’t want these things to happen. As a result, when I do fail or end up disappointing someone, or even when I have to discuss something that means the possibility of failure, I get frustrated. Talk to any of my former bosses, anyone I’ve spent a lot of time with at work, anyone I’ve been on a team with, anyone that’s played board games with me, anyone that’s dated me; they will all confirm that I don’t just get frustrated, I get frustrated easily.
I think society deems frustration as an acceptable thing for women to feel because it shows that they care and want to succeed. In fact, one of the reasons that so many of my coworkers and bosses know about how easily I get frustrated is because I was once told that because I didn’t show a lot of emotion at work, people perceived me as not caring. After that I opened myself up and let everyone see just how much I cared.
The problem is that society has very strict rules about how frustration can be shown and dealt with, and unfortunately, even though I know these rules, my body doesn’t. My body tends to do the last thing that I want it to when I get frustrated: it cries. Far too many times when I talked to a manager about an issue I was facing at work, my eyes started welling up with tears and my voice began to waver. Far too many times, that manager freaked out and became overly delicate with me.
I’m sorry if my crying makes you uncomfortable; it’s a sign that I care about what I’m doing. And I don’t need you to react to my crying as though I’m about to run away and never come back. I know there’s not a problem. I know it will be okay. And I know that as soon as my body stops betraying me and I can speak like a normal human being again, I will be able to express to you my plan to overcome what has happened or what is about to happen, and we’ll move on. Because even though my face doesn’t look like it’s resilient, I am.
One time, Kristen Bell’s husband Dax Shepard brought a sloth into their bedroom as a birthday gift for her. The event was recorded, and then the video was shared on Ellen, where Kristen explained her reaction: she sobbed. What struck me more when I saw this clip, however, was her explanation of why she sobbed. I had never heard anything more relatable in my life.
For some reason, people think that crying is a sign of weakness. That’s why men are told they shouldn’t cry. Because men should be strong. It’s also why crying at the workplace isn’t acceptable. Crying means that I am not resilient, that I can’t adapt. Crying is why women can’t be managers and take control of situations.
That’s bullshit. Crying isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a physical reaction to an emotional state. While to some anti-lady folks, this just supports their ideas that women don’t belong in charge because they are too emotional and don’t think enough; that they act off of feeling rather than data. Not necessarily true. First of all, men have been socially conditioned not to cry (“don’t cry, son, men don’t cry”), so the fact that women cry more often doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more emotional. Secondly, showing your emotion shows your vulnerability, which makes you more empathetic – which makes you a better leader. I’ve had leaders in the past who weren’t empathetic, and it made it hard to stay motivated when the going got tough. I’ll add that at least one of them was a woman – I wouldn’t doubt if she had lost some of that at some point because she was given feedback that she was too emotional.
So what do I do? I try to “man up” when I can feel a cry coming on (if you were doubting the social conditioning of not crying, does my use of that phrase convince you?), but that’s not something I’m really good at. When I’m really lucky, I am able to duck out of the conversation to finish the discussion later so that I can go obey my body and release the frustration through my eyes in private, so as not to make myself look weak and inflexible. And I spend that time hating that even with the people that say I should just be myself, I can’t be my full self.
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