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Crying in Public: Healthy Release or Embarrassing Weakness?


One complaint many of my clients have is their tendency to cry when they get overwhelmed.  While crying is a perfectly normal response to pain, frustration and sadness…it can get in the way. The problem is when those tears start leaking out at inappropriate times, at work, in a big meeting, in the middle of a conflict, with a stranger etc.   Crying is an extremely vulnerable act especially when you have been told that it is manipulative, weak and/or controlling.  Crying has gotten a bad wrap–sometimes you just need to leak.  But what do you do when your crying goes from healing to embarrassing?

Don’t apologize.  This step was truly freeing for me and my clients. Once you feel the tears sting your eyes, the first thing you want to do is apologize.  Apologizing implies you are doing something wrong..and in reality you are just crying…you are exhibiting an emotion. You aren’t hitting or hurting anyone. Remind yourself there is nothing wrong with crying.    When you apologize that makes the other person feel responsible for you and diminishes you as well. So own the fact that you are crying without apologizing.

Take a Step Back. Tears are most likely coming from a place of frustration and anger.  As women, we are often taught that anger or frustration is not ok so we push it down until it bubbles up as tears. So give yourself a chance to pause and breathe.  If you can keep talking do so, but if not ask to continue the conversation later or ask to take a break and come back to you.

The goal with these 2 steps is to break the cycle of….start crying….ridicule self….assume everyone else is ridiculing you…apologize profusely…cry harder. Instead turn the cycle into start crying…breathe…remind self that crying is ok, it is just an emotion…keep talking or ask to take a break…return and keep going.

The first 2 concepts are how to handle crying in the moment…this next concept is how to start decreasing the inappropriate crying tendency.

Look back: What is it really about? Too often my clients get so caught up in the shame of crying that they never look back to see…what were they so upset about? What was really happening? Were you angry, frustrated, hurt? Did you feel attacked, betrayed, powerless? Start noticing a pattern in what triggers you.

For my one of my clients this process was life changing, first when she stopped apologizing and started embracing that she was a crier, it took some of the sting out of it.  She was still embarrassed and she still didn’t like the fact that she was crying but when she stopped apologizing it just was “just something that happened” rather than the major EVENT it had been in the past.

As she started looking back and asking, “what is this really about?” She noticed that there was actually A LOT going on behind the scenes. She realized how much she had swallowed her feelings of fear, frustration and anger. She felt powerless at work and when there was any type of confrontation she felt more and more powerless and then more and more confused so she would cry out of frustration. Her crying was a sign of her not speaking of for herself, her incongruence between how she was feeling on the inside and what she was sharing on the outside.  She knew she had a lot to contribute, she was just scared to do it. Over time we started unraveling her fear, frustration and anger. We started giving her a voice in our sessions and developing strategies for using that voice in the workplace.

She learned she needed to:

  • speak up for herself more often in little ways so co-workers and superiors didn’t just bull-doze her
  • ask for a break or a chance to reflect and come back to the problem
  • discuss things one-on-one rather than in a large group,
  • value her inner sensitivity, that piece of her gives her a lot of insight that her co-workers miss out on. She just needed to channel it in a different way so it could be heard in the workplace culture.

Now when she has a confrontation at work her first response isn’t crying but speaking up for herself.  Leaking is still a part of her life, just not as much as is use to be.

I would love to hear from you in the comments: Can you relate? Do you have any strategies that have worked?

4 Responses to Crying in Public: Healthy Release or Embarrassing Weakness?

  1. I think it’s a fine line. While we don’t have to apologize for having feelings, being around someone who is crying can be an intense experience, so it’s prudent to use some discretion. I had a coworker one who cried freely and copiously at her desk when things got stressful. There were days where I had to walk away because her crying (to the point of hyperventilation) was so intense for me! (I think she had some issues that tapped into some of my issues.) She really ought to have excused herself for these crying bouts. And that got me thinking…

    I think we sometimes say “sorry” when we really mean “excuse me.” We say “excuse me” for all sorts of bodily functions that happen unexpectedly. Saying “excuse me” used to be (still is?) an appropriate way to let someone know you’re leaving the room for a minute. I wonder if the frustration wouldn’t bubble up into tears so often if we spoke up and said “excuse me” and took the break BEFORE the crying? I know there are definitely times when I can look back on something that made me cry and I might not have gotten there had I walked away sooner. So that’s my takeaway–I want to learn to say “excuse me” instead of “sorry!” 🙂

  2. Nancy Jane Smith says:

    TOTALLY agree with using discretion–and the idea of saying excuse me!!! I think in the case of your coworker it totally would have been appropriate for her to say excuse me and then re-visit the situation and she could then offer an apology for not walking away sooner. What I love about the idea of not apologizing is when we do apologize in the moment we then make it about the other person having to save us and make it better—which in reality is the LAST thing we (as the crier) want (more attention) so the “excuse me” idea or the keep going through the tears (if possible) idea is a good one.

    Thanks (as always) for commenting and engaging…this blog post was near and dear to my heart so I appreciate the taking it to the next level 🙂

  3. I actually had an occasion to cry in public not too soon after this comment… I’m sure I’ll tell you all about it. But, when I realized “ok this is happening, I am going to cry in front of this stranger” I remembered in that moment to say “excuse me” instead of “sorry.” I wasn’t excusing myself from the room in this case, I was simply saying “excuse me” along the same lines as, well, a burp or a hiccup or something else I couldn’t help! It actually really did help me feel more like I “owned” my crying moment. Rather than feeling ashamed–though embarrassed–the crying itself didn’t feel like one of those self-perpetuating tidal waves! 🙂

  4. Nancy Jane Smith says:

    What an awesome story!! Glad to hear the excuse me worked and was better than apologizing 🙂 Very very cool. Thanks for sharing!!!