Sitting in my boss’s office staring at him from across the desk, I could feel the tears rising. No, this could not be happening. I will not let it happen! I fought with everything I had to hold back my tears. I felt the anger rise in my cheeks as the hot tears began to fill up my eyes. Despite my efforts, one tear escaped and slowly streamed down my cheek. This tear in one moment had exposed my internal battle; put it on display. It was all over…
This was almost two years ago now. I was about to give a two hour design review in front of 50 cross functional coworkers and managers. I’d been working 11 to 12 hour days for the last 4 months in preparing for this review. During this time I would wake up in the middle of the night and write down formulas or scribble down circuits. I would leave work still thinking about a problem and suddenly be home with no memory of driving myself. It was my favorite part of the project, but as you can imagine pretty intense. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. My mind never quite turned off.
For months I’d been preparing for this one presentation. One of my bosses called me into his office to review my slides two days before my presentation. He’s an intense guy-a double blackbelt. I hadn’t sat down with him since my interview over six months ago. His personality is very dominant and he clearly asserts himself as the alpha in the room. He has one of those voices that is always sort of rising. He started tearing apart my slides with a red pen. He drilled me with several questions, some which I didn’t know the answer. I started to panic…I thought I knew everything about this design. Why wasn’t I ready? I was about to justify my design to a room full of very important people. His voice rose louder and louder into almost a yell. That’s when I felt the tears rising up. It was a direct response to the volume of his voice. I did everything I could, but the tears fell almost immediately.
Once the tears started to fall. They. Just. Kept. Falling. I’m sure many people can relate to this sensation. The harder you try to stop the more stubborn the tears insist on falling. My face was composed but it was impossible to miss the stream of tears. I sat there mortified. My career is over, I thought. Any credibility I had built in the last six months-useless. I knew this boss in particular valued strong, assertive, dominant males. This girl crying across from him was anything but that. I felt so helpless and weak. I walked out face flushed and pissed off. I was so angry with myself. How did I let this happen?
I’m quite fortunate. This boss is a really smart guy. He can read people well and he also tries to adapt when his methods aren’t working. He pulled me aside later in the day and said you know I tear apart everyone’s design. I usually do it a week before and not two days before; I should have met with you sooner. Most of the guys get stressed and respond with anger and yelling. Your stress response was tears. I have no concerns. We’re good.
And you know what, he’s 100% right. After I left my boss’s office that day, I studied his notes with new determination and two days later gave a confident presentation. The point is, society teaches us tears should be embarrassing. Crying is something we should be ashamed of. Anyone who has fought so hard to not cry in public knows it is not generally something you are in control of. The more I read books like Lean In where Sheryl Sandberg openly discusses crying and the more I talk to other women I realize I am not the only one who has cried at work. She has this to say about the topic:
“Look, I’m not suggesting that the way to get to the corner office is to cry as much as possible. Nobody is going to publish the next Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and say that crying is one of them. But I am saying that it happens. It has happened to me. It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let’s accept ourselves. OK, I cried, life went on.” -Sheryl Sandberg
She’s right, it’s a perfectly natural and healthy response to stress. In reality, crying does not make you weak. Remember if it happens to you: compose yourself, hold your head high, and move on.