should I apologize to my boss for crying in front of her?

A reader writes:

I cried in front of my boss during our one-on-one weekly meeting yesterday. I got some feedback on what I need to do to improve and was told I’m not where she wants me yet after two weeks of fairly neutral feedback but a growing sense that I was stressing her out.

I haven’t had this type of feedback very often in my past, since I’m usually good at my job, but it has happened. I’ve never cried before though. I’ve just gotten quiet, nodded, taken notes and thought about it on my own later. I asked follow-up questions at another time if need be.

But yesterday, I just started crying and couldn’t stop. I think it was almost relief just to know what they want of me, combined with a bit of surprise and fear. I know I should have excused myself or bit my lip. I feel like she was kind, but it is still an awkward position to put someone in and I don’t want it to reflect badly on me in the future (if at all possible).

Considering I don’t have a time machine, should I apologize to my boss or would she probably be just as happy to pretend the tears never happened?

I’d send her a quick email saying, “Despite my reaction yesterday, I want you to know that I really appreciate your giving me that feedback, and it’s incredibly helpful to me to know where I should be focusing on improving. I’m a bit mortified that I got emotional about it, and hope that you’ll excuse it (and ideally wipe it from your mind forever!).”

The danger with crying during feedback conversations, of course, is that it can make your manager think that you have trouble hearing and accepting critical feedback. It can make her more hesitant to give you feedback in the future, and it can make her worry that you’re too thin-skinned to talk about where you could be doing better (which is a pretty normal part of work life and one that you have to be able to do, painful or not).

So by assuring her that you do in fact really appreciate the feedback, you’re addressing much of that. And by giving her a concise “ack, that was embarrassing and I’m sorry about that,” you’re signaling that it’s not a typical reaction for you, or a reaction that you don’t realize might have made her uncomfortable.

Don’t dwell on it, though. Quick email, and be done with it.

(And I say this as someone who has seriously considered getting tear duct surgery, if such a thing exists, because my eyes well up far too easily — life insurance commercials, weddings of fake people in movies, and all sorts of other things will set me off. It is quite ridiculous.)

{ 112 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley*

    I feel for you. I am a big cry-baby. Luckily, I work from home so I can cry in private without involving anyone else.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Me too, especially lately. I was so upset over something recently I was really thankful for a snow day, and while others went in, I stayed home and worked from there. I cried so much I broke a capillary in my eye and it’s all red. No one at work noticed today, though.

  2. Holly*

    Be aware that, depending on the manager, even a quick email might not fix any potential perceptions she has from you crying – unfortunately. I had one boss where I cried because I was under a lot of stress and she told me they didn’t have the funds to extend my contract, and she let it go after I addressed it quickly.

    I have another (my current manager) who I started tearing up after lots of frustrations on a project – we’re talking revisions after revisions, getting tons of negative feedback from up high while my coworker was getting praised, and I was doing his project because he slacked off on it. I apologized to my manager that night, and she didn’t reply; later, she started acting cold and snippy when I talked to her about normal work projects, and that lasted for months. It just depends – fair, certainly not, we’re all human – but it happens.

  3. AnotherAlison*

    Did the OP not apologize in-person during the crying event? That would have been the logical choice for me, acknowledging that you recognize your emotional reaction is misaligned with what was happening. : )

    I had a crying incident when discussing some coworker problems with my boss’s boss (a man). For me, it was due to frustration with the situation, but mostly due to external stress (a particularly bad time with extended family issues from 2010-2012, which boss’s boss also knew about). I was mortified and kept apologizing while we were meeting. Boss’s boss didn’t hold it against me at all and told me I was the 3rd person to cry in his office that day, lol. Seems that anyone who is woman or knows a woman should understand that sometimes these things just happen in ways that are beyond our control & don’t have a direct correlation with the situation at hand.

    1. Nicole*

      For me, apologizing while crying never really seems like a real/sufficient apology. It feels like a part of the emotional response or a defense mechanism or something of the sort. Alison’s strategy is a good way of showing that you are clearheaded and you acknowledge you’re aware of the crying being an inappropriate response. That message isn’t sent very well when there are still tears in your eyes.

      1. COT*

        I’ve had some embarrassing crying in front of various managers. my current boss totally gets it and doesn’t hold it against me, I think because I show that I can still carry on the conversation and take any feedback to heart. With my prior boss, I was mortified to cry during a performance review. So I just said, “Sorry, I really do appreciate your feedback and think it’s correct… I just have an embarrassing crying response sometimes.” They seemed to understand. (Fortunately, I work in social services where people are pretty understanding!)

        Yes, it’s fine to follow up with a short email to reiterate that you do appreciate feedback. And even better, show that you’re doing your best to act on that feedback and improve. And don’t act awkwardly around your boss–if you continue the relationship like the crying never happened, that helps them feel that givign feedback won’t ruin your relationship.

  4. Lanya*

    I feel for you too. I am a “stress crier” – it’s my natural reaction when too much anxiety builds up. It can be embarrassing, but I’ve found it’s not a huge deal when I offer a quick explanation, e.g., “Sorry, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, but sometimes this is how I react to stress.” And then move on as if it didn’t happen. Calling extra attention to it after the fact can be awkward.

    1. aname*

      I do this. I carry a tube of chewable sweets with me all the time and on more than one occasion have stopped and said “and this is why I carry these…” before having one. Helps control it and if it doesn’t control it at least allows the person you are speaking to realise that the reaction isn’t anger/upset but is a body related matter.

      Funnily enough I barely cry at movies even when hubby is melting at them. However put me in a position where I have to defend myself / explain something personal and I’m awful!

      1. Vicki*

        Oh me too!
        I never tried the chewable sweets idea. First I’ve heard of it.

        Does it actually help or do they think it’s some sort of medication?

        1. aname*

          It helps in both ways – most of them are aware of the fact I have allergies etc and stuff but no one really follows up if I do this – they just look far less uncomfortable about whatever happens. :)

          Its the chewing – somehow it helps me blink the tears back and control my voice for the few vital second before it turns into obvious tears. I guess its like the clearing through thing.

  5. Christine*

    Ohhhh boy can I relate to this one. I tend to cry very easily, and have cried during feedback sessions. It’s so strange…I always look for feedback; but whenever it is meant to be constructive, my brain goes on overdrive. I have some ideas as to why, but I don’t want to take up space psychoanalyzing myself. lol.

    Aside from the advice already given, any suggestions as to what the OP–and anyone else with similar sensitivity–can do to stop from crying during these meetings? Sure I can easily tell myself ahead of time, “I can handle it”, but in the moment, the emotions take over.

    1. COT*

      I’ve had some counseling lately for unrelated issues and as a bonus I’ve learned to tame my crying sometimes. I still cry, but less often, and I’m able to get it under control sooner. Counseling has helped me soothe my mild anxiety by helping me stay more clear-headed during stress… and it seems to help! Keep working at that mindfulness, positive thinking, and not letting your negative thoughts spiral under stress. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to not cry that we get really upset when it does happen, only making it harder to recover. I’ll probably always be a bit of a crier, but it’s definitely better.

    2. Meg Murry*

      I am also an emotional crier, and also have watery eyes often do to allergies. A few things help me, although I still do/have cried at work: 1) If you are stressed about other things – let yourself cry about them at home in private, so work stress doesn’t become the thing that pushes you over the crying edge. For me, I need a good cry every so often to release built up tension – if I can do it at home on my own terms, so much the better. Sometimes I’ll even watch a sappy movie when I’m in the middle of a stressful period so I can get the crying out of my system – Nicolas Sparks movies are usually good for this :-). 2) If its a formal feedback/review cycle, can you ask your boss to give you the written review the day before or an hour before so you have time to read it over so the meeting can be more about how to build on the feedback, rather than just him/her reading it to you? 3) Always carry tissues and a water bottle. Always. I am not only an easy crier, I am an ugly, nose-running hiccuping crier – and the only thing worse than crying at work is crying with a running nose and no tissues.
      And to the OP – in addition to the email Alison suggested, you might also want to ask a question or clarification regarding the feedback you received or just re-iterate the feedback so you both agree you are on the same page. That way, the apology comes as just part of the message not the whole message. For example: “sorry about earlier … [Alison’s suggestions]. As we discussed, you want me to communicate with you more frequently. Would you prefer me to email you these updates, or would you rather I call or stop in your office?” etc.
      Good luck OP, from one stress crier to another

      1. Jules*

        My best friend and I watch sappy movies too! Sometimes things in our lives are getting hard but we can’t really cry so we rent or buy a movie guaranteed to make us cry and just get it off our chest! That way, we get all the things we need to cry about out at home in a safe environment.

  6. the gold digger*

    Remember that old phone commercial where the soldier returns home and surprises his mom?

    And the Kodak one where the bride is dancing with her dad and he remembers her as a little girl?

    I just keep a handkerchief by the TV.

        1. Megan*

          Me too – that’s what I thought of first. Those are so hard to watch! Sad puppy eyes nooooooooooooo!

      1. Jamie*

        The old coffee commercial – where the kid comes home from college and wakes his little sister up to the smell of brewing coffee. It wasn’t even particularly sad – but got me every time.

        And yes, thank goodness the old AT&T long distance commercials have been replaced by the absolutely not cry worthy Vonage ads.

        My favorite recent one was the Ford commercial where they waxed rhapsodic about American manufacturing. I would stop what I was doing to watch that commercial and knowing full well I was being sucked into a great marketing scheme – but it worked. It made me proud to work in manufacturing and it made me proud to drive a Ford.

        I am way to easily manipulated.

        1. Job seeker*

          This gets to you because you are sweet and have a good heart. I would rather be tender-hearted than hard-hearted any day. We can all relate to family, love and pride in our country.

          1. Jamie*

            You are so sweet. And I agree – as much as my life would be a lot easier if I could switch all emotion off while at work I just can’t – and it’s probably a good thing it’s not an option.

        2. Anonymous*

          +1 You are my exact crying-twin.

          Have you seen the Liberty Mutual ads where it’s a chain of people doing nice things for people they don’t know. You’ll like it, I bet ;-)

          1. Jamie*

            I do love that one! And speaking of crying at home – I think there is nothing more cathartic than a good cry and if it’s over something unrelated to real life the more the better. My husband totally doesn’t get how I can be completely happy and enjoying a book or show immensely while weeping copiously.

            It really does release something in my brain because after a good non-stress related cry I am in a very good mood for a long while.

            Speaking of stress related crying – and I absolutely am a stress cryer – if I am stressed and manage not to cry I can count on a migraine. It will get you one way or the other.

            I absolutely understand why crying has the bad rap it does at work. Many people are uncomfortable with it and it can hurt us because a lot of people who don’t understand it associate it with mental fragility. Me? If someone is crying at work I feel bad and assume they are having a bad day – but it doesn’t make me question their competence because I understand it.

            From a logical standpoint I will never understand why it is worse for a workplace if my eyes well up with tears and I need a minute because I’m angry or frustrated than for others to yell or berate or name call for the same anger/frustration. That’s more acceptable and I will live by that rule because it’s how it is – but I totally do not understand it. If I need a moment in the bathroom and perhaps my eyes are red later in the day that doesn’t actively hurt another human being. If I verbally attack another person and humiliate them in front of their co-workers that does hurt other people (both the recipient and the bystanders.)

            I play by societies rules – but I just don’t understand this one.

            1. Megan*

              Jamie, I totally agree with you on the crying vs. yelling thing. The only thing I can think of is that some people view crying as emotionally manipulative. I tend to think a) you can often tell when people are crying out of genuine emotion, and b) if you learn how to deal with crying people it’s not a big deal.
              It’s also still waaaay less bad than yelling and screaming in the office, so while I can sort of understand not liking crying b/c of the feeling you’re being manipulated, I really don’t understand how that comes across as LESS acceptable than yelling.

        3. Jazzy Red*

          I would buy a Ford because they did NOT take the government’s “bail ’em out from their own darn screw-up’s” money when everyone else did. Plus, I like the Taurus.

          I used to pride myself on being so strong all the time, and never crying. Then I hit menopause, and now everything makes me cry.

          1. Jazzy Red*

            One of my co-workers has red eyes today because her beloved dog died yesterday. I tear up every time I think about that.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I can’t even think of the Alan Jackson song “Remember When” without tearing up. From the first time I heard it, it had this affect on me.

      Then, 7 years later, they played it at my uncle’s funeral, so it’s forever an emotional song for me.

      1. FreeThinkerTX*

        The Holly Dunn song, “Daddy’s Hands” gets me every time. And my dad is alive and healthy as a horse. And I didn’t even know he was my dad until I was 13, so I don’t have any “Daddy’s Little Girl” memories to associate with the song. But, still, I turn into a blubbering idiot whenever I hear it. :-)

      2. Job seeker*

        Songs can bring back so much emotion. I understand what you are saying here. The song ” I Won’t Remember Ever Loving You” is that way for me. I always go back to one person with this one.

  7. Jamie*

    When Leslie and Ben got married on Parks and Rec I couldn’t stop crying.

    Sitcom characters will do it to me – sigh – if that tear duct surgery is a real thing I am signing up!

    “I love you and I like you.” Seriously – best wedding vows ever.

    1. John Quincy Adding Machine*

      Yep. I cried at Ben’s proposal, too, and at Liz Lemon getting married in her Princess Leia dress. And then again when she got her mini Tracy and Jenna kids. Beloved TV characters getting their happy endings = instant tears.

  8. Anonymous*

    I find women crying in the workplace when they did not slam the door on their finger to be manifestly manipulative. I am biased, for sure, as whenever a former colleague went into the (male) boss’ office and turned on the waterworks, I ended up with more of her work.

      1. aname*

        I’m with the Gold Digger here – You have to realise *we* don’t want to be crying either! And quite probably it doesn’t reflect our real feelings on the situation either.

        Now, I’m not saying that people don’t use ‘female tears’ to manipulate their bosses but its not always the case.

      2. Chinook*

        I echo gold digger. I am a stress cried too and it always seems to happen when I least want to be seen as manipulative. As I told my husband once, I can’t stop the tears under stress anymore than a teenage boy can stop “coming to attention” when a woman with large breaststroke leans over. And, like that teen boy, I am mortified but there is no way I can hide it those tears discreetly behind a binder.

    1. cf*

      For what it’s worth, I cut off the tip of my finger with a mandolin last week and I didn’t cry. It’s shame that makes me cry.

    2. Jazzy Red*

      When talking to the big boss at work about I problem I was having getting work handed off to me in a timely fashion, I burst into tears. It was a couple of weeks after my brother’s death. Yeah, I scared him good, even though I explained.

  9. Josh S*

    And one thing to note — email is the way to go for a couple reasons.

    First, it’s impersonal, so there’s no chance of anything triggering another emotional response. And even if something did make you cry again, you’re sitting at your desk crying at a computer screen, not in the presence of your boss.

    Second, it lets the boss deal with it on her terms. She doesn’t have to worry that “Oh no, here comes another crying spell” when you’re trying to give the exact opposite impression. PLUS the boss has a written reminder that it’s OK for her to give you negative feedback.

    (This is not so much for the OP, but in general when people are hitting that emotional response thing.)

  10. Joey*

    I read somewhere that clearing you’re throat stops you from crying. Anyone ever try that?

    When someone cries because of critical feedback I’m going to watch really closely the next time for signs of being thin skinned. And it would make me more hesitant to promote you for a while.

    1. P.*

      Clearing your throat only stops it so long as you are clearing your throat. The best advice I ever received was to start doing simple arthimetic in your head (10+10=20, 5+7=12, etc) because it engages a different part of your brain and prevents the emotional response. Not sure if it’s hooey or not, but it works for me!

      I disagree that because someone cries it means they are necessarily thin-skinned or unable to perform well enough for a promotion; it is simply how some people express any emotion, be it stress, disappointment, anger, etc. Obviously, the ideal would be that an employee reacts stoically, but unless you’re hiring robots, occasionally you’ll get a gamut of (hopefully fairly mild) emotional responses, including some welling up of the eyes.

      1. Joey*

        Sure, and some people yell, get pissed and get totally defensive. The point is its a pretty reasonable professional expectation to control your emotions when getting critical feedback. If you cry I’m going to worry that you might lose it with clients, customers, etc. when someone snaps at you. So if you do it once I’m going to be watching you really closely for more signs of that. And I need to be really confident that it won’t be a problem going forward.

        1. Jennifer*

          Just my opinion, but I think a more accurate opinion of how “thin-skinned” one is, or how well they handle criticism is to see, well, how they handle it. Tearing up in the moment and going right back to work as normal doesn’t really indicate a problem in my eyes. Someone could be completely stoic during the review and then mess up their work for the rest of the day, lash out at coworkers, etc due to being internally upset.

          Your example of needing to deal with clients or customers is not lost on me however. That makes sense. For others whose jobs do not involve a lot of direct interaction however, I feel that using crying as an indicator may be a bit misleading.

          1. Joey*

            In every professional environment I’ve been in crying is viewed as unprofessional and a sign that you, at least in that moment, are emotionally overwhelmed. In terms of dealing with everyday issues like getting feedback I think most managers view that as an overreaction. Of course there are exceptions, but those tend to be exceptional situations like really bad personal news. So I think its perfectly reasonable for a manager to see that overreaction as a red flag. That’s not a conclusion by any means, but its certainly a sign that could indicate a tendency to overreact.

            1. Jennifer*

              Valid points. What I suppose I am trying to say is that it can certainly be viewed as unprofessional, but the validity of that viewpoint may be suspect. Of course that is assuming it does not directly affect one’s ability to do his or her job in any way.

              I think it is a debate like pantyhose, or skirt suits vs pantsuits, or what is mean vs what is direct. There are a lot of opinions on what is “professional”, but these opinions are subject to cultural mores and norms and can be highly subjective. There is also a strong link to femininity being seen as weakness still in a professional environment I believe, whether it is conscious on the part of the person making the assumption about crying or not.

              1. Joey*

                It’s problematic regardless because if it continues there will always be doubt. And it’s not about gender its about displaying a disproportionate response. Of course its subjective an of course there are managers out there who have a different opinion. But I think its fair to say the majority of managers view it the way I’m describing.

                1. Jennifer*

                  My argument is that it may be viewed as a disproportionate response because it is not a response a man would have, whereas it is a response many women have (or have to fight very hard to hide and overcome because we are told not to have it). I suppose I am being more theoretical (whether or not it *should* be always seen as an indicator of being lacking professionally) and you more pragmatic (whether not it *is* seen that way).

                  I think we will have to respectful agree to disagree, though I would like to say I do think you have made very valid points.

                2. Anonymous*

                  Please tell me that you try to treat mispaced anger and shouting in the same way?

                  I quite often see anger in these situations as well but that is usually just downplayed and forgotten/forgiven when crying is not.

                  Both can – possibly – be a completely involuntary response that the person cannot control and only one of them regularly seems to be perceived as a weakness in my experience.

                3. Joey*

                  I treat men that give disporportionate negative responses the same way I do for women. Sure a mans specific behavior can be different but that’s not the point. If I see it as a negative overreaction its always going to be a problem regardless of the specific behavior.

                4. AMG*

                  This is precisely why nobody wants to be caught crying. It’s not good for your reputation, regardless of how well you do your job all the rest of the time. At least Joey treats men with emotional/angry reactions with the same disdain.

        2. P.*

          I don’t think eyes welling up and yelling are comparable; the former is often an involuntary response. The analogy I was thinking of was to someone whose jaw ticks defensively for a split second – they can either blow up or they can take a breath and move forward professionally.

          Sobbing uncontrollably (which I realize the OP did, but I wasn’t necessarily speaking only about that extreme) would be more on par with what you’re saying. But there are a few studies that show that tears forming in the eyes can be a truly uncontrollable and biological – so the judgment/wariness should stem more from how well one can control it beyond that point.

          But I do see your point about client-facing roles.

          1. fposte*

            Crying is not a conscious response, but there are certainly things you can do to limit crying in the moment (as have been discussed here) and to train yourself away from it overall. I’m not saying that it’s requisite to do so, but it’s certainly possible–just because it’s involuntary doesn’t mean it’s uninfluenceable (after all, different cultures have very different crying patterns based on what they encourage and discourage).

            Culturally, we’re at kind of a weird place about crying. On the one hand, I think there’s a move to say it happens sometimes at work, it’s involuntary, it’s nothing to worry about; at the same time, it comes up a lot of times in narratives, especially workplace narratives, as a trump card to prove how awful the other person was being. That’s a tough contradiction to resolve, so it’s not surprising that people still have concerns about it as a behavior.

            1. P.*

              Those are good points and definitely recognize the cultural puzzle that crying causes right now. However, I think it’s still possible to take crying on a case-by-case basis. Managers should be able to tell the difference between a hard-working, smart, productive employee whose eyes well up once or twice in their presence and someone who is prone to emotional instability or manipulation.

      2. Josh S*

        I go for powers of 2 (1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256…) or Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144…) to get my mind off things. But sure, simple math works too.

        1. Jamie*

          You may be the only person besides myself who I’ve seen work the Fibonacci sequence into conversation.

          I knew I was right to like you.

          1. Josh S*

            It had been a while since I worked through Fibonacci (my default is to see how high I can accurately carry powers of 2…it gets hard once you have to keep >8 digits in mind), but I did just the other day. I was shocked (and had to go back and check my math again) when I realized that there is a perfect square in the sequence (something I hadn’t thought possible, intuitively).

            Then I proceeded to go as high as I could looking for other perfect squares. AFAIK, 144 is the only one, though I haven’t looked it up or worked through a (dis)proof of it yet.
            [/math nerd out]

    2. Oxford Comma*

      You’re assuming the person is crying because of what you said/did. It could be because the person is dealing with the death of a loved one, the severe illness of a loved one, severe stress, depression, delayed shock. There are all kinds of reasons. People work to live. They don’t live to work.

      I worked for a manager who was giving constructive criticism to an employee who promptly burst into tears. I was working in the next cubicle. The manager was annoyed. We found out from the employee a little while later that she had just been diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer. The manager learned about that and was still annoyed because, and I quote, “She needs to be able to keep her private life at home.”

      And clearing your throat does not work. Been there. Tried that.

    3. Josh S*

      This is true in the same way as the axiom that “you cannot throw up if you’re running full speed.” Which is true.

      The trouble is, your stomach is retching which impedes your ability to inhale by virtue of wreaking havoc on your diaphragm. If you can’t breathe, you can’t run very far for very long. And as soon as you slow down even a bit, here comes the upchuck. (sorry for the imagery…I was a track guy in high school with a sadist for a coach)

      So yeah, if you keep clearing your throat, you won’t cry. But you also won’t be clearing your throat for very long since it interferes with your ability to, you know, breathe.

      But it might just get you a second or two to get out of the room if that’s appropriate and possible.

      1. Scott M*

        You can ask to get a glass of water.. which lets you leave the room. You can also try to lower your voice in tone , which helps cover up any cracking in your voice.

    4. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Anything touchy-feely gets me and I sometimes cry if I’m mad enough. I heard the advice to swallow hard & look up once. I’ve used that successfully to at least sound like I’m not going to cry.

  11. KC*

    Yeah…I used to be a stress-crier myself. I got to a point at my last job where I was on the verge all the time. Enter Prozac. I wish I was kidding, but it’s the only thing that made me able to take the edge off of my anxiety enough to focus and deal with the pressure. That spell also pushed me into therapy, which was the best money I ever spent. I deal with criticism WAY better than I used to, and I don’t burst into tears at the office anymore.

  12. Heather*

    You’re are human. Let it go and keep moving forward.

    I was so upset when my boss left, I cried for a week in and out of the office. I was embarrassed but like I said to myself then, and like I say now, “Keep calm & carry on.”

  13. BG*

    An aggressive and bullying co-worker once used the fact that I cried upon hearing of the death of my father via phone against me, reporting the fact to my superiors and clients.

    1. Anonymous*

      So how did that work? “She burst into tears. On the phone. AT WORK. Because her father died. Imagine!”

      That couldn’t have gone very far on the ‘make you look bad’ scale. In fact, I believe Instant Karma would kick in at that point to hit her in the head.

      1. P.*

        Seriously, I can’t think of any response a reasonable, non-psychopathic superior or client would have other than, “Oh, how awful! Send her my sympathies” followed by confusion/anger once they realized the co-worker’s actual motives.

    2. Anonymous*

      I would have in turn reported him for commenting on a personal matter he has absolutely no standing in and also telling people who had no reason to know – your customers – unnecessary information.

      Perhaps I would also mention that I could quite easily tell his clients that he tends to turn the air blue after he puts the phone down to them since it is apparently appropriate to share this sort of stuff … (I suspect he just might and certainly one of my ex-coworker bullys used to!)

    3. Jamie*

      I cannot imagine any human being with a functioning heart would have felt anything but sympathy for you as he was reporting you.

      I’m so sorry – talk about making a bad situation worse. Who does that?

  14. Rachel*

    Oh yeah, I can sympathize with the OP. My former boss was very aggressive and bullying and she gave me really negative feedback out of nowhere, and I was OK at first, but then she went in for a hug (weird right??) and I stepped back from her and burst into tears. I apologized for getting emotional and she said, “oh it’s OK, at least you’re not a guy, that would be weird.”

    Needless to say, I am so glad I am not there anymore.

    I agree with others, you’re human, it happens. Send the email and let it go.

  15. Emily*

    I think a quick note is the way to go, in this case, but it should emphasize the content of the meeting rather than the crying. It’s not so much that the OP’s behavior warrants an apology (in the traditional, “I was wrong” sense), but that she wants to reassure her manager that she left the meeting understanding the feedback, and not with hurt feelings. The only better way is to put the corrections in practice immediately.

    I think I’ve cried (at least welled up, at most needed a tissue to soak up a few rolling tears) at every performance review I’ve had in at least the last five years, even when they have been exceedingly positive, even when there are no surprises whatsoever. It’s embarrassing and I wish I wish I could control it, or at least explain or rationalize it beyond, “this is a physical reflex to this event.” It’s not that I cry “because I care so much” or “because I feel comfortable enough to appear emotionally vulnerable”—I’m not sure it’s as complex as that! It’s literally like my tear ducts are operating independently from my body and brain, and I’m just at their mercy.

    When I cry in front of the manager I’ve worked with for almost six years, I usually say something like, “Of course, I’m a little misty. Forgive me, this is just what happens, as you may recall, but I’m prepared [with a tissue] and I’m still with you (i.e. engaged in the conversation).” I also always have a pen and paper with me for jotting ideas or questions a) to show outwardly that I’m engaged, b) to keep myself engaged and “check myself” as much as possible, and c) so that I don’t forget anything if I do get distracted by my tears or my embarrassment.

    1. aname*

      “It’s literally like my tear ducts are operating independently from my body and brain, and I’m just at their mercy.”

      +1 to this and the whole comment!

      I do wish I had a switch for my tear ducts – they do operate completely separate and surprise me at the worst times!

  16. Joanne*

    I cry at work ALL THE TIME. I can control it to some extent, but it’s still noticeable (I’m, as my dad used to say, “lily white” so any change in emotion results in drastic pigmentation changes) and gives me a sore throat for what feels like hours afterwords. I’m a therapist, though, so it seems to be kind of expected. You can only wall yourself off from so much before the dams break, and a good cry helps me be more objective later. I had one boss who did not take kindly to this, but she did not take kindly to anything (she also said that my one sentence email responses were “curt” and could I please be more polite when conversing with her?). My other bosses understood that in order to NOT break down in front of clients, we need to be able to safely break down somewhere else later. I dunno, I guess it all depends on the field you work in.

  17. Sandrine*

    I’ve cried about three times at work.

    It was always when I was explaining or about to explain why I felt something was wrong (build up of stress) except the last time.

    That was actually yesterday.

    I was on the morning shift. Stress built up so bad I got put on anti-depressants. Then the doc said to stop because it wasn’t helping.

    Stress > Medical Leave > Zero Promotion > Stress (and so on)

    I asked my boss’s boss for a meeting. There was one thing we could do: put me on the evening shift, so switching bosses and teams.

    I understand it’s for my health.

    But yesterday, when I came back from the meeting with boss’ Boss, I cried for three solid minutes at my desk. Today my boss gave me my new boss’ name, and my new schedule. He added “We’ll miss you :( “.

    I almost wept again :(

  18. Blue Dog*

    I wouldn’t do a face-to-face meeting with your boss for fear that you might actually cry again. I think the shortest email possible that is a little light and breezy would be best: “Sorry I teared up on you. I was just having a really bad day and I thought I had it under control, but this just put me over the edge. I appreciate the feedback though and sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I will try not to do it again, unless you show me a Kodak commercial, in which case all bets are off.”

  19. Scott M*

    I think I’m the only guy here who has gotten choked up in a meeting. It was during a performance review where I was blind-sided with negative feedback. It was actually the second performance review I had that year. The first was great, the second was a sort of retraction because of ‘additional feedback’ that meant “oh by the way, you didn’t meet expectations after all”. I was allowed to leave the room for a bit to “get a glass of water” which was nice. Still I was mortified.

    One of the tricks I used to help control myself was to lower my voice as much as possible (in tone, not volume). It helped keep my voice from cracking and helped prevent the embarrassment from spiraling out of control (your voice cracks , you get mortified, you feel worse, your voice cracks more, and suddenly you are outright crying).

    Still I could probably have sent an email to my boss apologizing for my reaction.

    1. CatB (Europe)*

      Nope, you’re not alone here. I cried, too, in my first job (substantialy more than just misty, anyway), when I made a blunder (a huge one, for that matter) and my boss’s boss took me in her office. These were shame and anger (towards myself) tears. Weirdly, it seemed that was what she expected since I got to keep my job and got only a mild reprimand.

  20. jesicka309*

    I cry all the time at work. I’ve cried in performance reviews, in meetings with HR, I’ve even welled up in a job interview!

    I don’t know what it is…. even if I don’t cry, my voice breaks and breaks and betrays me. I recently did a triathlon as a work event, and there was some stuff up with the timing bandsin the relay… no joke, I welled up and my voice cracked. I didn’t cry, but any time someone asked “how did you go” my vocie would crack as I tried to be positive and say “well, there was a stuff up…”

    In the interview, I was asked “how do you get along with your current team?” and after all the issues I’ve had recently with team bullying, my voice cracked and gave my distress away.

    It’s like, even if I manage to keep my tears and face under control, my throat closes over and my voice cracks under the pressure. My boyfriend saw what happened at the triathlon and said he was mortified for me. “You can’t get upset like that! How unprofessional!!”

    Anyone know how to control your voice? I’m getting better on the tears, but the act of holding them back is actually giving me migraines! Ugh. Let me know when you have that tear duct surgery Alison, I’ll be in line behind you.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That happens to me too, and I try to cough and blame it on allergies. Monday I was really upset and kept crying at my desk (the silent streams of tears and nose running like a fire hose). If anyone had seen me, I was going to just say my allergies were bothering me, which would have probably worked since I kept blowing my nose. Maybe I could have even worked up a sneeze.

    2. CatB (Europe)*

      Humans have developed a whole range of coping mechanisms to deal with stress (among other things). What I found useful was life coaching (not the I’m-broken-and-I-need-fixing type, the fitness-for-soul type). A good life coach can help you find and enact new coping mechanisms quite fast, when your regular ones become unfit for the new reality.

    3. Victoria Nonprofit*

      Ugh, anyone who has done serious fitness endurance training knows that all bets are off with your body in the midst of all that. That’s actually my favorite part about marathon training (actually, the only part I like!) – everyone gets SO comfortable being a person with a body. Stuffed up? Farmers’ hanky! Gotta pee? Side of he road, baby (ladies too!). Everyone is just a nasty mess at mile 18 – tears too! :)

  21. Craven22*

    Although I used to be adamant about never tearing up in the office, I have come to believe that the stigma held against women who cry during particularily stressful points in time is at bare minimum ignorant and archaic, and perhaps at worst misongny. Women have been conditioned socially and biologically to be more emotionally expressive, and 40 years of sharing offices with men is not going to change thousands of years of programming. Moreover, should it? From a strictly utilitarian view, if crying does not hinder your performance (and studies have shown that it can actually positively reinforce social ties), why is it a problem?

  22. Anony1234*

    I teared up once – eyes watering and not being able to speak but no physical tears – at work because my boss tore into me right in front of a customer. At the time I was relatively new to the job, and it was a job in which I had to learn everything on the job (it’s a very specific retail which you can go to school for but is not mandatory). He had told me to get something off the shelf for a customer, which I did, and then he proceeded to tell me I got the wrong item. That might sound fine, but he said it was the tone, which I cannot convey to you reading this. But the tone was condescending, and like I said, he said it right in front of customer (which I don’t believe any manager should do).

    Well, after he looked at the product again, he suddenly realized I did have the right product. Fortunately he proceeded to apologize to me, again in front of the customer, but I was already upset by that point. Once the transaction with the customer was over, I excused myself to use the restroom and gave my face a good washdown because my eyes and face were red despite not having a full crying fit.

  23. Not So NewReader*

    This has been an interesting read- I never thought much about crying at work. I am surprised by what people have to say.

    My thinking is that I would rather deal with a crying person than deal with a screamer. I start dealing with a screamer and I think to myself “Do I call the police now? Or do I wait a few more minutes? When is this going to turn violent?” (I should say I have seen a bit- I have seen bosses/coworkers throw things, kick things, raise their hands to strike etc. This doesn’t even cover the verbal stuff.)

    I equate crying to absorbing and understanding that something is wrong and something needs to be fixed. It can be an indication of remorse or recognition that one has failed in some manner. I think of screaming as total denial and the person has no clue that something needs to be fixed.

    If some one starts screaming at me that pretty much ends the conversation for me. “We can pick this up when you have your thoughts collected.” I will not be screamed at.

    It’s tougher when it is the boss who is screaming.

    I believe that if anyone is to the point where they need to scream at someone at work then they have waited too long to say there is a problem. The problem should have been addressed much earlier.
    Screaming is a loss of control- just my opinion, though.

    OP, I have had a few performance reviews leave me close to tears. Part of it was frustration. So I would ask “Going forward, how would you like me to handle that?”
    Some of it was pure lack of understanding: “So A does not equal B and we should NEVER do D?”
    I found that bluntly taking responsibility for a problem actually helped me. This worked in an odd way- “I did that. It was my mistake. I will fix it, if you would like.” I felt FREE to be human- to make mistakes and still keep my dignity as I tried to participate in a solution.

    Some performance reviews are pretty harsh. When you get to the 32nd thing you have done wrong, it is tough not to cry. Once I point blank requested that we not wait so long for a review. “Too many things went unchecked for too long, we need to get together more often.” (The place did not train- so everyone made their best guess. yikes.)

    I like action plans. I usually try to direct the conversation toward the “next steps”. This helps me to remain calm and helps to keep me focused. I can focus on the goal of establishing an action plan to prevent recurrences. (It tends to defuse other people’s rants,too.)

    Fighting the tears only make me cry harder. Sometimes one sentence expressing regret helps me to stop the tears. “Oh, gosh, I feel horrible that I missed that point.” I just put it out there in the open and the tears no longer have a hold on me.

    No one technique works all the time. I just have a pool of techniques that I chose from.
    We prepare our responses for job interviews but how much prep do we put into performance reviews?
    My last suggestion is to take one or two really bad points in conversation and in a calm moment construct your response. Autopsy each review- find one or two things that you feel you could have had a better response. Craft that response. Write it on paper if you have to. This can be a little tedious and it takes time but I have found that it is probably the number one thing that has helped me be a bit sharper at review time. True, you are Monday morning quarter backing- the review is over at this point. But it gives you a starting point to think and to practice having a clear head. You see how I kept my responses very short and very to the point. Short is best.

    Right now, OP, I would just reassure the boss that you understand A, B and C need to be corrected and you are most willing to work on it. Let the rest go.

  24. SCW*

    I have a real problem with crying at work–but only with my boss and only when we are talking about my behavior. It is like the stakes are high and I can’t stand it. I have read that pressing your tongue to the top of your mouth will help stave off tears, or pinching yourself, or thinking of something that makes you mad.

    For myself, I’ve found that certain types of feedback/ways of giving it really set me off–for instance “you are bad at x, because you don’t think that is important, if you were more respectful/a better person/personal comment” or “you need to work on (personal quality)” versus “in situation x, y might be the better approach in the future,” If my boss sticks to work, I have an easier time controlling my tears. Once they make it personal, I can’t help crying, even if the personal thing relates to work.

    I met with my new boss today, and I was so worried because I knew a situation I’m dealing with is not going well, and I need to adjust my take on it. But she kept it all about the situation and not about how I lack the skills or personality to deal with it–and I didn’t cry and feel so much better about it. It was hard with my last boss because she felt like her ability to make feedback personal was a strength, where as I could not take discussing how if I was just a different person I would be better at my job. While it is true I can change my personality if I try hard enough, I’d rather find out ways to actually approach the work at hand.

    1. FreeThinkerTX*

      This! At my last “corporate” job, I had a manager who made everything personal. She would send me emails over the weekend, when one or two of my metrics from the previous week were lacking, but would phrase it like this: “You told me this is your dream job, but you’re not acting like someone who is thrilled to be working for us. It’s like you don’t even care about being here.”

      She, thankfully, was replaced (but, alas, 2 years later) with someone who said, “You’re doing great in X, Y, and Z, but we need to figure out a way for you to maximize C & D.” Not one word about personal motivations or inner dialogues. Just the facts, ma’am. How refreshing!

  25. Anonymoose*

    Stress and even anger can make me cry, which pisses me off. I will feel furious yet stand there weeping like a child. I loathe crying in situations like this described in the OP – uncontrolled tears seem to amplify the power imbalance, and make me feel weak and irrational. I can tear up easily but have gotten so much better about it over the past couple of years. Therapy for CPTSD and the addition of an antidepressant have made so many appreciable changes and affected things I would have thought were totally unrelated. I see now that, emotionally, my cup was already filled to the brim and anything could make me spill over. Thankfully, I don’t have nearly the depth of emotional response I used to be held captive by.

    1. Jamie*

      I am not proud that I’ve cried in front of a boss – but I have a couple of times. Always out of anger – I don’t ever remember getting emotional regarding feedback, but everyone has different triggers.

      I will always remember the first time because while I was trying desperately not to, I felt the tears spill and he started soothing me about how situation X was not my fault, it was no reflection on me, I’m awesome and I shouldn’t blame myself…(the situation was that I was spoken to in a way that was unacceptable by someone at work – it was uncalled for.)

      I stopped him and adamantly told him I wasn’t crying because I felt bad about myself nor did I think what was said was true – I was crying because I was PISSED and while some people get loud and furious I don’t …this is the ultimate in angry for me.

      It helped that the situation was such that he knew I had every right to be angry and wouldn’t have blamed me if I’d quit on the spot.

      Now that was a long time ago – but as much as I wish it had never happened I was glad that I clarified why I was crying. And the thing is if you do value in certain employees (in this case me) their ability to deal with situations without flying off the handle and where you appreciate that you can trust them not to cause HR problems because you know they aren’t going to lose their temper and yell …. then either find someone who never gets frustrated and angry (good luck) or find someone who can handle frustration and anger in ways which are completely unnoticeable to other people. I would love to be the latter and I’m working on it (and am much better) but I’m sure there are others who have mastered it.

  26. Camellia*

    I’m coming in late to this discussion and don’t have time to read all the comments, but I just wanted to say that Alison’s suggested wording for the follow-up email is AWESOME!

  27. Lisa*

    I totally just cried during my one on one with my boss and had to look up other people’s experiences on line to make myself feel better. My boss wasnt even criticizing me, but Im so emotional about my position that she ended up giving me a pep talk. Im such an emotional, insecure person in her eyes, Im sure. To make matters worse, we were at her desk and the entire team heard my blubbering. Pathetic. I am sure some people think its a form of manipulation but I am just very emotional.

  28. RD*

    So I’m reading this almost over a year late, but it was right on time for my crying incident that happened on Christmas Eve. My manager actually decided to let me go early as it wasn’t too busy. I’m sooooo mortified but I’m hoping a quick email today will wrap things up nicely before next week …… Oh yeah, and I’m scheduled for a promotion of sorts in January. I’m being trained to cover for my manger when she goes on maternity leave in March. Yikes and double yikes !!!!!!!!

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