Almost 20 years ago, I was sitting at a restaurant having lunch with my boss, about to hear the results of my annual performance review.
This woman, who was the President at the ad agency where I worked, was a high achiever with very high standards — really inspiring, but also a bit intimidating. I had enormous respect for her, and I always looked forward to my performance reviews. For one thing, I felt like I was kicking ass — but for another, I just enjoyed that time with her.
So it was surprising to me when this review lunch didn’t go as expected.
While she gave me a glowing review, the raise she was offering me didn’t reflect that. I was upset, because I’d spent the past year working my butt off and giving my job my 100 percent.
And so — I burst into tears.
Right there in the restaurant, at the table with my boss.
As you can imagine, that didn’t help the situation. I was so horrified by the fact that I was crying that I didn’t manage to tell her why I was so upset. I couldn’t articulate that I felt my work was being undervalued — because I became so focused on the crying. I was so embarrassed. I just wanted the crying to be done.
My boss, understandably, left that meeting thinking I was going to resent her, and that she now had a disgruntled employee. I came away feeling like I was totally underappreciated. And both of us walked away feeling awful.
Needless to say, it didn’t help the relationship at all — in fact, it created a problem where there wasn’t one.
I’ve thought about that meeting off and on for years, and for a long time I simply thought, “Well, my crying made her uncomfortable. That was the problem.”
We’ve all been told that emotional displays have no place in the workplace — right?
As I’ve spent the past several years exploring femininity and feminine qualities for the book I co-authored with Catherine Connors, The Feminine Revolution, I’ve rethought what happened during that performance review. Sure — it would have been nice if I hadn’t cried. It probably would have made the whole thing go a bit more smoothly.
But that moment of emotion was also an opportunity to build a connection. I didn’t use it that way. In fact, instead, it turned into an interruption — and all because I was so concerned with the very fact that I was crying.
I’ve been told to “toughen up” my whole life, including during the early days of my career. And those messages got through to me — I did start to toughen up. I built emotional armor. I started being more direct and assertive. It seemed like the only option if I wanted to succeed, and avoid any more embarrassing situations like that unforgettable performance review.
But as I gained more experience, I started realizing that I was wearing that armor everywhere — not just to work.
And ironically, that armor may not have even been serving me fully in the workplace.
This made me wonder if this was something other women were dealing with, too.
So I started exploring the topic and speaking to other women to hear about their experiences.
It turns out that lots of us have felt this way: that we were taking on personas that were tougher than we actually were. Not only that, but those personas were taking over every aspect of our lives — not just our workdays.
And you know what else I found? That advice, “Toughen up,” isn’t good advice!
This is something Catherine and I discovered while writing The Feminine Revolution. We wanted to challenge that fundamental assumption that so many of us have accepted: That feminine qualities like sensitivity and emotionality are a liability in the workplace.
The truth is that these qualities are our superpowers.
Our emotionality, sensitivity, vulnerability and even our ability to cry openly can and do serve us in our careers.
But only if we can embrace them. Fully. We actually need to own our femininity and wear our feminine qualities proudly.
What if we use that moment of crying to create a connection with the person across the table? To show who we are, what we stand for, what we care about it. That we care. (If not, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation).
Think about it: We’ve all had the experience of trying not to cry when we all we want to do is cry. It’s awful! It creates so much pressure. First we beat ourselves up for even feeling upset, and then we spend half a day either wishing we’d responded differently, or feeling ashamed of how we reacted.
If we can just remove the stigma, that pressure evaporates.
I know in my own case that once I came to terms with the fact that I actually think crying is just fine — honestly, I’m a real advocate for crying — the less I cried.
If we allow ourselves to simply have our emotional experience, once it’s over we can just move on and get to the next thing.
What’s more, accepting our emotional expressions for what they are means we can allow them to bring us closer to the people we work with.
Instead of creating a wall, they can build a bridge — whether that’s between you and your co-worker, or you and your client.
That takes being able to lean in to your feminine gifts, even though we’ve been conditioned to believe they don’t have a place in our careers.
It means being able to say to ourselves, “You know what? The fact that I allowed my emotions to shine through in that conversation was ultimately the reason that client and I became closer. Maybe it wasn’t a shining moment at the time. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the reasons we have such a strong working relationship.”
Crying during a performance review, getting emotional during a client meeting — these experiences will never feel totally comfortable.