Q: I’m a 9th-grade math teacher and a pretty stoic, private person. I don’t show emotions easily. I have them, obviously, since I’m not a robot, but I try to be professional at all times. I never lose control at work and am considered to be calm and rational. I’m that way with my students, too. It’s hard to get me worked up. Which is why I’m mortified that I broke down and cried last week at work. Thank God it wasn’t with students or at a staff meeting or something, but it was in my principal’s office. Gah. He’s a nice man and handled it fine, but I can’t even look at him now.
I cried when he gave me feedback that other math teachers in my department feel like I give fewer tests and less homework than they do, and that I’ve caused problems for them with both students and parents. This was news to me, and it was hard to hear it for the first time from my supervisor’s boss. I felt ambushed even though he didn’t turn it into a federal offense. He was kind and said he just wanted me to be aware of the situation. I don’t know why I lost it, but I sat there the whole time with tears streaming down my face, saying “OK” repeatedly like an idiot until we were done with the meeting. I then thanked him and left. I know I’m probably overreacting, but I don’t want to go to work. Ever again. Now what? Should I say something to him? Should I pretend nothing happened? Should I look for a new job because I’m a ridiculous baby? Also, is there a way to make sure I never cry at work again?
A: I happened to open your email right after reading writer Amy Morin’s thoughts about the difference between acting tough and being mentally strong. Individuals who act tough mask insecurities, say “I can do everything,” suppress emotions, focus on their reputation, tolerate pain, and believe failure isn’t an option. In contrast, mentally tough people address their weaknesses, acknowledge their emotions, focus on character, learn from pain, and believe failure is part of success. In other words, I want to start by debunking the myth that crying is a sign that you’re weak or a baby.
So begin by showing yourself some self-compassion. Of course you felt upset when you heard that your coworkers were frustrated with you. As a stoic person, crying compounded your anxiety. By letting down your defenses, you made your pain clear. Crying is the ultimate clue that you’re hurting, so you understandably felt vulnerable, awkward and exposed. And this wasn’t in front of just anyone — this was your boss.
But as you said, you’re not a robot, and crying is a release, a signal that you need support. There’s no shame in that. Crying actually serves a biochemical purpose, too, according to WebMD. It releases stress hormones from the body. Fortunately, your principal picked up on the fact that you were overwhelmed, and he reacted sensitively. He clearly didn’t set out to hurt you. In fact, it sounds like he wanted to help you preserve your relationship with your colleagues, perhaps because he knew they weren’t being straight with you.
I know you’re mortified, but there’s a reason your principal knew how to handle your tears. Many others have cried in his presence before you — it comes with the job description. The principal’s office can be a highly charged space for both students and staff. On top of that, you didn’t know his agenda in advance and had to process unsettling feedback on the spot. I suppose you could have left the room or tried to distract yourself by reading something on the wall, but he still would have known you were upset. In the future, your best bet might be addressing it directly in the moment. You could say, “You know, I’m surprised by my own reaction. I’m usually pretty calm, but right now I’m feeling a little caught off guard.” Putting your reaction in context might give you a greater sense of control.
But there’s no point looking backward and no need to look for a new job. Instead, investigate the complaint itself. Meet with your department chair and make sure you’re on the same page. Clear the air and find a constructive way forward. Make it clear that you appreciate direct feedback going forward. Then consider circling back with your principal. I wouldn’t address the crying directly, but you might feel better if you have an “all-business” follow-up meeting. You could calmly share the steps you’ve taken to fix the problem and thank him for bringing it to your attention. And remember: Unless he’s a robot, he’s also experienced moments of frustration or sadness at work. Principals cry, too.
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