During some of my down time at work, I like to catch up with my HR peers online. Through sites like LinkedIn and other professional message boards, we network and connect about hot topics in HR.
Well, that’s what we SAY we are doing. Honestly? We’re largely socializing. We might affectionately refer to it as “notworking”. And that’s OK – when you’re in HR, it’s generally frowned upon to hang out at the water cooler and spill the tea about whether the VP of sales is perhaps a little too chummy with his admin assistant Ashley, or why Tom in Marketing REALLY got canned and why the FBI took his PC away without a word to anyone. Personnel issues are stressful, pals, especially when you’re generally sworn to secrecy. (And it doesn’t help that y’all literally follow me into the bathroom to ask me riveting questions like whether or not your dental insurance includes coverage for adult orthodontic work. Read the freaking room, people.)
Since we can’t vent openly to our coworkers, HR people talk to each other. It’s a much-needed emotional outlet. So in case you were wondering, yes, we DO talk about you behind your backs, but we change the names to protect the (obviously) very guilty.
One of the conversation questions that came up the other day:
Is it ever OK to cry at work?
After some discussion, ultimately, the answer was (as you’d expect from anyone working in HR) “it depends.” For example, if someone is having a personal crisis, we’re the ones helping them coordinate short-term disability, FMLA, and life insurance, and advising them to contact the EAP. So we see our fair share of tragedy, and tears in those instances make sense. Or if someone has finally worked up the courage to report harassment – that can be super stressful, and often the reaction is emotional release of the embarrassment, frustration, and (hopefully) relief that someone hears you and is going to help.
(Side note – yes, you should report harassment. No one wants to work somewhere that allows this behavior, and we can’t stop it if we don’t know about it. And if you DID report it, and the harassment keeps coming, report it again. There is NO WAY WE WILL KNOW it is still happening if you don’t tell us! Sometimes, I’ll hear “I reported this to HR and nothing was done” when the truth is that we DID address the behavior…and, hearing nothing further, assumed our remedy was effective and thought that was the end of it. I mean, it’s not like the person who’s harassing you is going to swing by my office and say, “…yup, I’m still a complete douchecanoe…..” SPEAK UP so we can help you. Thanks.)
In other cases, though, it was more of a debate. If someone is getting reprimanded by their manager, crying may or may not be an appropriate reaction. It’s understandable, sure – who likes to be told they’re doing a crappy job? Having an emotional response to criticism is pretty darn human – but it’s not going to change the trajectory of the conversation. Sure, if you’re completely inconsolable – or start spewing expletives – we may call a time-out until you’ve managed to compose yourself. But the message will still stand, even if you’re the human equivalent of Kilauea Volcano. So take a deep breath, put on that professional mask for a minute as best you can, and get the message so you can figure out what to do next so you can put this moment of unpleasantness behind you.
But…what about if you work in HR? Is crying ever OK?
As drivers of all the stuff above, are we allowed to have actual feelings about it?
One of the things I was coached on early in my career – when I was talking to my manager about a stressful workplace issue and the tears were threatening to spill – was “don’t get sad. GET MAD.” This is not terrible advice – many times, people cry when they’re frustrated or angry. And when I say “people”, that mostly seems to apply to women – thanks so much, gender-specific social conditioning.
So…why? Why have we trained women NOT to get angry? Isn’t being mad just part of being human? Anyone who was educated by Sesame Street in the 70s might remember learning about this:
Full disclosure: When I was a child, I had NO PROBLEM being angry. I had legendary anger grenades that I haphazardly chucked at my poor family, seemingly at random.
There was absolutely zero rhyme or reason to my rage. My brother, whose only offense was being a Morning Person, would cheerily greet me with “Good morning, sis!” to which I’d SCREAM at the TOP OF MY LUNGS “SHUUUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUUP!!!!!”
And my sister got the same – or worse – just for existing. (Well, it was probably for being too pretty, not having to struggle with her weight, and being too young to know any differently – serious injustices when you’re thirteen and “the smart one.”)
As my mother put it not long ago, “There’s probably medication nowadays for whatever was wrong with you.” Which, while painful (I mean…ouch) to hear, is likely true – we’ve come a long way with identifying and addressing mental health issues. (Admittedly, the journey isn’t over – we have a long way to go yet. But it’s markedly further along than it was in 1986.)
But what I’ve never been able to figure out is why I was so angry in the first place.
And, somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to effectively express myself. When, exactly? I’m not certain. But I do recall very clearly one morning getting ready for school, after yet another explosive bout of rage where I very rudely kicked my sister out of the bathroom. My mother, hearing the commotion, approached me at the bathroom vanity, looked me dead in the eyes and said, very coldly, “I don’t know how you can live with yourself.”
Well, funny you should put it that way.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that “hurt people hurt people.” And I think it’s quite obvious that I was hurting, and badly. The timing’s a little fuzzy, but I believe it was several months earlier when my mother found in my room a list I had made of ways I could potentially kill myself. (I don’t remember what all was on that list, except that I had decided dousing myself with gasoline and lighting myself on fire was probably too painful. Good Lord. I was twelve.) And it was maybe a year later when I was able to move from mostly-normal calorie counting and dieting to what would result in the lowest weight (until now) of my adult-height life.
Somewhere in between those two milestones, I stopped screaming so much. And as I got smaller and smaller, I was able to quit feeling much of anything at all, really. I took all that rage and directed it with laser-beam focus on my very own soul, and began to starve it to death. When you’re full of emotions, you have too much mental heartburn to even think about real food. Storing all those bottled-up feelings equipped me like a camel for a long journey through an emotional desert.
And since that time, one of the things I’ve noticed about myself is that I have some difficulty expressing feelings. Well, at least in an appropriate manner.
I did survive what I now recognize to be an emotionally abusive marriage, but much of my survival came through silent compliance and tiptoeing across time bombs and other eggshells. As long as I was quiet, I could keep going. (For thirteen years. Wow.)
Even now, I can’t fight with people I love very effectively; it takes some time and self-reflection to identify why I’m even upset in the first place. Initially, I find myself in an uncomfortable state of anxiety, completely unaware of why I feel that way or what is actually stressing me so badly. Eventually, I might manage to unpack some of what I’m actually feeling – and much of the time, it’s frustration, or disappointment. Or at least I think it is. But as I ultimately begin to attempt to talk it out, it dawns on me that maybe, just maybe, I might be…a little angry. And then I wind up apologizing for their wrongdoings when my only crime has been to be upset by what they’ve done.
I know these emotions are still in there, somewhere. Once in a while, a real feeling bubbles to the surface, and since I am at least partially human, I can’t always control it. As my kids got older, occasionally they’d call me out on becoming “inappropriately angry.” Larger-scale crises (cancelled flights, surprise appendicitis) would find me calm and rational, but smaller things (delayed elevators, a remote control not working) would turn me into this guy:
And yeah, there was that one time at work years ago where I was SO FRUSTRATED that I actually threw a stapler at my boss. Well, technically, at the wall behind my boss’s head. Talk about inappropriate expression of emotion at work. And no, I didn’t get fired. They were sort of desperate, or at the very least, used to chaos. I worked there just over three years and reported to 15 different people during that time. I was also on a first-name basis with the local parole officer, and I wrote a procedure to document “what to do when the sheriff shows up to arrest an employee” because it happened so frequently. And I broke up a fight where someone threw a cafeteria table. So shot-putting a stapler didn’t even blip their radar as a problem.
So I CAN feel some things, apparently. And while I think I’m getting better at this “handling emotions” thing (being in a relationship with another adult instead of a man-child helps), apparently I still have some work to do. Otherwise, why would I be right here with my weight? I had to buy new underwear this week because all of my old ones literally won’t stay up, and my formerly skintight workout tights are baggy in the butt and thighs. (I didn’t even know either of these things was even possible. LOL) Yet here I sit, barely able to eat what MyFitnessPal indicates is a sufficient intake to maintain my weight.
(I did get within 50 calories of that number TWICE this week. Progress?)
So what’s upsetting you NOW, Kate? Why are you starving?
Great question. I had hoped by writing this post, I’d figure it out, but I don’t think I’m any closer to this mysterious root cause that flares out in food issues every so often. Maybe the first step is just giving myself latitude to HAVE emotions, even if they’re not pretty ones.
I need to let my soul breathe. To allow myself to be human.
Maybe then, I will be granted permission to eat.