Have you ever started to cry at work and felt unable to control it? Did this cause you feelings of shame or embarrassment? Similarly, have you ever tried to comfort a co-worker who was crying? For many people, crying — whether themselves or someone else — can be an unwelcome emotional response while in the workplace.
Today’s guest, Alex Wills, MD, shares how to handle crying at work, basic tips for managing emotions, and why crying is so stigmatized but shouldn’t be. Listen now!
Alex Wills, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist. He is a graduate of the Sackler School of Medicine and completed his residency and fellowship training in Hawaii with additional training from Columbia University. He is the owner of Perma Mental Health, a private psychiatric practice with offices across Idaho. Alex’s clinical days are spent using the Radical Emotional Acceptance method to help patients heal from issues ranging from past traumas to interpersonal struggles in their marriages. Give a F*ck, Actually is based on that experience. Learn more at RadicalEmotionalAcceptance.com
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the show everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling in today we have Alex Wills, MD. Dr. Wills is a board-certified psychiatrist whose clinical days are spent using the radical emotional acceptance method to help his patients heal from issues ranging from past traumas to interpersonal struggles in their marriages. His book, “Give a F*ck, Actually: Reclaim Yourself with the 5 Steps of Radical Emotional Acceptance” is out now. Dr. Wills, welcome to the podcast.
Alex Wills, MD: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Gabe Howard: I am absolutely excited to have you too now, even with the massive push that we have seen to destigmatize mental health in the workplace, crying is still a big taboo. And while it seems to be equally looked down upon regardless of your gender, the reason seems to shift. For men, if you cry, it’s perceived as weakness. And for women, if you cry, it’s perceived as an inability to control emotions. Now, does crying at work actually indicate either of those things, or is this just an emotional reaction that’s just part of the human condition?
Alex Wills, MD: Well, I think crying is a manifestation of some, you know, underlying deep emotions, and the choice to cry in front of people or not can be individual, and there’s a lot of complications around that. I’m all about validating the underlying emotions, no matter how painful, scary, unpleasant they may be. But radical emotional acceptance talks about acting on the emotion or not acting, that’s really a decision that you can make with your wisdom of is it really going to cause me problems to cry in front of my boss or my coworker? Or is this a trusted person? So, I leave that up to the person to decide on their own.
Gabe Howard: I can’t really control it. I have a little bit of ability to control it, right. And I certainly have the ability to leave the room. What of that. It makes it sound a little bit like, hey, you can turn it off or on. Like, do I want to cry? Do I not want to cry? And I, when crying hits, I have tried desperately not to cry. And, you know, the snot forms up, the tears start rolling down. I’m not able to control. I don’t think that most people are able not to cry on cue for lack of a better phrasing.
Alex Wills, MD: Yeah. When it happens, it can be somewhat uncontrollable. It’s sort of an autonomic automatic response that happens, especially when you’re feeling some particularly intense emotions.
Gabe Howard: You know, the crying doesn’t even indicate sadness. It indicates just this strong emotion. Does crying indicate this inability to control emotions, or this weakness or any of the other things that we’ve put on it? Is this just the same as laughter? I mean, we’re certainly allowed to laugh in the workplace.
Alex Wills, MD: I guess the thing that we don’t have control over is how other people might interpret things. And we do have a lot of another powerful emotion, which is anxiety or fear come up, which is always making us aware of possible threats. One of those most common in society today is the awareness of the societal implications. There is an intelligence and wisdom in being aware of how things may be perceived. And that’s going to be based on your past experience, your knowledge of what other people think or feel, whether right or wrong about their own biases and whatnot. So, it is important to have that awareness and then taking all of that emotional data together and then still making the decision of what you want to do. If you decide that you want to make a positive change by allowing people to see emotion come through to stop the stigma against hiding emotions, that’s an awesome choice. However, you know your own situation the best, and my work with patients and clients is to help them to tap into their emotional intelligence, their emotional wisdom, and then they’re really the best judge of what to do after they have that.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wills, I know that you have a special method that you can use if you unexpectedly start crying in front of a boss or a client. Can you share that method with us?
Alex Wills, MD: Well, you always have the right to buy yourself more time. I like to give a magic trick a magical power to my clients or patients, which is the ability to create time. And you just have to simply say this magical spell, which is I need more time and you can excuse yourself, or you can decide what amount of time you need to take care of whatever comes up. So, you don’t have to feel, you know, put on the spot or you don’t have to feel out of control in some situations. Obviously there are there is a lot of intensity and it’s not easy to excuse yourself. And we don’t want to discount those shield emotions and that stoicism which can help us power through in the heat of the moment if we’re in competition, or perhaps we’re giving a speech or taking a test, we might want to turn into that robot side of ourselves and shut off those emotions temporarily to make it through a very difficult situation. However, when we get out of that, you know, hotspot moment, we can take a step back and we can decide, okay, what are those deep, intense emotions going on underneath? And do I want to allow those to be expressed now, or do I want to take some time to kind of fill into that and reflect on it more?
Gabe Howard: Obviously, it would be great if we could just have reasonable emotions in the workplace, and a reasonable emotion is to get teary. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to feel our feelings. And what’s even a little more fascinating is that vulnerability, sensitivity and authenticity are literally touted as management skills. Yet crying at work is still considered to be an office taboo. How do we wrap our minds around all of that?
Alex Wills, MD: That’s a great question. And I think it’s also a bit of a work in progress. It’s change doesn’t happen overnight. And as folks become more comfortable expressing emotions at different times and perhaps still choosing not to, during very serious moments, things will progress. Slowly, I think.
Gabe Howard: Does suppressing your emotions at work harm your performance? Is this a performance inhibitor?
Alex Wills, MD: In my book, I talk a lot about unleashing the power of our emotions and our emotional wisdom. A big mistake that we tend to make is that these uncomfortable, painful, scary emotions are a problem and we need to somehow suppress them, work through them, or. Otherwise try to fix them. However, if we can look at these so-called negative emotions with curiosity, they are making us aware of some stuff that we can’t have awareness of otherwise, I really think of them as a sixth sense. And so, as we tap into that emotional data, as we tap into our emotional wisdom, it can actually become motivation and transform into a passion to do what needs to be done.
Gabe Howard: Is there a reason we should embrace all of our emotions at work and not be embarrassed by a few tears?
Alex Wills, MD: Again, you know, emotions are there to help us, and especially the ones that we tend to want to get rid of, like sadness or fear or disgust, whatever it might be, it’s there for a reason, and it’s giving us insight into the status of a relationship or a situation. So, the sooner we can look at those emotions with curiosity and be curious how we could learn from them, how they’re trying to help us, the sooner we can tap into that power and use that valuable data that we can’t get from anywhere else. You know, radical acceptance itself is this term that’s come up with dialectical behavior therapy and also people who study Buddhism. What I noticed is that people tended to use this idea as a yet another way to suppress emotions, or to try to avoid any unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions. So, I took it a step further by directly applying radical acceptance to emotions themselves and realizing that if none of our emotions are a problem, if all of our emotions are somehow good for us, then there no longer is an issue. We don’t have to work through emotions. We don’t have to manage emotions. We don’t have to suppress or fix them. Instead, we can reintegrate them and realize that they are actually working for our good all of the time. And we can go back to a state of peace no matter what the emotional situation might be.
Gabe Howard: Keeping on the topic of this podcast, how is crying good for us? It always seems to come up when something bad is happening.
Alex Wills, MD: Crying is a manifestation of some deeper emotions. It might be sadness or it may be tears of joy. And I think that manifestation in itself is really beautiful. Traditionally, if there’s a lot of pressure in culture to suppress that and to not cry openly or in public, that’s, that’s sort of a secondary issue that we can, you know, learn to work through or not. However, I think the essential part is for each of us individually to get in touch with those deeper emotions some of us may be good at, you know, suppressing tears. However, inside what I think gets to the heart of the matter is do you have some sadness going on? Do you have some heartbreak going on? Do you have some extreme joy going on? And what is the intensity of that? And what is that telling you about your relationship or the situation at hand?
Gabe Howard: And how can you tap into that? I know that’s probably $1 million question, but it just seems like when I’m crying, the last thing that I’m thinking about is any sort of intervention on my own behalf. I’m literally and this is a phrase that I didn’t invent, but I’m reduced to tears. It really does conjure this idea that we’re not able to intervene on our own behalf at all.
Alex Wills, MD: I think of crying as this beautiful release, and it’s almost like the floodgates are, you know, literally floodgates are open of this waterfall of tears coming. And that taps us into that deep truth of the intensity of the sadness when we finally allow that, that crying to happen, we’re put in immediate touch with whatever might be going on. And, and we’re very close to that truth, the truth of how I really I miss this person or I’m very I’m very sad that this relationship didn’t work out or whatever might be going on. And, and that release sort of stops all suppression of the emotions that we were trying to maybe ignore or get around.
Gabe Howard: I think the logical follow up question is, is that something that should happen at work, though?
Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing crying in the workplace with Dr. Alex Wills.
Alex Wills, MD: Again, I think it comes back to an individual decision at that point. Like we talked about, you may or may not be able to suppress your tears. Some people are good at suppressing crying. And other people when it starts they’re not able to. And the only choice might be to excuse yourself from the room briefly and go to a private space. In some situations, it may be what is needed to show people what emotions are going on, and in other cases it may be interfering with the professional business of the day. So, I’d have to leave that up to each individual to decide on.
Gabe Howard: I am absolutely in the camp of. I wish that all emotions were allowed everywhere. I mean, obviously when appropriate, I. I don’t want to conjure up this idea that it’s okay to burst out laughing during a funeral, unless again, you know, it’s a funeral where that’s acceptable. I think people understand what I mean, but I’m still really stuck on this idea at how stigmatized crying is. It’s utterly fascinating to me that I in my career, my personal career, this is what Gabe Howard has witnessed. I have seen bosses scream and yell and belittle their employees. And
Alex Wills, MD: Mm.
Gabe Howard: There’s very little intervention. Well, they’re very passionate. You know how they are. I’d like to point out these are always male bosses. There’s
Alex Wills, MD: Right.
Gabe Howard: There’s a deeper conversation to be had there. But yet when someone cries, it’s always, always negative. There’s no rushing to defend. There’s no I mean, I would have to say that that crying, as you’ve described it is a strong emotion. You’re passionate about something. You’re feeling your feelings. So why does the same defense not immediately jump for the person who cries as that defense jumps for most often male person who yells.
Alex Wills, MD: Yeah, it’s important to notice how that goes. And to ask the question, why is it okay for somebody to display anger and berate someone publicly? And yet the opposite isn’t really accepted in some cultures. Within businesses, such as crying, I’ve experienced sort of a situation where someone was speaking harshly and the employee or the subordinate, we could say ended up becoming teary and was obviously very threatened, very upset about the situation. And that actually was very powerful. And the person who was speaking harshly shut up really quickly. And although there wasn’t maybe anybody to sort of jump to their defense and start some kind of argument, there were definitely looks going around and it really gave the person pause and made them reflect, you know, wow, was I being, coming across more harshly than I ought to. And although it may not be overtly stated, I think it’s very powerful when you see somebody move to tears, regardless of the cause, that has a pretty big impact and it does make people stop and think. So again, you know, opening the door to the conversation of, is this something that we want to make acceptable. So it’s no longer a question of is this sort of a social taboo? It’s something that people don’t talk about. Or is this something that can be, hey, if this happens, it’s okay. You’re not going to be you’re not going to be punished or looked down upon because of it.
Gabe Howard: It’s very interesting what you just said, because usually the person who, quote unquote, makes somebody cry doesn’t reflect on anything. They think you’re a wimp, you’re a wuss. You’re emotional, you’re not paying attention. Oh my God, can you believe how dramatic they are? And in the scenario that you’ve described, the person who started crying, the onus was on the what could I have done differently? Or what about my behavior contributed? I’m not going to say cause the situation contributed to the situation. Is this the jump that we need to make? Because I bring this up sincerely by lived experience. Anytime anyone has made me cry, it has been 100% my fault and they
Alex Wills, MD: Mm.
Gabe Howard: Have no culpability. And they’re not even thinking about culpability. And neither is anybody who is watching this. And in fact, usually the first question that I was ever asked is, why did you get so upset? Not what made you so upset. It’s why did you get so upset at. And then they would, you know, recount the situation. It’s incredibly surprising how much of this is on the person who is expressing the emotion and not on anything else that’s going on. And it’s especially framed in the workplace.
Alex Wills, MD: I guess my view would be that the crying, whether someone cries or not, is maybe instead of the conclusion of an event, maybe it could be the starting point. If somebody is really moved to that point and those deep emotions become expressed. If we could greet that with curiosity, start a conversation and find out from both sides. You know what? What’s going on with the person that had that emotion and what other emotions or suppressed emotions were going on. And the folks around that ended up having that manifested in, in like group dynamics and group psychology, there’s it’s almost like if you think of the group as one organism or one person, maybe there’s 1 or 2 people in the group that are sort of the crier. And sometimes they’re manifesting some deep emotions that are going on for other people that are more of the emotional suppressors. Looking at those group dynamics can be very useful. So maybe we could think of it more as a starting point to dig in deeper and to not only get more in touch with our own deeper emotions, but validating and understanding what the emotions are of the other people that are going on. Obviously, the person that’s crying is the so-called emotional one, and so they get some attention. You know what happened? Why are you so emotional? Why are you crying? However, what about the people that are not crying? What? What are their emotions? What are they suppressing and why is that considered to be a virtue? Let’s find out what’s going on with them.
Gabe Howard: As a society, do you think we’re becoming more understanding and accepting of people who cry?
Alex Wills, MD: I think so, but I do think we have a long way to go. And as people become more aware of how sacred, valuable and important emotions are, I hope that any manifestation of them would start a conversation and get us more curious about what’s going on underneath the scenes.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wills, thank you so much for being here. Do you have any last thoughts on the emotion of crying to share with our audience?
Alex Wills, MD: It’s a really fascinating topic. And again, I do think it is a beautiful release. It’s a way that we can get in touch with the truth of those intense emotions, when those floodgates sort of open and to really have some respect for the sanctity of the pureness of those emotions and, and to be very curious about what, what truth they’re trying to tell us. And I know for myself that I’ve had some great moments of clarity when I have finally cried, when I’ve become teary, when something really moved me deeply. And that helps me get in touch with a part of myself that may have been being suppressed, a part of myself that is hurting because of a lost relationship, or longing for relationship connection that I don’t currently have. So, curiosity and disrespecting whatever the emotional truth is trying to teach us.
Gabe Howard: Now your book, “Give a F*ck, Actually: Reclaim Yourself with the 5 Steps of Radical Emotional Acceptance” is available now. I’m sure that it’s available on Amazon and at all fine bookstores. Where can folks find you online?
Alex Wills, MD: Just go to radicalemotionalacceptance.com. And check out the F* News with the updated articles, podcasts, and some signed copies of the book. We’re giving away a free e-book for every rating or review you leave on BarnesandNoble.com or Amazon.com, so check it out.
Gabe Howard: I think that’s wonderful. Thank you once again for being here.
Alex Wills, MD: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been great.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can grab on Amazon. Or you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag, or learn more about me just by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show, share it on social media. Send an email. Hell, send a text. Sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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