How To Stop Tears of Rage Before They Damage Your Career
Here’s how to quit crying in the workplace when angry or frustrated
I’m not crying because I’m upset; I’m crying because I’m angry.
Does that sound familiar to you?
If so, you might be one of the people, like me, who finds themselves crying when they feel angry. This can be problematic in a professional workplace.
I’m not depressed. I don’t struggle with anxiety or stress, nor am I bullied in my workplace. I simply find, when I need to have a difficult conversation with a colleague, those tears can start rolling. It is an incredibly frustrating experience, unable to make your point clearly without sniffing unhelpfully into a tissue.
The Impact of Crying at Work
After years of struggling to express my feelings in a professional way, I worried that it was having a negative impact on my career. I’m not alone: According to a 2018 survey by Accountemps, 45% of people admit crying in their workplace; 32% of workers feel it is never acceptable to cry at work.
It’s not surprising to hear that tears at work might not be the best move for your career. Back in 2000, a study on adult crying showed that tears can signal you have lost control of a situation.
I set about researching how I could tackle these angry tears, and then found three ways that had an impact and supported me long-term. I’ll share those techniques with you below.
How Does Crying Work?
We produce three types of tears, each for a specific purpose:
- Basal tears — These are the ones that keep eyes from drying out. They work as lubrication to the corneas.
- Reflex tears — To wash out foreign particles and vapors that end up in your eye.
- Psychic tears — Produced when you experience strong emotions, stress, and physical pain.
Basal and reflex tears are fine. No one will care if you cry when cutting onions or get a fly in your eye. Psychic tears can be a problem if you can’t keep them under control.
Of course, no one would be surprised if you cried after a bereavement or other hugely emotional change in your life. Crying when your circumstances are less extreme, however, can give a negative impression of you to your colleagues.
Why Do We Cry When We Feel Angry?
There is huge variety in the amount people cry. Many studies have concluded that women are more likely to cry than men. Whilst some people can feel better after a good cry, according to a daily diary study in 2011, others, particularly those suffering from depression, can feel worse.
For those who do find themselves, like me, shedding tears in a meeting room, the reasons can be varied, but the feelings of anger all stem from three main emotions:
- Frustration — knowing something is wrong or not being done in an effective way
- Betrayal — someone taking credit for your work or an ally who turns against you
- Helplessness — wanting something to change but being unable to make it happen
Thinking back to every single incident where I have cried at work, I have always felt angry, and it always stems from one of these three emotions.
The Physical Effects of Anger
Anger is a strong emotion, like fear and anxiety, flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol.
The brain starts to move blood away from the gut towards muscles, ready for a fight-or-flight response.
When you feel angry, your heart rate will increase, along with your blood pressure and breathing speed. You may start to sweat as your temperature increases. Your mind will become sharpened and focused.
When your physical response to anger is to fight or run, it can be extremely hard to stay calm and talk. No wonder tears of rage might start to appear!
After researching how and why I cry inappropriately at work, it was time to devise a plan to target those tears.
I identified three ways that I could change my emotional response:
- Tracking and monitoring to look for patterns through the use of journaling
- Finding ways to calm down before a difficult conversation
- The preventative application of specific calming techniques during challenging conversations
1. Tracking and Monitoring My Emotional Response
Journaling techniques have been popular for years to record and analyze feelings. It’s nothing new; Marie Curie was an avid user of journaling back in the 1800s.
Studies show that expressive writing can be considered as an evidence-based treatment for post-traumatic stress. Research by Dr. James Pennebaker found that just writing about a worry once for 15 to 30 minutes had benefit.
I recorded my feelings by hand in a simple notepad. This meant that I didn’t need to turn on a computer and find a particular document to type into. I could just simply open my notepad and start writing. The simple act of putting pen to paper seemed to allow me to release a lot of feelings.
Using this form of journaling meant I did not have to dedicate time each day to write; I simply wrote when I was feeling one of the three emotions that trigger my crying response: frustration, betrayal, and helplessness. I used journaling even in situations that didn’t trigger crying (but approached that intensity) to give me more data to work with.
I don’t worry about spelling or handwriting, and lots of the sentences don’t make sense. This is not something I will ever show to anyone else, so there’s no need for any plan or organization. I find that starting to write immediately, rather than composing the best sentence, means that I don’t spend ages staring at a blank page wondering what to write.
Through this practice, it was easy to see a pattern forming. Over a year I could see that particular people and events seemed to affect me more strongly than others. The feeling of frustration was the most common trigger for an emotional response for me.
2. Calming Down Before a Confrontation
We’ve all done it—we read an irritating email and go storming to speak to someone straight away, or react immediately in other contexts.
For me, this inevitably leads to more upset. And the sheer strength of my feelings of anger seems to magnify the chance of tears.
I found that building in time before a difficult conversation helped reduce the instances of crying significantly.
My strategy when I’m feeling angry is:
- Don’t respond immediately — Walk away from the computer or put down the phone. When I’m angry, it takes time to calm down. Lots of it. Now I seethe privately before I speak to the person involved unless it really is a matter of priority. Looking back after a day or two, often I find my feelings have diminished and I can start to see other perspectives. This helps me decide if I even need to have a conversation with them at all.
- Exercise — It really does change my mood. Even a brisk walk in the fresh air can help reduce feelings of anger.
- Vent to someone else outside of the situation — If I’m furious about something, I call a friend or family member. I avoid talking to someone closely involved in the situation because it risks escalating it. Instead, talking to someone supportive of me, but not in any way involved, allows me to cry out my fury without harming my career.
- Write it down — If there’s no one to talk to, I might write a letter or compose an email that says exactly how I feel. I let my emotions spill out without any censor. And then I delete it. Just expressing my feelings fully, even to myself, seems to help me have a more productive conversation when I need to.
3. Specific Techniques I Use When I Feel the Tears of Rage Coming
Sometimes I can’t just calm down and get over it; I need to talk with somebody about a situation that won’t solve itself. I work in a highly pressured and busy environment, so I need to have strong relationships with colleagues. I know there are times when difficult conversations must be had.
The techniques I use during meetings include:
- Breathing exercises
- Relaxation of my face
- Engaging my senses
Cardiac coherence techniques for breathing are all based around the idea that slow, deep breathing will increase the activity in the vagus nerve that influences internal organs. When you stimulate this nerve, your heartbeat will slow, and blood pressure reduces. This will help you feel calm and more peaceful. A study in 2016, found that just focusing attention on breathing in and out activates the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which can reduce negative feelings.
Before the meeting: I’ve found the 4–7–8 breathing technique by Dr. Andrew Weil calms me down quickly. This method is advocated for reducing stress and anxiety, as well as promoting good sleep. Whilst the evidence is still mainly anecdotal, I’ve found it extremely effective for me.
For this, you need to find somewhere private and ideally sit down as it can make you feel a little light-headed. Simply put, you breathe in through your nose for a count of four then hold the breath for a count of seven. Finally, you exhale through your mouth loudly and forcefully for a count of eight.
During the meeting: The 4–7–8 technique is great, but I would look peculiar doing it whilst in a meeting! Instead, I switch to simple abdominal breathing.
I sit up straight and inhale, trying to inflate my stomach, then my chest, holding for a count of three before exhaling in the same way, emptying my stomach first. This has the benefit of being unnoticeable when I’m around other people.
Useful Apps: There are hundreds of apps that help with using breathing as a form of mindfulness. With so many to choose from it can be hard to decide. Two that have been recommended to me are Breathe for Apple users and Prana Breath: Calm & Meditate for Android phones. Whilst I have not personally felt I needed them, they might be a helpful tool for you. Breathing techniques do not need to be limited to angry situations and can be a real benefit if you are working in a stressful environment.
Relaxing Your Face
A 2001 study by Duclos and Laird found that just simply having a furrowed brow can make you feel angrier and less happy. Now, when I am having a difficult conversation, I consciously focus on relaxing any tension I can feel in my face.
Tightness across eyebrows: Raise your eyebrows, hold them for a few seconds and relax. You can cover this with your hand to avoid attracting attention.
Clenched teeth and jaw: Try bringing your tongue up to the roof of your mouth to automatically release your jaw. If you find you often have an ache around your mouth, you should consult your dentist to check if you are tooth grinding at night.
Tense Nose: Flare and release your nostrils a few times to help loosen the muscles around your nose.
Pursed lips and tightness across the front of your face: Open and close your mouth as widely as you can without being spotted. I often find rubbing my face or covering my mouth is a good way to hide this as it just looks like I’m stretching my neck.
The more I used these techniques in and before difficult meetings, the more I noticed other times when my face was full of tension. Now, I try to consciously relax my face periodically, especially when I’m working at a computer for a long time.
Engaging Your Senses
The body has seven senses, the five we all know about and two others you might not have heard of. I’ve found focusing on one or more of these senses can distract my body when I feel my anger is turning to tears.
The seven senses are:
- Sight — I try to focus on something in the room or look out of the window. Trying to look for patterns can help distract my mind away, such as looking for objects that are blue.
- Hearing — I listen to the sound of my breath as I inhale and exhale or ambient sounds around me.
- Smell — I often put a strong-smelling cream onto the back of my hand to subtly sniff if I feel I’m losing control of my emotions.
- Touch — Just gently touching different textures such as the fabric of my clothes, running my hand through my hair or the feeling of the pen in my hand can distract me.
- Taste — It might not be appropriate to eat unless you’re in a lunchtime meeting. Instead, sip a glass of water or a hot drink and concentrate on the taste in your mouth.
- Vestibular (movement and balance) — Whilst I might prefer to move around to stimulate this sense, that isn’t normally possible. I try to swivel or lean back in my chair or find an excuse to open a window or pick up something I’ve dropped on the floor.
- Proprioceptive (sense of your body in space) — Deep pressure can stimulate this sense. You can press down firmly on your knees or rub one hand with the other like you’re giving it a deep massage.
I haven’t found one sense to work better than others; what works on one day might not on another. Instead, I simply use what is available to me at the time. All of these are distractions from the angry feelings that I’m struggling with.
Final Thoughts About How To Stop Tears of Rage at Work
I hope I haven’t given an impression of a nervous wreck who spends more time crying than working. Crying when you feel angry is surprisingly common, but it can have a real impact on the way people perceive you in the workplace.
If you feel that you are crying all the time and struggling to manage your emotions on a day-to-day basis, you may need to consider finding professional help. Occasional crying after a specific incident, whilst irritating, is natural. Crying constantly is not. If this is you, please get the help you need.
For me, I think it’s perfectly normal to cry when I feel frustrated, betrayed, or helpless, I just didn’t want to keep doing it at work. Using the approach of journaling, building in calming-down time, along with specific relaxation techniques, has had an impact on the frequency of crying at work.