Subtitle: How to Secure Your Place in Hell
I distinctly remember the last time I cried at work. I had been pulled into a room with three partners at my law firm, and was reprimanded for my low billable hours and poor performance.
[Meg’s Note: In this post, Kristen Knepper returns with some perspective on this all-too-important career issue. Kristen is an attorney and career coach, who teaches women to recognize and articulate their own value. Her latest online course, Interview & Negotiate – Like A Girl, teaches women how casual sexism impacts them in the workplace, while providing the solutions to ace the interview and maximizing compensation. If you’re interested in individual career coaching, including a free 20 session, contact Kristen at firstname.lastname@example.org]
Of course, what the partners did not address was that I had just returned from a Family and Medical Leave absence. My mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, and my brother and I were taking turns to care for her while she underwent chemotherapy. I was anxious and exhausted. I thought those six weeks might be the last living moments I shared with my mother.
So when I was pulled into a room with three older, white male partners, and told that they weren’t sure there was a place for me at the firm any longer, I couldn’t hold it together. I was frustrated at their blatant lack of empathy, and terrified that my source of economic security was being threatened. Law, like all other industries is a business, and like all businesses, the primary purpose was to earn money. I, clearly, was not doing that.
And yet, businesses are compromised of humans. Feeling humans, fallible humans, facing personal circumstances outside their control. Circumstances that we could all potentially face. Gina Barreca recently wrote about women crying at work, and all it involves, after a Salt Lake City police officer attempted to intimidate a nurse into administering an illegal medical procedure on an unconscious patient. The officer seized Nurse Alex Wubbels, pushed her out of the hospital, and cuffed her, at which point, the nurse started crying and yelling.
Let’s back up a second and state the obvious. That officer’s actions were illegal and unconscionable. And the reality is that the majority of us are rational and ethical humans at work.
But not all of us.
So what happens when we’re faced with acts that are not illegal, but land firmly in the, “you’re probably going to hell when you die” camp? Is it acceptable to cry?
Why Do Women Cry?
According to Barecca, women cry because they are frustrated. And it makes sense. As women, we’re socialized to take responsibility for the behavior of others. Hell, I apologize when other people bump into me. We look to pacify, create solutions, and make others comfortable despite the fact that they, many times, are the ones behaving badly. The ability to create space for others, tolerate ill behavior, and look for solutions requires emotional labor. Such labor is not merely frustrating. It’s exhausting.
Women are often misunderstood and undervalued because they do not conform to the masculine standards that remain typical in the American workplace. Masculine traits—assertiveness, winning, competing, and being in action—are typically rewarded.
Feminine traits—stillness, receptiveness, reflectiveness, and collaboration—are traditionally less valued, recognized, or rewarded. However, when looking at the top leadership traits, feminine characteristics such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy are time and again found to be the discerning factors that create high-performing teams.
Leadership is not merely leading others, but first leading yourself. And that requires enough self-knowledge and self-regulation to not take the behavior of others personally. Being aware of your triggers, and possessing the tools to recenter, deflect, and redirect a conversation are critical skills for not only managers, but anyone working with other humans, which is ultimately all of us.
Once aware of our triggers and responses, we have the ability to respond (take a breath, and think before engaging), communicate, and foster effective relationships with others. “Others,” of course, being kind, rational, empathetic humans who also exhibit these same characteristics and mutual respect.
Unless, of course, they don’t.
The Answer? Well, An Answer
Men are socialized to not express any emotion other than anger. Men don’t cry at work, or anywhere, because they are taught that such an expression is not masculine. And that’s not healthy or what we need to be teaching our sons in order for them to grow into fully formed adults capable of displaying the leadership traits discussed above. Not allowing men the full spectrum of their emotions is half the equation.
Yet the question remains: Should we cry at work?
We should be self-aware, able to self-regulate, and mature enough to not take the behavior of others personally. If we understand ourselves, and invest in learning the personal and professional development skills (they’re one in the same) required to be a self-actualized adult, then, in theory, we shouldn’t have to cry.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we don’t live alone.
We can’t always predict the behavior of others, and sometimes we do need to tolerate ugly behavior to ensure our own economic security. I did leave my law firm job shortly after the deplorable incident with the three partners. But not immediately.
Immediately, I needed to help my mother pay her mortgage while she was on disability and undergoing chemotherapy. In the moment I cried and tolerated the intolerable, but in the weeks following, I left. No amount of money is worth the violation of human decency and personal boundaries. Kicking someone while they’re down is unconscionable.
But here’s the rub: I didn’t recognize that truth at the time. At the time, I drank their Kool-Aid, and bought into the idea that I had failed. I did not meet my billable hour requirement, and I did not serve my clients to the best of my ability. What I know now is that I should not have had to.
I deserved to be provided with not merely support in the form of kindness, but a plan, or at least an alternative work template (for example, a lower required billable hour threshold for the year, and a plan to transition back to work), and a discussion about what I thought was appropriate and feasible given my family circumstances.
I held onto much shame and guilt for a long time following that job. And in hindsight, I never should have. As women, the ability to form boundaries and advocate for ourselves is quite intentionally omitted from our socialization. Phrases such as “He teases you because he likes you” teach us as young girls to tolerate behavior that is unacceptable, rather than recognizing limits and holding fast to them. That’s where the change needs to begin.
We cannot be responsible for changing other people’s behavior, but we must be responsible for changing our own. That includes both our ability to self-regulate, and the ability to walk away when others refuse to do the same.
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.