Crying is a perfectly natural and healthy way of expressing and releasing emotion for both men and women. Although tears can be created purely as a reflex reaction to something blowing in our eyes or the scent of an onion, they are also shed as part of complex neurophysiological process enabling us to connect with and process a range of emotions including joy, frustration, stress, anger, sadness, hurt and pain.
Women are genetically more likely to cry than men because we produce higher levels of the emotional tear inducing hormone prolactin. There is however no difference between how men and women cry, other than our interpretation of what is acceptable. Both men and women can feel uncomfortable shedding tears, especially in the workplace, because from an early age we are conditioned that to succeed in business we must 'stay strong', hide our vulnerabilities and never expose weakness.
Our resistance to crying in front of others is likely to stem from our primal instinct to protect ourselves against predators, because in nature tears tend to be interpreted as a signal of distress or helplessness. Yet in exposing our vulnerability we access the power of authentic self-expression and communication, which can be our greatest strength.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells the story of how the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz grew what started as just a few stores back in 1987, into a 'global retail powerhouse' by 2000. Howard left his position as CEO and took a break from the business for eight years. During that time Starbucks slipped into slow demise and found itself in deep water. Howard was brought back in to turn things around.
Instead of putting on a brave face he allowed himself to be open and honest. In a meeting with the company's global management he wore his heart on his sleeve and wept as he poured out how deeply he cared about the employees and their families, which he felt he had failed. By making himself vulnerable and speaking the truth of how he felt about the situation he roused the support of the entire company. It was the middle of a recession, yet within two years Starbucks succeeded in transforming performance and went on to deliver its highest revenue and earnings.
Sheryl holds a fabulous vision for emotional expression in the workplace:
"Maybe someday shedding tears in the workplace will no longer be viewed as embarassing or weak, but as a simple display of authentic emotion. And maybe compassion and sensitivity that have historically held some women back will make them more natural leaders in the future. In the meantime, we can all hasten this change by committing ourselves to both seek - and speak - our truth."
Expressing our emotions is important for making a deeper level of connection with colleagues in the work place, but crying has other benefits too. Crying provides us with a natural coping mechanism for the build up of stress, because it helps us to release stress and toxins from our system and experience the euphoria of endorphins that stimulate relaxation and promote the renewal and restoration of our internal organs. When we try to suppress stress and emotion the cumulative effect often leads to experiences of overwhelm, stress and ill health. Crying calms us and provides a cleansing detox for the mind, body and soul. For men and women caught up burning the candle at both ends, crying is a restorative way to help restore balance and prevent adrenal fatigue.
So, the next time you feel overcome by emotion I encourage you to cry. Be brave enough to connect with your true feelings, face your greatest fears, acknowledge your most sincere longings, rediscover your sense of passion and purpose and give yourself permission to be truly powerful.