When is it “ok” to cry?
I’ll give my perspective on this particularly as it concerns graduate students and postdocs. I’ll use the example of a graduate student and advisor, but I’m more generally talking about a student or postdoc crying in front of a teacher, mentor or supervisor. Let’s start with this: No one really wants to cry in an academic or professional setting. It’s not ideal professional behavior and can be really embarrassing. It might feel like weakness. It might draw attention to emotions when you really want to focus on facts. It might feel like it draws attention to your gender in an undesired way. But please consider that it might not be as bad as you think.
People cry for many reasons and aren’t always able to control the reaction. You probably care a lot about your work, and it’s stressful and upsetting when it doesn’t go well. You probably have a lot of respect for your professors, advisor, mentors, etc. You want them to think well of you and likely find it stressful when you feel like you aren’t meeting expectations. You are probably dealing with other stressors in your life (relationships, finances, health, whatever), and your professional colleagues might not even be aware of this burden you are carrying. You might be facing uncertainty about your academic progress or your next position. All of this stress affects your neuroendocrine system in very tangible ways, and crying can certainly be one of them (although this is mostly a science blog, I’m not going to talk more about neuroendocrinology today).
A couple reasons I think it’s not so bad:
Your advisor had probably seen it before. It might be the first time it’s happened to you, but it’s honestly pretty common. If your advisor is a reasonable person, I think he or she will understand that you are upset and this is one of the ways your body is expressing it.
It shows that you care. To be a good scientist, I think you really have to throw yourself into your research, live it, breathe it. It’s normal to get upset or frustrated if things weren’t going well. People express this in different ways depending on the specific circumstances, other surrounding factors, and their own personality. Sometimes you can shake it off, other times it’s not so easy.
It can open a pathway for communication. I’m not suggesting that anyone do this intentionally, but it is now obvious that you are upset or frustrated and harder to avoid the problem. It’s clear opportunity to talk it through and try to find a solution. In my book, crying is lots better than shutting down and not communicating.
What to do?
This is of course situation-dependent, but here are a few suggestions. Acknowledge that you are upset, and consider explaining specifically why you are upset. It might not be as obvious as you think it is. Take a deep breath, maybe find a tissue, and move forward toward resolving the problem. It’s ok to ask for a break…get a drink of water, splash some water on your face, see if you can calm down a little. If you still don’t feel like you can continue the conversation, as if you can talk about it later. If your advisor is a little awkward about it, try cutting him or her a little slack. He or she could also be a little embarrassed or unsure of how to respond. Lots of scientists/academics are well-intentioned but a little awkward. Think about it…most of us don’t really have training in these very important “soft skills.”
And one more idea I’ve been kicking around…
In the case of conflicts between people, I cringe a bit whenever I hear the suggestion that someone is being “too sensitive.” That comment creates a permissible environment for aggressive or boorish behavior and essentially dismisses the concern as a sort of personal defect.
Why do I mention this? I think it’s fairly pervasive and can give at least one personal example. When I was in grad school (a long time ago), I borrowed something from another lab that one of the technicians thought I shouldn’t have borrowed. He came over to my lab, pounded on the door, proceeded to yell at me, and continued yelling even after I had apologized and offered to return the unused, undamaged item. He was physically much larger than me and about 30 years my senior. I subsequently told my advisor about it and, to my embarrassment, cried a bit while telling me. My advisor was a wonderful person and mentor, but I’ll always remember that part of his advice to me was that I should develop a thicker skin and not be so sensitive. He was partly right – it is sometimes helpful to have a “thick skin”, but I don’t think I was the one who most needed to change. I can say now, 15+ years later, that guy was a jerk and had no business yelling at me like that. I had a right to expect professional behavior from the people around me, and you do too.
If you are interested in other opinions about crying in academia