Dear Mentor: Overcome by tears?

Dear Mentor,


I gave a talk this past week to a group of people in my field — including a visiting leading expert. There were questions afterward and some were pointedly critical. It was quite harsh and when it was over, I had to get out of the room as I knew I would cry. I don't think people noticed my tears, but later, talking to my male advisor, I started to tear up again. I was embarrassed and he didn't know how to handle it. I don't cry often, but when I do, it's hard to control. How do I handle this? I don't want to be seen as a woman who cries to be manipulative or who can't control her emotions, but I'm not sure I can guarantee I'll be a dry-eyed PhD. What can I do?

from guest mentor Kathy Khang

(I swear I just cried several times during a conversation Tuesday morning with my supervisor and then again at the end of a presentation when the program director asked for a prayer request.)
Dear Ms. Healthy Tear Ducts,
You mention two key distinctions: 1) you were embarrassed, and 2) your advisor did not seem to know how to handle it.
I have learned it is helpful for me to be able to internally identify why I am crying. Am I frustrated? Am I embarrassed? What is frustrating me or embarrassing me? How can I name that and explain in to the person/people in front of me? If you know you are embarrassed the next step is figuring out why that situation was embarrassing and explaining that, because that is often where the awkwardness starts. The other person doesn't know what to do because he or she doesn't know what is going on inside of you. It takes a skilled advisor or supervisor to be able to help you name it; it takes maturity and self-awareness on your part to be able to carry well your own emotions. 
And then, after explaining as best as I can through my tears why I am crying and naming the emotions, I also go on to explain that my tears do not mean that my brain has stopped working or that I am not able to continue the conversation. Rarely have I needed to excuse myself from a room because I am so overcome with tears, though it has happened. Instead of beating myself over and over for being too emotional, I have had to accept and even celebrate the fact that I feel deeply and can bring a level of honesty emotionally.
A Crier

from guest mentor Elizabeth Harper

Oh, this is hard!  I have definitely had this happen. Like you, it was in an already-stressful situation in which I felt vulnerable and humiliated in front of someone I respected. And like you, I had to go somewhere else to cry and recover myself. I actually think that crying is a very rational response to these emotions — but it feels humiliating because tears are so often interpreted as weakness.   
Your question is how to handle situations like these, but I think you did exactly what you should have in this situation: you stepped out and took some time alone to process your feelings. I don’t think it’s possible to prevent yourself from tearing up in stressful situations, but it can be really helpful to think about what causes you to tear up. I’ve noticed that I don’t just cry when I’m sad or vulnerable — I also cry when I’m frustrated. Knowing this has helped me understand myself better. I can’t always control my emotional reactions, but I can let them clue me in to how I’m actually feeling, and that in turn helps me feel less vulnerable when I’m caught off-guard.  
Much love to you!  And God bless your work.  

an anecdote related by editor Marcia Bosscher

I had a conversation with a woman who said that during her postdoc, she was in a research group with an unsupportive PI (principal investigator). When she announced she was pregnant, the PI began saying to other students and faculty, “Don’t blow your education like she is. She’s giving all this up to be a mother.” When she confronted him, he became defensive. A long discussion ensued, heated enough to clear out the lab. When she began crying, he responded, “You’re just being hormonal and trying to manipulate me.”

The postdoc reported these interactions to the department chair and although I'm sure this wasn't the only factor, the PI failed to receive tenure. His hostility toward her pregnancy and tears seems to have damaged his professional development much more than it affected her future. She now has two children and a promising career in a biochemistry lab.

What has been your experience with tears in academic or professional settings?

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