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I used to feel guilty about crying at work. Now I embrace it

In her new book, “The Upside of Being Down,” Jen Gotch, the founder of ban.do, explains how vulnerability made her a stronger leader.

I used to feel guilty about crying at work. Now I embrace it
[Source photos: Jean Vasquez/Unsplash; Ivan Jevtic/Unsplash; Sharon Pittaway/Unsplash]

Hi, I’m Jen Gotch, and I cry at work.

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I also cry in the shower, in my car, on the kitchen floor, in the dressing room at Nordstrom . . . you get the picture.

I’m told that crying at work is controversial in some offices, but since ban.do, the lifestyle and apparel company I founded in 2008, is my only office experience outside of my short-lived temp job, I wouldn’t really know. At ban.do, emotions are part of our DNA, and I take full credit, or responsibility, for that. When we were a smaller team I would sometimes make the announcement that I was going to cry. Now I’m more likely to sit quietly in my office, without causing too much of a disturbance, while also feeling what I need to feel. There are legitimate reasons for me to cry at work: It’s my company that I grew from nothing, and I’ve sacrificed many relationships to nurture it. So when things go wrong there, I’m sad, and when things go right, I’m elated, and both can lead to tears. I often say I have an umbilical cord to the business, so I feel its pain and it feels mine. Also, there are moments when I just hate the pressure and responsibility of being a boss. It’s really fucking difficult.

Publicly crying may not always be the best way to handle things (or so I’ve been told by the people forced to witness it), but it can be a necessary release. Plus, they make reliable waterproof mascara now, so you can dry your tears, scoop yourself up off the floor, and get to your next meeting without skipping a beat.

One of my biggest crying-at-work episodes took place, perhaps not surprisingly, the day after my then-husband Andrew left Los Angeles to move back to the other side of the earth forever. For some reason, I thought it would be best to pretend that I did not just suffer a major loss, so I showered, put on one of my favorite brightly-colored floral dresses, did my hair and makeup—and went to work. I should have taken a day to wallow in my grief, but at some point over the years I had morphed into a soldier who picks herself up, puts on a brave face, and pushes through the pain.

On this particular day, I walked into our office and headed to an e-commerce marketing meeting. I love marketing, but the team in this meeting had a lot of different, oftentimes contrasting, personalities (mine included), so sometimes it could get uncomfortable. To add insult to injury, part of this team was in Kentucky, so the meeting included a conference call—yes, the dreaded conference call. They are horrible for pretty much everyone—the timing is always off, the connection always seems as if the phone bill hasn’t been paid, and the volume is never loud enough. I’m constantly wondering if the person on the other end of the line likes what I’m saying, and since I can’t see their reaction, my brain quickly assures me they do not. Especially when my comments are met by silence, which is often just because someone forgot to unmute their end of the line.

All that said, the emotions that came over me during this meeting were not commensurate with the experience.

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During the call, I ended up in a heated debate with a colleague. I should admit here that for a long time, I would monopolize meetings. I felt like I held the answers to all ban.do-related questions, so why waste time? I think that’s part of the founder’s mentality. For a long time I actually did have many of the answers, because there were far fewer questions. As the company grew, I came to realize that, first of all, I definitely don’t have all the answers. Second, the answers I do have aren’t necessarily right or wrong, because there could be 100 right answers at any given time. And third, I’m doing a disservice to the team by solving every problem and answering every question because it doesn’t empower them—it keeps them down. They don’t have the opportunity to be right or wrong, both of which would teach them something, and it encourages complacency.

Still, sometimes my ego gets the better of me, and since I was feeling especially depleted that day, I wasn’t exactly making the best choices. Which is how I ended up in a passionate dispute about the critical question of whether an email subject line should read, “Hey, girl, we’re having a sale,” or “Sale sale sale.” (I can’t even remember which side of the argument I was on, which should tell you everything you need to know about how clearly I was thinking that day.)

Emotionally, I was hanging on by a thread. I was also in complete denial. I had convinced myself that I was strong and could definitely go to work, because I’d been mourning the loss of my marriage for the past few years, while it was deteriorating.

Plus, after dropping Andrew off at the airport the night before, I’d stopped at 7-Eleven and bought one Kit Kat, two packs of Hostess cupcakes, and a Chipwich, and I ate all of them while weeping on my couch in front of an old episode of The Office. I figured I’d done all my grieving. Of course, I was wrong, and sometime during that debate I was triggered, and, out of nowhere, I burst into tears. Literally. Tears were jutting out of my eyes as if they were being shot from a water gun. Salty clear bullets were coming hard and fast, and people ducked for cover to avoid getting drenched.

Thankfully, my friend Kelly, part of the OG ban.do crew and also one of my true ride-or-dies, had been watching me closely during this meeting. She knew what was going on in my personal life, so I think she had an eye on me because she was sensitive to the fact that I could break at any moment. When I finally did, she quickly and quietly got up from her seat, took my hand, and led me out into the stairwell so I could cry in a slightly more private area of the office.

Let me stop here for a second: Why don’t we have crying rooms? Not just in offices but, like, everywhere. Sure, there are restrooms and dressing rooms, both of which I’ve used as crying rooms when necessary, but what about comfortable, dimly lit, soundproof rooms scattered throughout major cities, shopping malls, and workplaces? How great would that be? I imagine something that’s part spa, part boutique hotel. Shag rugs, delicious-smelling candles, and a really nice piece of art. Or maybe the entire floor is a cloud of a mattress with comfortable blankets. And flowers—gardenias. And soft music that you can turn off if you crave silence. And then there would be a door and when you open it, a person is waiting behind it. A safe, welcoming stranger who is really good at listening and is ready with as many hugs as you need . . . I think I just came up with my next business.

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Back then, ban.do did not have a Crying Room, so, as is the case in most offices, our crying was relegated to stockrooms, bathrooms, or the stairwell. Kelly sat beside me in silence as I hid my face in my hands and tried to wipe away the tears and pull myself together. I heard a few coworkers walk by, but I was too embarrassed to look up.

After a few minutes, when I had calmed down and was a bit easier to rationalize with, Kelly put her hand on my knee, looked resolutely into my eyes, and said, “I really think you need to go home.” She was right.

It was a dramatic episode, and I think there are probably levels of crying, and mine had perhaps surpassed the level that is appropriate at work, even at ban.do. Although I clearly advocate for emotions in the workplace, I also think it’s important that everyone, both employees and employers, is responsible with their emotions so that their expression doesn’t alienate people or replace productivity. In the case of my minor meltdown, it at least helped to establish the office as a safe place for all employees to display emotion, so I can’t say I entirely regret it.

Although this was my most memorable office cry, it wasn’t my first and certainly wasn’t my last. I’ve cried at almost every job I’ve ever had, often due to various horrible bosses, and those instances ended up being good lessons for me when I became a boss myself.

I cried in the bathroom of the nursing home where I was a waitress at age 13. I cried in the bathroom of a café where I worked in college, because the owner cornered me and tried to kiss me, and it made me feel unsafe. I cried while styling a shoot for Bon Appétit magazine in Santa Barbara, when the photographer didn’t like the props I brought and, in front of the entire crew, yelled, “Is there even a brain inside your head?” For that cry, I found the laundry room of the house where we were shooting and pretended to be ironing some linen napkins while sobbing uncontrollably. Eventually we resolved it, and this photographer went on to hire me many more times.

Variations on this story happened on a couple of different shoots, with photographers who didn’t believe in me—or themselves—and let me know as much. I’ve been shooed out of meetings with that flippy hand gesture indicating that “We don’t need you anymore, goodbye.” I’ve had bosses take credit for my work, right in front of me, or rescind their offers to pay me once the job was done.

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There were some good bosses too, who modeled for me what it looked like to embrace emotions in a positive way. A stylist I ended up assisting for many years was incredibly kind and generous with her time and money and always recognized me for my contributions to the job. An art director I worked for taught me about creating on demand and making the most of any situation. I watched both of these women emote at work. Maybe it was crying in the prop closet or being unable to hide their frustration, but it was always a sign that they were plugged into their passion.

These interactions with bosses, both good and bad, helped shape my management style and influenced the type of work environment I would go on to create at ban.do. As someone running a company, I never want to make anyone cry in the office. I make a point to avoid doing anything that might put anyone in that position.

The Upside of Being Down: How Mental Health Struggles Led To My Greatest Successes In Work & Life by Jen Gotch

At the same time, I have also come to learn that you can’t protect people from their emotions. You can create an office culture that is kind and nurturing, but feelings are feelings, and being human can be very painful at very inconvenient times.

In the early days of ban.do, while I was still working to get my own mental health in check, I was definitely guilty of oversharing and bringing my emotional baggage into the workplace. Now I know that there are healthy ways to show emotion in the office and less healthy ways.

For those of us in the creative world especially, tapping into emotion is part of what we do. How can we identify the products that will inspire happiness if we aren’t allowed to feel the full spectrum of feelings? Empathy is at the core of ban.do’s company culture. As a result, there are plenty of tears, and they often end up in my office. I’m happy they do.

Here is my rallying cry for bosses: Treat your team with respect and constantly challenge yourself to build your own self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

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Permit people to be human. Behave like a human yourself. There should still be rules and regulations and boundaries—displays of emotion should always be handled responsibly, so that employees feel safe and respected, and bosses aren’t putting workers in uncomfortable situations—but making people feel seen and heard and ultimately understood is something the modern workplace should continue to emphasize and prioritize.

And what if you’re a boss who isn’t personally comfortable with tears? Well, tell your employees it’s okay to feel their feelings, then encourage them to head to the “Crying Room.”


From The Upside of Being Down, by Jen Gotch. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Gotch. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Jen Gotch is genetically predisposed to optimism. She is a creative powerhouse and an advocate for mental health and emotional well-being. She remains the chief creative officer and fearless leader of the ban.do team, the brand she founded in 2008.

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