Crying at Work (again)

I have been writing about, thinking on and doing ‘radical authenticity’ lately and so many opportunities have emerged as moments for me to practice my preach and walk my talk. In this post, I want to talk about being a woman in tears, and in particular, what I did when that was perceived as me being a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

In the name of authenticity I need to say just how vulnerable a position I feel I am putting myself in, in writing this post. I almost feel that, as I am a serving headteacher, I should not be divulging any of this, I mean how can I admit this ‘weakness’ and be trusted to run a school? But, then I realise I am talking about my life, my relationships and more importantly my relationship with leadership, so who is anyone else to censor this? Indeed, why would I try to censor this piece when it could be of use to my tribe?

So, in I will dive. As I have said in other posts, I have have experienced, in this leadership role, a steadily growing feeling that I just can’t do it all. I don’t know whether it is because leadership in schools has got harder or because I have grown softer. Regardless, what I am finding is the impossibility of doing my job, meeting the needs of my family and attending to me, the woman in the middle who needs different things now, needs a bit of space, needs to be allowed to grow and work in new ways.

A few weeks back ‘things got real’ as they say. I was coming to the end of a really tricky term that had been beset with leadership challenges and personal demons emerging left and right and in need of slaying. I was in a phone meeting with a man we shall call, for the purposes of this piece, ‘The Man’. The conversation was backing and forthing around a variety of leadership challenges I was having and I found myself leaning back into a moment of tears. I saw myself behaving and feeling out of ‘control’ but also strangely exhilarated by this woman who spoke fast and who had so much bottled up that she needed to say.

I raved and ranted, I fought the battle of the woman with a child, with an endless list of jobs and no time for herself to develop and grow and become the kind of leader she knew she was born to be. The Man listened. I cried, indeed I cried and The Man’s response to my tears was an interesting one. Part way through this fairly short episode, it became apparent that my tears felt to The Man as though they were evidence that I was finally ‘opening up’. The Man felt that what I needed was a hug, the repeated refrain, ‘I can hear you are really upset’ honestly just made me rage further. The Man was grateful for a window into my ‘vulnerability’ and felt that, as he had now seen into my depths, we could work together on ‘fixing things’.

The Man is a lovely person and so in subsequent days he went about doing the best he could to help me. He did this by way of seeking unsolicited support for me from a number of my peers in a way that I understood as kind hearted but felt, and have found, very difficult to cope with.

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I have problems accepting help from people and I do find it a challenge when I feel exposed. Yet, in this situation it wasn’t my initial outpouring of tears that exposed me, rather, it was the way in which I knew these tears would be perceived that left me feeling so wide open. I knew my tears would be met one dimensionally as ‘upset’ and felt aggrieved at how lost the message within the swirling, salty rivers would get.

For a few weeks I bore the slightly sick feeling I had every time a peer offered me a virtual hug or a shoulder to cry on and it took a lot of sitting with to work out how I could handle this growing unease. In the spirit of ‘radical authenticity’ I did not see it as appropriate to hope that the issue of my, now public, outpouring would just disappear over time. Instead, I chose to bring it right to the fore and address it at the next given chance. And so it was that at my next public opportunity to address my aforementioned peers, I donned my red jacket, and asked if I could raise something before the meeting begun, asked if I could have the floor to explain myself. In spirit it went something a little like this:

I feel the need to unearth the message behind the tears that emerged a few weeks ago and that you are all aware of. My tears were actually born of hope, not disillusionment. They expressed a hope in the me who no longer accepts unacceptable situations and questions her ability, but who says ‘I can not and, more importantly, will not make these personal sacrifices for a job.’ My tears were shed in favour of the person I am becoming, who sees a better way emerging. They were also shed in mourning for the person who allowed this overwhelm to occur, she has tried so hard to do so much for others for so long. My tears came at the moment of realisation and marked the release of anxiety and stress. Rather than signalling collapse, they signalled epiphany. What you should know about my tears is that through them, I rise Phoenix-like, stronger now, more prepared for the future.

As I explained myself, into the room of men, an awareness grew that the words of comfort they, as my peers, had been asked to send me and so kindly sent, were sent in the absence of my context. What happened next reminded me that this fight to be heard, however, is one we all share, regardless of our rank or status. As it was pointed out to me by one of the headteachers present, the position of a female headteacher who cries and then rolls her sleeves up and gets on with it, is much easier to bear than the mere thought that a male headteacher may cry at all. And this humbled me, for how awful to be in that position.

I marvelled, as I left the room buttoned up in my red jacket, at how my moment of weakness had become such strength and how those perceived as so strong, can often feel so far away from being able to articulate their ‘weakness’.