“It is a grave hypocrisy of this society, which lets a man laugh but not cry” – Nitya Prakash
Tears of Distress & Pain
Sometimes words are not enough to express strong emotions. Occasionally, you gotta cry. Emotional tears release endorphins and oxytocin, neurochemicals which lessen pain and help us to bond with others. They calm us down. Crying is your body’s pressure relief valve. Tears are one of nature’s best antidepressants.
Years ago I wrote a blog on this topic and outlined the biological difference between reflexive tears (from chopping onions) and emotional tears, and showed some cool pictures of the surprising difference seeing tears makes to our interpretations of facial expressions. I outlined that crying helps regulate strong emotion and elicits sympathy from others thanks to our brains’ mirror neurons – yes, the ones that make us yawn when others yawn.
You were probably born crying. It was probably your first observable behaviour. It probably relieved the stress of being born. Crying as infants also communicated to the adults how vulnerable you were; how much you need protection, help and comfort. And it continues to serve this function as we go through life: it transmits information about our needs.
So, it’s no wonder we feel vulnerable and perhaps ashamed if we cry in front of others as adults. Once our egos are well-formed, from middle childhood onwards, we realise that our culture sees crying as weak and embarrassing. (Sometimes even having needs is seen as weakness). This messaging holds for males and females, but particularly so for boys and men. Some of us were even told to “Toughen up” or “Don’t let it affect you” or even “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about”.
But why do these negative beliefs prevail? One of the reasons for the fear and shame about crying is most of us fear the shame of displaying – or even feeling – strong emotion. I cannot overstate how much this messaging (strong emotion = weakness) still pervades our culture. Most clients who cry in my office still apologise!
But why? Like the yawning phenomenon mentioned above, expressions of vulnerability and pain can make others feel vulnerable. And if the adults in our lives as kids (and even now) hated to feel vulnerable or had few skills to display empathy, they were likely to shut us down without even realising it. So we learned to do as Elsa recommends from inside her ice palace in the film Frozen: “Conceal, don’t feel”.
And lastly, let’s not forget that heavy crying IS indeed very personal. Your nose gets blocked, your face flushes, you have trouble talking, and you may get a headache, just to mention a few side effects! You may not like others watching you blow your schnoz or bearing witness to your smudged eye makeup. (This is one reason I often prefer to do it alone, if I can).
Tears of Joy
Have you ever cried at a wedding or after getting wonderful news? If so, it was likely due to the buildup of tension or anticipation, followed by a release. I remember feeling wildly vulnerable after giving birth to my first child. The love and bewilderment were so overwhelming that I cried for two days. They called it the Baby Blues, but I called it a spiritual awakening! But seriously, my brain and body did all this, I believe, to rebalance (regulate) my system so I could function in the world again.
Weirdly, when marvellous things happen that trigger intense joy it can be stressful, as we become vulnerable to loss. In addition to regulating stress, an important function of our nervous systems is to detect threat. As strange as it may seem, intensely happy situations can represent a different threat: “Now I have this good thing, what if something bad happens?”
Concentrated joy and happiness have this in common with sadness, anger and fear: They are viscerally intense and our brain doesn’t always know how to process that intensity. Receiving great news and squealing in delight or jumping for joy when your team wins are examples of the physical release our bodies are made for. So, if you find yourself moved to tears, remember it’s natural and normal. Go for it.
The Problem with Switching Off Tears
“The tears of the night equal the smiles of the day” — Proverbs from Twenty-five Languages, Henry Davidoff
Repressing feelings is understandably human. Feelings can be so intense we don’t know how to handle them. Our inner and outer coping resources are overwhelmed – we don’t know what to do. If we are fuzzy-headed, tense, feeling uncertain / sad / angry and we can’t sit with distress, human beings tend to fight, flee, or freeze their feelings through rationalising, avoidance, distraction, addiction, aggression, people-pleasing and dissociation. Understandable, because we don’t know what else to do.
Once we have shut down (often quite automatically) we have to tell ourselves a different story to maintain psychological consistency. We form a belief that we are “fine”. But underneath, we really aren’t “fine”. And either we truly think we are fine, or we realise we are not, but see it as weak or shameful to admit otherwise.
The problem is we shut down to our real selves, to our own vulnerable hearts. This is bad for our mental and physical health in the long run. Conversely, learning to tolerate (and even embrace) vulnerability is good for emotional and mental health. Vulnerability embraced is actually a sign of courage. And being vulnerable helps us work through our issues and emotions rather than pushing them away.
It’s important to know that underneath anger or chronic anxiety may be sadness or grief. I once had a client who was catapulted into a widely publicised corporate prosecution. She was chronically stressed and angry about it. After a few sessions of sharing her story in detail, I asked if maybe underneath her anger and stress, she was actually quite sad. She burst into tears for several minutes. It was the first time she had cried about it and after her tears dried, she seemed different to me. Her thinking and speech decelerated. She went home and cried some more. She slowly started to feel more empowered to take actions (both self-care and work-related) that were within her reach.
If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve and cry, anger or vengefulness may set in. Then we risk becoming bitter and cynical, or sick, or depressed, or riddled with anxiety attacks. The body keeps the score, as they say. There may be much to cry about in truth. And facing those truths will, after they kick our butt, soften us so we can find our power to act in more life-serving ways.
Crying as a Passageway
Without the release of tears, we can remain stuck. Stuck in fear or anger, we stay in our heads and in our egos. Our ego is audacious and wants to brace us, to defend and protect us, understandably. But this means our ego is not receptive to new ideas. Your ego will stop you getting in touch with a deeper wisdom that can come from surrendering and letting go.
There are many old and recent fairytales where tears represent a passageway or surrender to what is, and which calls forth something new or brings about an important shift. For example, in Rumpelstiltskin, the poor miller’s daughter sits in the king’s castle, and for the life of her has no idea how to spin straw into gold (as her father had promised the king). She grows more and more afraid of what cruelty might transpire in the face of her impotence, and begins to cry. At the sounds of her weeping, Rumpelstiltskin appears and helps her.
In Alice in Wonderland, as Alice begins to accept and surrender to her loss of control, she cries a “pool of tears” which sweeps her away. In the pool of tears, she meets an array of animals – perhaps symbolic of her less educated, more primal nature – including a mouse with whom she learns to empathise. In her pool of tears, she puts aside her own bias towards her beloved cat Dinah to imagine why the mouse might not love cats. On the other shore of her tears, she rediscovers the White Rabbit.
Likewise, on the other shore of our own ocean of tears, we may be reunited with some lost part of ourselves.
In both stories, and many others, tears lead to an awakening or breakthrough of some kind or a movement towards learning, change or resolution. Without the tears, we may stay angry, disempowered, stuck or shut down.
Another analogy is that tears are a melting, a thawing out of the hardened emotions. Think of the powerful imagery in the film Frozen where Elsa hadn’t mourned her parents’ death and inadvertently caused an eternal winter. To maintain her emotionally numb state, she had to work harder and harder to avoid her own feelings, eventually isolating in a self-created ice palace and coaching herself to: “Conceal, don’t feel”. Finally, when the stakes are too high to stay frozen, she cries her tears of deep grief and unlocks her feelings. As she embraces her sister Ana, she ultimately saves her life.
Crying can revive our spirits and help us find a way through.
“Sometimes, when you lose something or someone, it is very hard to make tears. You feel like you want to make tears but something inside you stops them and presses on your chest. Like something sitting on it.” – Shruti Swami
Hopefully, I have convinced you of the biological and psychological value of our tears. But what if we can’t cry? Because of the cultural messages, our psyche can “forget” how to do what was once natural. We may stop crying altogether by adolescence or adulthood. Or we might find ourselves crying in self-pity, rather than with self-empathy which is a topic I have written about in another blog post. Self-pity will keep us stuck in a rut as surely as emotional shut-down.
If you want to cry but can’t get the tears started, you might watch the final emotional scene from the movie Lion, based on a true story. I’ve recommended this film to several clients since 2016 who wanted to cry but couldn’t. They said it worked. Actually, I challenge you to watch the last four minutes and NOT cry! The emotions you might feel on behalf of the main character Saroo are beyond words, but include intense relief, joy, sadness and grief for the many years of living without his birth mother and at learning his brother was killed the night he became lost.
Here are some other tips for crying well:
- If you know you need a good cry or some kind of release – or just that you are emotionally shut down – but you don’t know what to do, begin by telling someone trustworthy (a good therapist can help) that you don’t know where to begin. That’s always a good place to begin!
- Slow down. Meditate. Do yoga. Lie on your belly on the ground. Listen to sad music. Journal. When you are going too fast, you cannot cry. Self-compassion has a much slower pace than anxiety and anger.
- If you find yourself crying, remember it gets pretty intense before it calms down, just like a storm. Feel empathy for yourself rather than going into self-pity.
- When you are tempted to shut down again, tell yourself to let go and surrender. Open up to yourself. The “self-hug” of placing one hand firmly on your chest and the other on your solar plexus can help anchor you in the body while you cry.
- Remember, your heart cannot actually break, no matters how much it hurts. At some point, your heart may break open though, and that is a good thing!
- If you prefer to cry alone, cry in the car, the shower or alone in your room. Nostalgic music can aid you by reflecting your feelings back to you. Other times, you will want silence.
- Trust the intelligence of your body. Trust that in the crying you will relax and soften at some point. Something new will be called forth from inside you. Enjoy the experience of being more in your body and not so much in your thoughts.
Remember that crying won’t last forever. It might last up to 20 minutes and you might start and stop over hours.
But after we cry, we sigh.
Then we can breathe again.
Then our thoughts and actions become more effective and life-serving.
To listen to a recent ABC radio interview I did about the psychology of crying with Ashwin Segkar click here