Of all the behaviors that happen as a result of emotion, rarely have I seen one less desired by people than crying. Even in a therapy session people will apologize for crying, promise that it isn’t going to happen again, or look at me with horror as if to say: “What are these drops of weakness sliding down my face?” Despite tears being a natural response to emotion, crying has been deemed socially unacceptable. Weak. Pointless. Dramatic. Humiliating. Some of this is inherent in our culture, some of it is based on who raised us, and some of it is the idea that when we experience negative emotion we are somehow failing at coping. When a person fights back tears or remains stoic in the face of something painful, they are often seen as strong.
This is especially true for men. In many ways, men have suffered significantly when it comes to emotional expression as they have arguably been left with three socially acceptable emotions: calm/happy, apathy, and anger. Because men are human beings and don’t get a pass on the rest of the emotions (i.e., shame, fear, sadness, disappointment, grief, etc.), those emotions must go through a black box of sorts and come out the other side as one of the other three that are accessible. Conversely, women are typically raised to have access to a broader range of emotions and are allowed greater social flexibility to express them. As adults, women often form friendships that focus on emotional connection. However, nothing is true across the board and many women also find emotions challenging to express, particularly if they are in male-dominated careers.
Interestingly, crying is something that our bodies are capable of and we have to fight to keep the tears from coming. Just like all other bodily functions, this experience serves a purpose. If you know me personally, you probably know that almost every emotion I have can end in tears: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, etc. I’ve also learned over time that holding back does not do me any favors. My lowest moments have come when I have attempted to pretend that I was okay when I was not. The times I said to myself that I needed to get my life together, and then Morgan Freeman’s voice would come on in the background saying, “But she would not get her life together. In fact, she would make things so much worse.”
When we dip into other people’s emotional space, as therapists often do, we get to feel a little bit of what someone else is feeling. The goal is to observe and experience without overtaking the emotion; to feel in order to understand but not fully engage. Over the years, shutting down emotion becomes practiced. In some ways this is beneficial; it is a skill to maintain your composure and process the experience when a client is describing something awful. The downside to this control is that it becomes challenging to just let go once you’ve trained yourself to keep the emotion at bay. I learned years ago to have what I call “cry triggers.” These are things that I know will release emotion when I am finally in a space to let it go. The movie Gifted, videos of soldiers seeing their children after returning from deployment, a song about a little boy who dies of cancer, and several others that will always do the trick. As soon as the tears start flowing, I am able to cry about the things that are actually bothering me.
Last year I was at a meeting at the Child Advocacy Center with a multidisciplinary group of professionals that reviews and investigates felony level child abuse cases. We were discussing a baby that everyone was worried about because, although no direct child abuse was present, there were enough red flags to warrant concern. Each person came up with steps they would take to help prevent future injury, myself included. We left the meeting, went about our tasks, and two weeks later the baby died. When I found out I felt my insides drop. I made it back to my car and cried. Hard. I kept thinking that I shouldn’t be this sad; that I hadn’t known the baby and it wasn’t my direct responsibility to keep the baby alive. But it didn’t matter. After crying off and on for a couple of days I realized why it hit me so hard. In the world of child abuse, we are almost always on the clean-up crew; we clean up the awful things that people do to children as best we can, and this was one of the times that I thought we were going to get out in front of something awful and prevent it from happening. And then we lost. Again. It broke my heart. I tell this story because after the emotion naturally began to dissipate, as it does when we let ourselves feel however we feel without judgement, the clarity arrived about why I had responded with such deep sadness. Clarity doesn’t happen when we don’t allow the emotion to be experienced and processed.
The phrase “pain is weakness leaving your body” is generally used when referencing physical exercise; the more pain you are in the stronger your body is becoming. The same is true for painful emotional experiences. As we feel emotion that is authentic to our experience, the result is that we become stronger human beings who can roll with the challenges that life inevitably brings rather than being taken apart by them. It is for these reasons that I encourage people to pick a place to think and feel and cry. Sometimes this is alone, sometimes with a friend or partner, and sometimes with a therapist. It is easiest to feel when we don’t experience judgement; wherever that place is for you, I encourage you to go there regularly.
One of my favorite quotes about the experience of emotion is from Glennon Doyle. She says, “I understand now that I am not a mess, but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often. Because I’m paying attention.’” Crying is like a little shower for your soul. Each time we let the tears fall and choose to feel rather than to shut it down, we are one step closer to living life in full color.