From when we are very small many of us learn that shedding tears for emotional reasons is ‘bad’.
We’re told to ‘get a grip’ and ‘pull it together’ if we’re seen to be crying in public. We’ve developed internalised ‘rules’ around crying. These come from both our upbringing, and the society we live in. Yet suppressing our tears has long term consequences. When we find the courage to break these rules we can increase our mental and physical wellbeing, and our quality of life. Crying is good for your mental health!
What is crying?
We humans shed tears for both functional and emotional reasons. We have lachrymal glands above each eye, which produce secretions we call tears. There are three different types of tears: basal, reflex and psychic or emotional tears. Reflex tears help to rinse out irritants such as smoke and dust. Basal tears keep our corneas from drying out and help protect them from infection. We shed psychic or emotional tears in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotional states. These contain stress hormones along with other toxins. Researchers have theorised that crying gets rid of these things from our system.
Our beliefs around crying are formed in childhood.
For young babies, crying is their only form of communication to get comfort and care. Even after they learn to speak, young children cry often. But their caregivers’ responses will vary, and that has a very different impact as they grow up.
If you were brought up in a loving home your parents would do their best to keep you safe from harm. They would likely soothe and comfort you when you cried. Parents who are comfortable with emotions would express their own feelings. They would encourage you to express yours. They would take time to find out why you’re upset and try to meet your needs with patience and compassion. You would absorb the message that you are loved and accepted. You would learn that all your emotions are valid and welcome. Growing up, you would believe that crying is a healthy and ‘safe’ emotional release.
If your parents were cold and uncaring, they would treat you very differently.
They might have jeered at or ridiculed your crying. They might have told you to “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”. With that response, you would learn that your emotions are not acceptable and that it’s not safe to cry. You would learn that crying makes you vulnerable. (both emotionally and sometimes even physically). You would come to believe that it’s safer to hold it all in, squash down your feelings and your tears.
When you become an adult, you still have the same beliefs about crying. You still carry the same self imposed ‘rules’ about expressing emotion. Except now in adult life you have to navigate the ‘rules’ of socially acceptable behaviour. That makes it even more difficult to express emotion, even privately.
Crying in public is generally seen as ‘bad’.
Crying in public is ok in some defined situations, and taboo in others. For example, it’s accepted and expected at funerals and maternity units. It’s ok to express our sadness for a recent death, or express our joy as we welcome new life.
Shedding a few tears is also ok in high profile leaders (particularly if they’re male). If they’re addressing a large crowd about an emotive topic, they might even get applause. (as in the videos here and here)
But crying is taboo in the workplace, especially for women in the corporate world. Companies expect us to keep our emotions under control, and deal only in facts and data. We’re discouraged from crying if we want to be respected, and seen as effective in our jobs.
Why are we so bad at crying?
Why is it so hard to let our feelings be seen? We all have the capacity to experience the same range of emotions. ‘Negative’ feelings such as sadness, frustration or disappointment are part of the human experience. We all have ’positive’ feelings such as joy, wonder and excitement. (But if we don’t express the negatives then we can’t express the positives – I’ve written more about that here) The key to understanding our present behaviour lies in our past. Our early experiences of emotional expression shape who we are. They determine what is ‘normal’ and acceptable for us.
If we had a difficult childhood, our parents may have been indifferent or neglectful. They might reject our emotions, so we learn that it’s not safe. We learn that emotional expression is shameful. So we keep our emotions locked inside, and that means definitely no crying.
If tears well up it puts us in a vulnerable position. We assume that other people will feel uncomfortable. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. And we don’t want anyone to reject us. With so much pressure, both external and internal, it seems much easier to keep it all inside.
Breaking the rules around crying is good for your mental health.
Unless you’re chopping onions, or other ‘irritant’, your tears are a sign that you’re feeling a strong emotion. When you hold back those tears, it impacts your concentration. It affects your ability to relate to others in your work and relationships. Keeping those emotional tears inside is harmful. Those emotions don’t disappear, they have to go somewhere. Unexpressed emotions get stored in the body. This can reduce your immune response, and lead to both physical and mental illness. I’ve written more about the health benefits of crying here.
(And here’s an excellent book on the history of crying)
Before you can break the rules, you need to figure out what they are.
We all have internalised rules about what crying means for us. To bend or break those rules, we first need to figure out what they are. Only then can we get closer to having the choice and freedom to cry and express when we need to.
Some of the rules I’ve come across in my own experience and with clients are:
- Crying means you’re unstable and out of control.
- If you cry it means you’re weak.
- Crying makes you vulnerable.
- If I cry then people will label me as a loser.
- If I let myself cry then I’ll never be able to stop.
- You can’t cry in front of people you don’t know.
- If I cry then people won’t respect me.
And on and on it goes. You might relate to some of those, or have others that dawn on you as you start to think about it.
What are your rules about crying?
If you need some prompts, try finishing these statements:
- Crying means ……
- If I cry then….
- People who cry in public are ….
- Crying would make me ….
If you struggle to let your emotions out, or even recognise you have them, that’s a problem waiting to happen. Chances are that’s having an impact on your work, your relationships and your mental health.
Being able to express tears and cry when you need to is a vital human function. It increases your mental clarity, and the depth of your relationships with others. When you can relax your ‘rules’ around crying, you free up your emotional capacity. Crying is good for you, your relationships and your mental health!
If you feel your emotions are blocked and it’s affecting your quality of life, I can help. Let’s have a conversation and see if coaching might be a good step for you. To find out how I work and to book a call click here.
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