When young children cry we are automatically empathic and sensitive, offering a cuddle or comforting words. We might not understand the reason they're upset but we do understand that they are having a big feeling it and expressing it with tears and sobs. But as we get older something changes, and it's no longer OK to cry. Especially in public. And especially if you are a boy.
This is deeply problematic and I'm not on board with it. Read on to find out why...
Better out than in!
Emotions are energy. Energy in motion. E-motion. What happens to that energy when it isn't allowed to move through you? Yep, it's gets stuck. It builds up. It, at best, doesn't feel good and actually prolongs the suffering and at worst makes us very sick - physically, mentally or both.
Crying is simply one way of expressing emotions, usually sadness, grief or frustration but it's not limited to these. Research shows that 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men feel less sad and angry after shedding some tears.
Tears actually flush out stress hormones from the body and release oxytocin and endorphins into our systems to help us feel better. In this way crying acts as a natural painkiller.
Tears are a communication
We are social animals. Almost everything about how the human mind and body is designed is relational, including crying. Being visibly upset tells others that we are in distress and need comfort and support. Seeing another person cry elicits empathy and care from us. We are the only mammal that cries because of emotion - this expression and it's social function is part of what defines us as human.
Yes, we may feel vulnerable when crying in front of others, but this is actually an opportunity for connection. As my beloved Brené Brown says, "there is no courage without vulnerability"; allowing ourselves to be seen more fully actually strengthens relationships.
Crying is not the loss of control - it's the opposite
It's really interesting to me that we judge someone who is is crying - or judge ourselves - despite all the benefits listed above. Clients often apologise for crying or say they don't like feeling like they've "lost control".
When you do a little happy dance because you've got good news, have you lost control? When you laugh loudly and freely at a joke with your friend do you feel bad for expressing yourself? When you say "wow, look at that sky!" when you see a beautiful sunset do you apologise for your awe outburst? No.
It's because we are taught to feel uncomfortable displaying certain emotions that we feel this way about crying. Yes, sadness, grief, frustration etc are painful to feel. But they're part of life and totally natural, just like the tears that come with them. Acknowledging a feeling and expressing it is being in control - in an emotionally intelligent and healthy way. Not allowing our tears is control in a neurotic, fear based and unhealthy way.
A time and a place
Sometimes we can't help but burst into tears for whatever reason, and other times we feel the tears coming but don't feel safe enough in our environment for whatever reason to cry then and there. That's OK. Whilst bottling things up is not a good long term strategy, in the short term e.g. until you get home/to your therapy appointment/see your friend or partner it can be the right choice for you. Sometimes we need a prompt like talking about the thing that upset us or watching a sad movie to help get us going and release the tears (here's a list of tearjerker films if you need to do this!).
Smash the patriarchy
I had to include this. Our fear of crying is a symptom of patriarchal bullshit. It literally kills men (who have more societal conditioning around not crying) and harms women - suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. If we didn't have such stigma around expressing emotions this would not be the case.
Look, that fact has just upset Obama! We can't have that ;)
The more we all hide or supress our tears the more we perpetuate the message - and the suffering that comes with it - that crying is 'weak' and 'bad'. Uncomfortable though it is to do things differently and to go against the status quo it's sometimes very necessary and ultimately quite empowering.
So, if you've experienced some tough times (who hasn't!) and not let it all out, take this as your permission to have a good cry. You'll feel better for it.