Learning to show emotion without judging the form it takes
I’m in session with a client who is telling me about a very emotional event in her life. She begins to tear up, but she fights it and keeps the tears back. We continue to talk and she continues to fight. She isn’t fooling anyone. I can see the tears there, wanting to come out. Then there is a moment when one of us says something that makes it so she can’t hold them back any more and the tears begin to flow.
I see a woman expressing her feelings, allowing herself to be vulnerable and thereby gaining strength. As she reaches for the box of tissues she says the one thing you might never expect, “I’m sorry.” As if her tears are an imposition on me. As if her emotion is something she should not burden anyone else with. As if she has just messed up and let me know she is human and she must apologize for it.
From children through adults I find that crying is something most people do not want to do. They see it as a flaw in themselves. They see it as weakness and no one is supposed to know that they have weakness in them. I have new clients who warn me ahead of time, “I’m going to be crying a lot.” They’ll even say, “I know this is the place to cry but I just wanted to give you a heads up.” They are not doing this for my benefit. I’m a therapist; I expect tears and welcome their presence as a sign of release. My clients are fearful and need to defend themselves as if I will condemn them for being vulnerable.
“I don’t like to cry in front of other people.” I hear that one a lot. Sometimes they’ll decide I’m not “other people” because of my position and our relationship, but it doesn’t change their willingness to do it with anyone else.
So what is it that makes us think that crying is weakness, ridiculous, or even shameful? It’s a combination of many things. What messages were you given as a child? Were you the one who always had to keep it together because everyone else was losing it? Have you ever had an experience where you were crying and well meaning people said, “Don’t cry, it’ll be okay”? Have you ever had anyone point blank tell you that you shouldn’t cry or that you are too emotional?
When we cry we feel out of control. If we are out of control then we are vulnerable to attack or judgment. Maybe it even makes us feel like a child again, when so little was in our control. If you do not have someone in your life that you feel safe enough with to cry with them, then find a good therapist and let it out with them.
Crying can actually be a sign that you are moving forward with something like grief. Many people are numb after the death of someone they love. They think they are doing fine and that they have it all under control. Then they get angry with themselves when they reach a stage where they begin crying at little things and try to stop it from happening. What they really need is to just let it out. Let the emotion be expressed and you will feel like you are the master of your own body again.
Ultimately the answer to the question is, “Yes, it’s okay to cry.” In fact it’s even healthy and needed. When we feel the need to cry it is our body’s natural reaction to an emotion and it wants to express that emotion. You may feel you are an especially teary person. If you are not being mindful of expressing your feelings in other ways, your body will find its own way. So if you don’t like to cry in front of other people, learning to express those feelings will help you to not be set up for what feels like embarrassment to you.
If you feel like you have to be in control and hold the tears back to get through your work day or to support someone else, that’s fine. Just make sure you also find a time for your need to get met and let it out. Stopping tears only makes emotions come out in other ways, which can be much more detrimental – like yelling at a friend or hiding from your feelings in alcohol.
So be the master of your own body and mind and let the tears fall. Let the relief happen, then return to your life knowing that sword is no longer hanging over your head and you are now the one in control, not your emotions.