Think about the last time you cried.
Was it one of those cries that left you feeling much better afterwards: relieved, lighter, less sad, more free? Or did it make you feel even worse, like you wish you had just managed to keep it contained and not cry at all? Scan back over all your experiences of crying, and you’ll notice that they’re quite varied, not just in your reasons for crying, but in the quality of the cry itself, and in the effect that crying had on you.
Crying has a purpose.
Something is trying to happen when you cry. When it fails to happen, you’re left feeling worse. When it succeeds, you not only feel better in the moment, but you are positively changed by the experience. If you want to make sure crying accomplishes its purpose, you need to understand something about why we cry.
Imagine a little girl running across a playground. She trips and bangs her knee. Ouch! Not only does the impact hurt, but unexpectedly losing control and falling is scary. Almost immediately, she begins to cry. How does she cry? Loudly enough for everyone around to know that she’s been hurt. An adult comes running to her aid, but not just any adult, an adult who is unusually enlightened about the nature of crying.
Most adults might try to stop the girl from crying, figuring that if she’s crying, she must be hurting. Our enlightened rescuer knows better, however, knows that the hurt already happened, and that the crying is her way ofhealing from having already been hurt.
Crying is an essential part of the healing process.
If you stop a young person from crying when they’ve been hurt, you interfere with the healing that’s trying to happen. If instead, in our playground example, the adult offers some attention and comfort and empathy, but allows the girl to cry until she’s done, she’ll heal the pain and the fear and probably get up and start running around again. She’ll have processed the experience well enough that she’ll have an increased awareness of her surroundings, decreasing the chance that she’ll trip again, but she won’t be afraid to keep playing.
If, on the other hand, she doesn’t get a chance to cry, and to heal, she might start to develop a fear of running and playing. Running might start to feel dangerous, shutting down some of her natural exuberance and boldness. Healing is clearly the better option.
How does crying help us heal?
Consider what happens when you grieve a loss. If someone you love dies, or if you lose a precious opportunity to do something that matters to you, your world suddenly changes. To respond to these changes, your brain needs to be reconfigured so that it no longer orients you toward the person or the thing you’ve lost. Crying as you feel the pain, come to accept the loss, and eventually to say goodbye, helps you to reorient, to let go, and move forward. You come out on the other side a different person, one better equipped to respond to this new phase of your life.
Sadness and grief are not the whole story, however. Crying seems to be a multi-purpose emotional response. You may cry after something frightening happens, especially once you realize it’s over and that you survived it. Crying here helps create the sense of relief, allows you to return from a state of tension and vigilance to a state of ease and rest. You may cry because you’re just overwhelmed.
It’s hard being a person, and the stresses and pressures periodically just become too much for us. Crying is a helpful release mechanism, bypassing our beliefs that we have to hold it all together and giving us a chance to break down and get help. Crying helps heal shame and embarrassment, disappointment and frustration, and long-held emotional tensions.
High-quality crying is crying that maximizes crying’s healing effects. Here are a few principles that will help you get the most healing out of the least possible amount of crying.
Crying with someone is better than crying alone.
We humans are fundamentally relational beings. This has two implications for crying. The first is that many of the kinds of hurts we are trying to heal when we cry have to do with a break in connection: loss of love, betrayal of trust, loneliness. The second implication is that crying promotes healing far more when we cry with somebody else there. These two go together. Along with our feelings of sadness are thoughts and beliefs about why we are sad.
If you are crying alone in your room about how lonely you feel, the crying will reinforce the feelings of loneliness. The benefits of crying will be offset by the ways in which you are perpetuating your aloneness by crying alone. If instead, you have someone with you, their love and their presence contradicts any beliefs you may hold that you’ll always be alone, or that you’re not lovable, or that you have to do it all on your own. The loving attention of another person heals the break in connection that you’re sad about in the first place.
It’s not hard to support someone when they’re crying. All you need to do is offer comfort and safety at the same time as you encourage them to feel whatever they need to feel. Physical contact makes a world of difference, as do words of empathy and understanding. Touching someone in a soothing or supportive way while you share with them how painful you can tell their experience is helps the person remember that they’re not alone, that they’re safe, and that they deserve support. You can easily train anyone to provide you this kind of support, so you need never again cry alone.
Find out why you’re really crying.
It may seem that you’re crying because of present time circumstances. You’re mad at someone who was inconsiderate, or who accused you of something. You’re afraid you’re going to fail at something. You got let down. Have you ever taken care of a child who breaks down crying because you give them a broken cookie? Kids will often use any available pretext to let themselves feel all the stored up emotional tension and confusion and frustration that come with day-to-day life as a young person.
Typically, they don’t know why they’re really crying, and they often don’t have the words to articulate it, but a broken cookie is a good enough excuse to let loose. We’re like that too. When enough overwhelm has built up in us, almost any present time circumstance will be a sufficient pretext to feel all our feelings.
Unlike kids, however, we can notice that this is what’s happening. Rather than get distracted by whomever or whatever you think is responsible for your feelings, the healing process can be much cleaner and more efficient if you just acknowledge that it’s been hard for you recently. Sometimes it seems there’s no real justification for how hard it’s been. Luckily, you don’t need one. You’re allowed to cry just as a part of making your way through life. If you stop putting the blame on the broken cookie, your experience of crying will be more complete.
Even more important than broken cookie syndrome is noticing that present circumstances are frequently triggers for older, unresolved feelings. If instead of blaming someone for how I feel now in the present, I can look to earlier times in my life when I’ve felt similarly, I can zero in on the real source of my pain.
We all carry unhealed hurts from our pasts. When you’ve got someone there with you while you’re crying, you can often talk about all the old fears and hurts that are evoked by present circumstances. The old stuff heals when you recognize that’s what you’re really crying about and say so.
If the amount you’re upset is disproportionate to whatever recent event you’re upset about, that’s a particularly good indicator that you may really be crying about something unresolved from long ago. Do yourself the service of asking what the current situation reminds you of from your past. When you heal your past, the effects are permanent. You get triggered less, and you enjoy the present more.
Cry until the tears subside
Have you ever given any of these reasons for why you should stop crying after you’ve started? You don’t want to burden someone else. You need to keep it together. You’re afraid if you keep going, the tears will never stop. It shouldn’t be such a big deal. You’ve already cried about this. If you let yourself cry now, you’ll be a mess the rest of the day. You shouldn’t be crying at work, or at school, or wherever.
Though all the above reasons can be compelling, crying has a natural rhythm. If you allow yourself to cry until the tears naturally slow down or stop, the process will be complete. There may be more to come, but you’ve at least reached a plateau. These are the moments when crying gives way to a regained perspective, or mental clarity, or a sense of peacefulness.
If you stop in the middle, you often continue to carry the unfelt feelings around with you, on or just below the surface. You’ll tend to feel foggy, or irritable, or down. Whenever you can, let yourself cry until you’re done, and encourage the people who cry with you to do the same. The tears never last forever, though sometimes they can last a good long while. If you can trust that it’s okay for you to cry and keep going until the end, then you get all of crying’s benefits. Healing needs time.
When grieving, remember what you loved, then say goodbye
Grieving is essential. One key way to help ourselves and others fully grieve, is to remember the things we loved about the person or the things we lost. Grief and praise go hand in hand. Sharing with someone about what you loved and will miss, while simultaneously noticing that the person or thing is gone, allows tears to naturally flow. In a crying-negative culture, we often think we need to stop grieving before we are done. Let grief take as long as it wants to. If it seems like it’s going on and on, it may be time to practice saying goodbye. Saying goodbye, and allowing the loss to be final and irreversible, is sometimes the last piece needed for grieving to complete.
You may need to learn to cry again
For many of us, gaining access to tears at all is a challenge. In particular, if you were raised male, you probably learned growing up that boys don’t cry. This was incorrect information. Boys cry just as much as girls do. Like girls, we can learn to suppress the tears, and we do it by suppressing our sadness. If, as a man, you want to reclaim crying, or if you want to help a man reclaim his ability to cry, it helps to start slow.
Learning to get back in touch with sad feelings requires that we slowly start to sense the sadness, and other feelings, as sensations in our bodies, and then to follow the impulses that those sensations produce. Men feel just as much as women, though we often need to get back in touch with the feelings we’ve lost contact with, literally get back in touch with them.
Making crying sounds and motions without tears can help you retrain your body to allow crying to take place. There’s no rush, however. Taking the time to notice sadness without tears, and to give yourself room to feel it, can be just as important as crying.
Quality, not quantity
It is the quality of crying, not the quantity, that determines whether crying’s healing powers can take effect. To recap, follow these principles to improve the quality of your crying experiences:
- Crying with someone is better than crying alone
- Find out why you’re really crying
- Cry until the tears subside
- When grieving, remember what you loved, then say goodbye
- You may need to learn to cry again
Most of us need to cry far more often than we allow ourselves to. Find or train your people, the people you can ask to support you while you cry. Given the tremendous benefits that healing brings, why wait any longer to heal? Today is a good day to cry!
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Ed: Dana Gornall
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