We’ve all seen it. Someone is sobbing, or even just beginning to tear or choke up, and they are told, “Don’t cry.” We’ve probably been on both the receiving and giving ends of this statement. But the sentiment of don’t show your hurt/frustration/grief is ALL about the person who utters the words, not about the person demonstrating their inner pain.
The reasons someone might say “don’t cry” include:
- It’s okay; you’re going to be fine
- Quit with the sissy stuff and toughen up
- Don’t let anyone see you so weak
Someone who says, “don’t cry” may offer a hug and want to comfort the crier or they may show disappointment on their face and try to shame him/her. But neither of these intentions demonstrate any understanding of the actual purpose for this emotional outpouring. Usually when someone says, “don’t cry” it is an exhibit of their profound discomfort with the display of emotions. They want the person to stop crying so they can be saved from feeling this discomfort.
Why Do We Cry?
Crying is a spontaneous healing mechanism unique to humans. We can easily observe this natural response in babies and young children who cry automatically when they are hurt. ‘Hurt’ can mean physical harm as well as mental confusion and emotional frustration. If a trusted adult rages at a young child this inflicts harm at the mental and emotional level, and could likely lead to tears.
Some people believe that crying also happens out of happiness, as in the oft-seen airport reunions and weddings scenarios. But these happy criers are also healing hurts with their tears, the same as those criers with broken hearts and twisted ankles. If I start to cry when I’m hugging my sister who I haven’t seen in a year at the baggage carousel, it’s because I’ve had the ‘hurt’ in my mind of missing her or being concerned about her well-being. I’m shedding tears of relief that are actually BASED in that previous hurt.
Crying is not the hurting; it is the healing of the hurting.
By crying during or after a hurtful experience our bodies can better return to a state of equilibrium. Our minds also become more relaxed and therefore better able to think, learn, and be creative. For example, the other night I was at improv practice and having a difficult time with one of the theatre games. I went home very frustrated and feeling incompetent, with rising anxiety because we’ve got 2 performances coming up this month. But the next day at practice I did 2 beautiful alphabet scenes! The surprised director asked me what had happened overnight, and I told him that I had been studying my dictionary, which built my confidence, and I also had a big cry, which drained my discouragement and allowed me to more freely improvise.
The emotional release and subsequent improved functioning provided by crying is a brilliant part of human evolution. It’s an adaptive advantage. So don’t go around telling people to override this useful instinct.
Crying and Conflict
Anywhere you have conflict you also have heightened emotions. These two always hang out together. If you weren’t having feelings about the person or the situation you wouldn’t be in conflict! Even in a conflict situation where a person is managing their words and their emotions well, perhaps even appearing calm and collaborative on the outside, challenging negotiations demand increased emotional energy and awareness by definition.
It is good and normal to see big feelings expressed during conflict resolution. When parties feel like someone is finally ready to listen, it is safer to express their disappointment, their anger, their jealousy, etc.
One time I worked with a couple who were facing a very difficult (non-fatal) disease in the husband. The diagnoses happened a year prior and he had been through surgery and medication, but their future was now permanently altered and they were reeling. There was no outward conflict in their relationship but both of them struggled with their thoughts and feelings in isolation for fear of burdening their already overburdened partner (he was burdened by the disease itself, she was burdened with being the sole income earner and chief caretaker of her husband). This emotional distancing and their internal sadness and confusion were eroding their marriage so they came to me for help.
The first thing I was curious about and wanted to explore was their feelings. The main one for both of them was grief. They were profoundly sad and disappointed to give up the active life they once lived as a couple and the plans they had shared for having children. But neither of them had been open about this grief with the other for fear that it would slam the kite of their marriage into the ground and it would never fly again. So instead they pretended to be strong and brave thinking it would encourage the other one, which had precisely the opposite effect.
Once the two of them were actively expressing their grief by crying, talking about their dreams, discussing their fears, and sharing their needs, a huge shift happened. Because feelings can only be changed by going through them and coming out the other side; avoidance of them will get you nowhere.
This couple was able to share their deep love for the other and begin to rationally sketch out plans for dealing with their profound challenges. With new emotional vulnerability they became excited about self-care strategies, communication techniques, and goal setting.
When feelings start to move a conflict can shift. If crying starts the negotiator or mediator can often relax because something is opening; something is being revealed. Here is the opportunity for change.
If you find that one of you can’t stop crying you probably need counselling first or instead of conflict resolution.