Crying and me have an uncomfortable relationship, but of late, it’s been improving, and even–maybe–turning into a kind of love relationship.
When I was a little girl, I cried constantly. I was an extraordinarily sensitive child who probably spent more time in tears than not. In school I was bullied and called a crybaby. Being constantly shamed, scolded and made fun of over my frequent (and intense) crying, both at school and at home, taught me some hard (and unhealthy) lessons. Over time, I began to cry less. At some point that I can’t pinpoint, probably during my late teens or twenties, I stopped being able to cry at all (except for movies, novels, certain pieces of music, sappy Hallmark commercials, sad news stories about animals or kids (especially if abuse was involved), and other emotion-laden things that were “safe” to cry over because they were disconnected from me and involved people I didn’t know or fictional characters.)
But all that emotion didn’t just suddenly go away. It had to go somewhere. Most of it got bottled up and turned inward; I experienced horrible depressions that felt like death–a terrible emptiness and emotional barrenness that felt like being smothered in the cold dark matter of intergalactic space and that seemed every bit as eternal. But sometimes, like a pressure cooker with no escape valve, I’d explode. These explosions–rages, really– were always overreactions to whatever had set them off, because they also served as a sudden release of weeks or months of bottled up emotion. And they always happened with no forewarning. Even I could not predict them.
I’d overreact to everything and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. I kicked in doors, smashed windows, threw vases, broke things I wish I hadn’t broken, and uttered loud obscenities like someone who was possessed. (I rarely hit anyone though–my violence was always aimed at inanimate objects). People were scared of me and I was scared of myself. But crying? Nope–except for the bitter, sharp tears of rage that sometimes spit out of my eyes like BB bullets when I was REALLY out of control.
In the past few years, since I went No Contact, I’ve been evolving, spiritually and emotionally. Therapy, faith, nature, and writing are all helping me do that. But I won’t elaborate on that here, because this post isn’t about that and most of my other posts are.
Since I’ve been starting to unfold, I’m finding that tears come more easily. I still have a hard time crying in general, especially in front of others. I still have a lot of shame connected with crying, but gradually that shame is disappearing and being replaced with a desire to be vulnerable, a desire to be able to express deep emotions but without losing control–and a desire to cry openly and without shame.
Human beings are the only creatures who are known to have the ability to shed emotional tears (there has been some evidence that elephants may also have this ability). What’s the first thing we do when we’re born? We cry. At every important juncture or milestone of life–whether happy or sad–there are tears. And when we die, tears are shed for us. We experience life within this great arc of tears, whether they’re our own or are shed for us.
Most people automatically think if you cry, that means you’re sad or upset. They feel like they must try to stop you: “oh, please don’t cry,” they plead. Of course, they mean well. But it makes people uncomfortable. Our culture has made crying almost a social taboo, except for socially-sanctioned public crying of the type done at funerals. Or shedding a few tears at the movies.
But crying may be the only thing you can do sometimes. It’s healthy. You may need to do it as much as you need to eat or drink water. Tears are both healing and connective, and they don’t mean you’re weak–they mean you’re courageous enough to allow yourself the luxury of feeling life deeply, whether it’s deep joy, deep faith, or deep sadness. Crying itself isn’t negative or positive–it’s a very human expression of any intense emotion. It’s really just a pre-verbal, visual language that we speak when what we feel is too deep for words to express.
But enough with the romantic philosophizing. I wanted to talk about what I’ve noticed about my own tears during this journey. At first it was hard. I wanted to cry more; I knew I was repressing an entire ocean of pain, but I had to force myself to get any tears out. Music helped the most. So did books and movies, but music had the most fast-acting, intense effect. Even then, I could sometimes only squeeze out a fear tears. It was frustrating. Where was this blockage that was keeping my lacrimatory plumbing all gunked up and clogged?
As I began to pay more attention to my body during moments of intense emotion, whatever it was, I realized that I seemed to have a dull ache or some feeling of blockage in the middle of my gut, right over my belly button. There was a little of that in my throat and heart area too, but it was mostly in the solar plexus region. Chakra meditation–particularly focusing on the solar plexus (third) chakra–helped loosen whatever it was that was blocking me there. I could tell because whenever the music would get to that particular chakra, I’d feel this overwhelming sadness and feeling of great loss. The middle of my gut would begin to actually hurt, and then, to my surprise (and delight), tears began to trickle down my cheeks. At first I wiped them away but soon I realized how good they felt and let them flow. They felt comforting–like the gentle fingers of a loving mother. The more of these tears slid down my cheeks, the more cleansed I felt. The pain went away and the uncomfortable tightness was gone. It’s believed by some that people with cluster B disorders have blockages in these chakras, especially the solar plexus.
I couldn’t cry in therapy at first. I still can’t–not really. But many times I’ve teared up even though no actual tears left my eyes, and a few times I’ve actually let a few tears escape. In one very recent session, I actually cried more than a few tears and allowed him to see my face for a second or two, but wasn’t able to keep that going. My therapist is the only person (besides my daughter) who has seen me cry in a long time. But even with him, I’m very guarded and unable to let him see my face too much–instead I look at my lap and cover my forehead with my hands so he can’t see the tears–but he always knows, because I’m sniffling and my nose is running. I want so badly to not have to hide this from him anymore. I think I’m coming closer.
As I said above, crying isn’t a negative thing and can even be a very positive thing, but most of western society (both sexes, but mostly men) has been programmed to believe that tears are always somehow connected with sadness (a “negative” emotion) or with weakness. But the reality is, any intense emotion fully experienced can and does elicit tears. There are some empaths, who are not at all what anyone would call depressed–who cry every day, not because they feel bad, but because they feel everything so deeply. In the Stephen King movie, “The Green Mile,” a man named John Coffey, unjustly imprisoned for the murder of two young girls, had an almost constant stream of tears running down his cheeks, because of his extremely high ability to feel everything fully, including the emotions of those around him. He turned out to be the movie’s hero because of his high empathy.
Most people think they look ugly when they cry (I’m one of them) but have you ever noticed a certain radiance too? After someone has had a “good cry” (not the manipulative or self-pitying kind of cry narcissists do, but a real, cathartic one), have you noticed the way their skin kind of glows and their features seem to soften? If there was hardness or coldness in the expression before, it seems to disappear for awhile and be taken over by something much gentler and more human.
For myself, I’ve noticed there are two basic types of emotional crying. “Happy” tears are those shed for joy, love, gratitude, feeling moved or touched, appreciation, awe, and matters of a spiritual nature. They can also include tears of mirth or laughter. Sometimes a certain type of sadness can qualify as “happy” too. “Survival” tears (I don’t want to call them “negative” because they serve an important function) are those shed when we’re hurt, disappointed, angry, frustrated, lonely, afraid, or suffering grief, loss or pain (emotional or physical).
Both types of tears are necessary for normal functioning and both types have their own unique properties.
Happy tears are the kind that are almost fun to shed (if they didn’t make us feel so self conscious). They can be numerous, but seem composed of a slightly thicker salt water that makes them take longer to run down the cheeks–or maybe they just spill over with less force and that makes them trickle or slide rather than stream or flow. These oils or salts or whatever it is happy tears contain also makes them stick to the eyelashes and linger on the cheeks if they’re not wiped away. This could be an evolutionary thing–with their conspicuousness meaning their real purpose is to connect us with others. They’re a kind of pre-verbal language for deep emotions that words can’t express and are meant to be shared. I can’t share them yet, but I still find that even when shed in private, my heart feels more open and I feel more connected to life.
Almost every Sunday in church lately, I cry this way during the liturgy, and sometimes during the music or homily too. I know this can only mean one thing–the holy spirit is working on my heart. It’s a delicious feeling to cry like this–but I’m still so shy about it and don’t want anyone to see. So what I do is always sit in the back pew, wearing waterproof mascara and I bring a lot of tissues because I know there’s no avoiding the waterfall. It’s annoying to have to keep blowing my nose, but other than that, it feels like a kind of baptism.
When I sat last week for two hours in the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, I was so overwhelmed by beauty surrounding me at one point that tears just started to flow. I was already covered with the salt water of the Gulf, so my tears mingled with that, and I thought about how similar the composition of tears are to the ocean and wondered what the meaning of that might be.
When I nursed my babies as newborns, sometimes I’d be overcome with love touched with a kind of existential sadness (that is very difficult to explain) that tears would just start flowing. I think it’s possible lactating and pregnant mothers might become extra-emotional because it facilitates a love bond and helps them attach to their newborns. You can’t love someone without your heart being open, and opening your heart means you start to feel things more.
Happy tears aren’t usually accompanied by sobs, or if they are, only very soft sobs, almost like sighs. Sometimes you don’t even know why you’re crying. You just know you have to and it feels fucking great.
“Survival” tears or tears of pain, grief or loss are usually cathartic. They can be connective too, because they attract help or sympathy when we need it and thus help us survive, but it’s a different kind of connection–a more survival oriented one, rather than the sublime and pure human connection of the “soft” or happy emotions. The survival type of crying is more likely to involve sobbing and the tears tend to run faster, as if communicating urgency.
When a person has been in therapy for awhile, especially if they have suffered early trauma or a traumatic event of some kind that set their psychological problems into motion, and a breakthrough is finally reached, it’s almost always expressed through prolonged, intense, cathartic crying. Not everyone has such a dramatic breakthrough; some may just start finding tears coming more easily during session and increasing over time. But in many cases, especially if the person has been holding back or repressing strong emotions for a long time, some trigger or repressed memory may cause a kind of internal dam to break, resulting in convulsive, prolonged crying and copious tears. In some dramatic movies, these “breakthroughs” are almost always the climax of the film: two excellent examples from the top of my head (and both involving emotionally repressed patients in therapy) are Nick Nolte’s character in Prince of Tides, and the emotionally abused and scapegoated teenager Conrad Jarrett (played by Timothy Hutton) in the movie Ordinary People.
Even though I still have so much trouble crying in therapy, often I make up for that when I get home. Sometimes I can’t even hold back the tears for that long, and start crying in the car on the way home. Sometimes I have to actually pull over because all the tears interfere with my vision, and I’ll just sit there in the car, my face buried in my hands, sobbing until I feel something like relaxation and relief take over.
I’m currently reading a book called Cross Roads, by Christian novelist William Paul Young (who also wrote The Shack). I won’t review the book here (I’ll be doing that in a day or two, for both blogs) but it’s about a narcissist who has a near death experience (NDE) and there’s a LOT of cathartic crying as he begins to look back at his wasted life, the loved ones he had hurt, and all the bad choices he made. Reading it is also cathartic for me, but in a good way (that should give you an idea of the sort of review I’ll be writing)