I Cry, I Weep, I Sob, I Bawl, I Learn
Why it is important to stop shaming your tears
This week I cried, but 25% less than I did 3 months ago. That made me cry.
This 25% statistic is based on a decrease of my anxiety and depression measured by the standard patient questionnaires completed weekly in my 12-week cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) program. It does not quantify tears, but as crying is a symptom of both my anxiety and depression, it feels like a useful marker.
As I set out early in my journey to recover from mental illness, I am working on a few knots at a time, and it sometimes surprises me what knot I find drawing my focus. This week I found myself acutely aware of how my tendency to cry has shaped, and shrunk, how I interact with the world. I know that I need to intentionally shift how I view and treat this piece of myself so that I can be emboldened to move through the world with self-confidence, as wildly empathetic, emotionally vulnerable, and tearful.
My hypothesis is that if we can approach our own emotional vulnerability, and at times instability, with more compassion, we will be better equipped to navigate other’s emotional reactions with empathy and inclusivity. That will create progress. An action that leads to a more diverse and inclusive world, that's feminism.
Crying shame excludes emotionally vulnerable people
Often, when I feel something strongly, I worry about how others who are even more vulnerable might be feeling in the shadows. I have a support network, a partner who has become almost apathetic to my tears for their frequency, a family that reacts to my outbursts with understanding, a new job intentionally built to flex around the symptoms of my illness.
Still, my emotional vulnerability significantly impacts my functioning. How are those without my privilege managing?
When I look around me, crying is still largely positioned as child-like, weak, or plain inappropriate. It is often a natural emotional reaction, but even when it is a symptom of emotional imbalance, it is unproductive to treat it with disdain and oppression.
Those like me recovering from mental illness, or just trying to get a leg up on their lowest point, often feel judged by emotional reactions that we are actively trying to regulate but, for whatever reason, feel challenged by. What muddies the waters is that we label emotional regulation as 100% in our control, when this is not the case.
Crying is not shameful, but it feels shameful
This week I have become increasingly aware of not only my lowered threshold for tears, but how I feel shame around my tears. It may not surprise you that I cried when I read the last message from my therapist telling me that I had improved over the course of the program. Recovery is my primary goal right now, and while these tears were mixed with grief at saying goodbye, they were tears of joy and relief that I was moving in the right direction. But although these tears were largely happy, I treated them with disdain.
When I intentionally stepped back from that stigma, to see the wider context of recovery, I was able to recognize that the fact “happy” is in the mix at all is a significant win. Instead of thinking I should not have cried at that, I focussed on why was I really crying, and how can I learn from that.
Through this lens, my tears over my therapist’s message felt understandable in the context of a relationship ending and a journey moving forward. Without shame, I was emboldened to ignore the narrative of defeat, and create one of progress.
When tears feel inauthentic, it is harder to pivot
What is harder to shift is my mindset around tears that don’t feel indicative of my true emotional state going on behind my eyes. I can often trace my tears back to a trigger, but sometimes there is no identifiable trigger except a chink in my emotional armor at that particular moment. Often my emotional threshold feels inauthentically lowered by my anxiety and depression. It is recognizing these tears as still useful in some way, that can help shed some of this shame reaction.
Just this week, I became acutely aware that I was weeping at scenes from old romantic comedies that would not have affected me in the same way a year ago. Even a declaration of love has become some sort of trigger. That scene from Notting Hill when Julia Roberts says “indefinitely”, it got me. That scene from Bridget Jones when Colin First says “I like you, just as you are,” it got me. That scene in Palms Springs when Andy Samberg says “I would rather die with you, than live in this world without you. Emphatic period.” They all got me.
I can blame some of my emotions on good writing, but this tendency to express more emotion than I even feel internally muddies the waters when I am trying to regain my balance. Not only this, it makes me feel precarious in my relationships with others, like I will be misjudged. Simple acceptance of our tears, not only by ourselves, but also our audience, decreases that feeling of being unsafe. This will only come from empirically shifting the wider conception of tears.
Retreat is not an acceptable solution, I have learned
What frustrates me is my tendency to break down at the drop of a hat not only makes me feel unsafe, but it changes my actions. I think “what if the server asks me my name, and a tear escapes down my cheek? Worse, what if a client asks me about my service and I burst out in tears?” There are many reasons I find to avoid interacting with people, but my fear of crying is towards the top of the list.
Over the last few years, I noticed myself adopting a strategy of “retreat” that does not sit comfortably with me. I make my life smaller to hide my big feelings, when instead I want to join the conversation and within that conversation change and progress it.
There is this scene from Grey’s Anatomy, a show that never fails to make me cry. Arizona Robbins tearfully but confidently explains to a position of authority that she cries when she is challenging a position of authority. She then proceeds through her tears to challenge that position of authority. It is a moment that emboldens me in its simplicity, I’ve got some things to say, but I’m going to cry while I say it, and that’s okay.
I dream of a world where this is a reality for me, for my confidence, and for my audience.
Unabashed tears is not a simple solution
Some may say there is a simple solution to my personal dilemma. This would be just to wear my crying heart on my sleeve. But this answer minimizes the weight of shame there is around showing big feelings.
My teariness is a symptom you can look up in a textbook. It is an imbalance in my emotional regulation. But each person has a different relationship with crying. Although we can guess through our emotional education at what tears mean, they are not always reflective of what lies behind them. My tears do not always signify a specific emotion, but instead my lowered physical emotional threshold. There is still so much stigma around this being a flaw or failure.
For all my efforts to intentionally shed my fears around crying, I doubt, I could challenge authority without apologizing and feeling weakened by a display of emotion. But I’m working on it, and positive representations of tears, or even neutral ones, empower me to continue to step out into the light.
We need a holistic shift to learning tears
Emotional regulation is a daily struggle for me, and I don’t like my natural inclination to feel unsafe and hide, or what that says about how others are feeling in the shadows. I know I am not an expert in media or communications. But from my lived experience, no matter the strides we have made in how we speak about emotions, crying is still often depicted negatively.
Crying feels labeled as acceptable and unacceptable depending on a codified set of circumstances. Even within an “acceptable” situation, you might get away with a stoic tear, but don’t even think about ugly crying. These are colored by a legacy of stigma around mental health itself, the toxic messages around conventionally feminine traits being negative and other false narratives around what “strength” means. But as I said, I am no expert.
For my part, I realize that accepting tears as normal is a small piece of the puzzle, but it does form a wider picture of equality. A world that can teach how to navigate emotion without shaming it is more inclusive, and more productive. Examining our shame around tears, depicting more positive reactions to emotional displays, and having a more inclusive dialogue around emotion in general are just some ways that we can all feel safer.
I beginning to wear my crying heart on my sleeve
As I made clear above, I’m in the weeds with recovery. I struggle with shame, and I suspect I will be working on that knot for a while into the future. For now, I am intentionally working towards feeling more comfortable with my tears, and in turn, more comfortable with others.
With practice, I am learning how to respect my own vulnerability in my tears. To serve my aspiration to increase emotional awareness, I will weave positive messaging around feeling emotions into my business and my content. I will stop apologizing for my tears when I find myself needing to acknowledge them. I will not conceptualize them as a weakness perpetuating a message that emotional expression is a chink in your armor, nor act in line with a toxic belief that I should be excluded from society if I cannot maintain a stiff upper lip.
I believe there is a way we can productively teach emotional regulation, without stigmatizing imbalance in emotions and weighing it down with these additional useless connotations of weakness, incapacity, and failure. Such a shift would move towards including a group of vulnerable people that feel excluded by their challenging emotions.
I hope that the conversation continues to move forward with an awareness of those who face challenges navigating their own ocean of tears.
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