Menu

Stress and Anxiety

Is it okay to cry? Dealing with fears of tears

I’ve noticed recently that the first time a person cries in my presence, tears are followed by a profuse apology--the sort of apology you’d expect from a major faux pas, like stepping on someone’s toe.  

I’ve observed that men who cry seem particularly sorry. Since when is crying a sin? Even once I explain to people that I’m okay and even touched by their expression of vulnerability, they continue to habitually say, “Sorry,” when tears arise.

As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I collaborate with clients at the start of each session to set an agenda for our time together.  One day last week, I met with several people wanting to address their worries around crying.

Concerns included:  
• Is it ok to cry in front of your boyfriend?
• Should you email your professor rather than meet with her if you may tear up during the meeting?
• What do you do when you start to cry at work about a personal issue?
• How do you maintain a professional reputation if you tear up at work about a professional issue?

In thinking about whether crying is a good idea, I like to assess:

1. What motivates tears?  Did your tears arise quickly or are you trying to create them to prove a point?  At times, we may try to work ourselves to tears and in such cases, crying may not prove as useful. Living a good life is hard when you are acting out a part. If tears arise, don’t pretend all is “okay,” and if you are not crying, no need to feign tears.

2. Is your mind a tragic fiction? If crying is prompted by a thought like, “I’ll never be loved,” notice if the thought is simply a thought, not a fact. Crying about a perceived hopeless future will only contribute to your hopelessness. If what you are crying about is a reality, such as the pain of a recent disappointment, honor your emotional experience.

3. Are tears the result of suppressed feelings?  Have you been trying to hide your feelings all day? If so, you may find yourself particularly vulnerable. If you swallow your tears after being humiliated by your boss, you may later find yourself tearful when something else in your day goes awry.  Crying is most useful when it is relevant, not as an aftershock. Learn to courageously express your feelings when they arise.

In summary, when your tears come from current, real pain, then you should cry.  

“But I can’t cry at work,” Margot insisted after a recent loss.  

We noticed together that harnessing her willpower into not crying at work meant she had little energy to get anything else done.  

Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests, “The culture of ‘no tears at work’ is just not good for humans. We are emotional creatures. Better to change the culture than to sit atop those who express that fact openly.”

My meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, author of Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, shared an experience she had on a meditation retreat. As part of her retreat, she participated in private meetings with a well-known Burmese monk, Sayadaw U Pandita, a master of Vipassana meditation. Sharon struggled to hold back tears, as the retreat coincided with the recent loss of a close friend. In a meeting with U Pandita, she tried to push back tears.  

He noticed her emotions and asked frankly, “Are you crying?”

Sharon stammered, “Not much, just a very little bit.”

U Pandita shook his head and urged, “Every time you cry you should cry your eyes out. That way you’ll get the best relief.”

Crying is an innate physiological experience that serves important evolutionary functions. We all have primary emotions - the emotions we feel first. Then we have secondary emotions, emotions that stem from judging our primary emotions. If you feel sad, sadness may be a primary emotion. If you think you’re “reacting too strongly” or “it’s embarrassing to cry” you may feel guilt, shame, and anxiety, secondary to sadness.  

Crying can feel cathartic when you give yourself the compassion to feel what you feel without punishing yourself.  Don’t cry over crying.

Jennifer Taitz  is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. She is the author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop Healthy Relationship to Food. Visit her website drjennytaitz.com or find her on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.