Why is dealing with tears so hard sometimes?
People apologize for their tears in therapy all the time. They say “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry today”. Or I will see them actively try to stop their tears. And this is IN THERAPY. Where tears are actually part of the expected terrain. That means these attempts to stop or apologize for tears are definitely happening outside of the therapy room.
It is a natural reaction to feel like you have to hurry up and fix something if you or someone else starts crying.
But, really, there is nothing alarming happening if tears flow.
It is our human design. It’s true that our human design, physically and emotionally, is isn’t always the most graceful or becoming. But it is nothing bad.
I was sitting in the estate attorney’s office with my family after my mother’s passing. We are all talking and then my dad makes a sound and we all turn to look. He is fully crying. He puts up his hand and says “I’m sorry”. The conversation stops. Everyone looks frozen for a second then start scrambling to find tissues. I know he has tissues in his pocket because he has carried them in his pocket for the last 25 years.
I say, “It’s OK.” The attorney looks at me and say “Clearly it’s not.”
This is not an unusual or unexpected response.
After the meeting, we were out in the hallway going down to the elevator. I had explained to my Dad before about crying, that it is just a wave passing through. That it is an important release and there is nothing to do about it besides let it happen.
He says “What you said is really true. If I just let it pass through, I’m OK. Actually, I feel better. It’s like clearing the cobwebs out”. I say “Ya, just like a sneeze”.
Here’s how to handle tears better:
- Practice pure crying. Usually when we cry, there is a subtle (or not so subtle) pain the chest. Pure crying means to cry until that pain settles down. The goal is to follow the cues of the body and try to keep thoughts even, not minimizing things and not whipping yourself up into dramatic thoughts. Just cry until it doesn’t hurt anymore. Let the tears happen. Don’t let your thoughts take you to unnecessary places.
- Remember that if you are truly not OK (meaning you are not physically safe), you would not be crying. Crying is a surrender and a release. We can not let go if we are in actual danger. Efran and Greene discuss the “Two Stage Theory of Tears” in their article Why We Cry: The Fascinating Psychology of Emotional Release. The theory poses that “physiologically speaking, emotional tears are elicited when a person’s system shifts rapidly from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity—from a state of high tension to a period of recalibration and recovery”. They discuss scenarios where a person does not cry while in initial shock or problem solving mode, that often tears will come when a person feels they can “go off duty” from having to “handle” a situation such as a person in a car accident who cries once the paramedics arrive.
- Your presence and care is what matters most. That means, if they are your tears, your presence to the emotion (as opposed to trying to stop it or change it) is what will help the process happen more quickly and smoothly. If the tears are someone else’s, the best thing you can do is also be present and care about the feelings. You don’t have to come up with an amazing intervention to make your person feel better. You just have to care and not make it worse 😉 Your person will recover. They will be OK. They will be grateful for your care.
At the end of the day, tears are just tears. It’s OK not to fix or change anything when the tears are there.
That would be like if you tried to fix it if someone sneezes.
Your body cleared out it’s nasal cavity, as it is designed.
Once it is done, it is done. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes it is disgusting.
But, really, there is nothing to do about it besides say “bless you”.
I kind of love that.