Not all those who cry are sad

Crying remains the universal symbol for sadness. But, do people universally feel sad when they cry? Are those who identify with sadness reliably tearful?

I keep boxes of tissues lining the back of my therapy couch, stocked. I ran out once and I kept a client waiting the five minutes it took to run across the street to a pharmacy because better five minutes late than no tissues. A therapy office faux-pas, for sure. I couldn’t believe I’d let it happen.

Crying, in my over eight years as a therapist, has shifted meaning. In fact, I would say that not all those who cry are sad. People struggling with depression don’t always cry, and happiness is not always smiley.

A 30 something year old woman tells me, dry-eyed, how sad she is that her partner does not pleasure her generously. She advocates for herself with clarity and articulates her right to the same pleasure as him. But I ask her what keeps her from communicating this to him and she says, “Maybe I should feel grateful he even wants me at all". Her tears instantly flow. She is deeply loathing of her body and ashamed of parts mocked early on in her life. It is so important to this woman that she be desirable, good enough, and worthy of sensual love.

A 40-something-year-old man struggling with a health condition can talk about his medical history and the various adjustments his life has required without skipping a beat. But you ask him if his financial planning is in order for future work constraints and the lump in his throat appears; his tear ducts briefly fill. The fact that he might not function independently at some point doesn’t sadden him as it has reached a rational state of mind; ask him about providing for his family and nothing is more important. His pride can sustain requiring help from someone doing up his buttons; but his family relying on someone else financially, for him, is not an option. His values involve the father providing for his family, regardless of any and all circumstances.

A sexual assault survivor recounts her horrific experiences. But ask her about what it’s like to think about her 9-year-old daughter, and her eyes well up with tears. Sadness, injustice, anger and survival come easy to her to discuss, but nothing is more important than protecting her daughter from a similar fate. Her thoughts of her daughter demonstrate what is important to her as well as what leaves her feeling paralyzed by helplessness.

What makes people cry is hopelessness, helplessness, vulnerability, shame, fear. Reducing these to sadness, would be a therapeutic injustice.

Feelings of sadness rarely resonate with tearful clients. What seems to resound across sessions and into effective treatment more than pain, are the clients’ values revealed by the simplicity of a steady stream of salty wet. Everyone remembers the sessions during which they cried.

One of the greatest errors spoken by well-intentioned soothers of people crying is the all too common phrase, “Don’t cry”. In therapy training, it is generally accepted to not speak when someone tears. It is helpful to hold space and allow the flow of tears to manifest a person’s true feelings in catharsis; a temporary overflow of the body’s capacity for containment into tear ducts only to be wiped away or blown into a tissue.

Interestingly, people usually apologize for their tears. “I am so sorry, I don’t know what came over me; I’m being so emotional today.” “It must be cuz I’m overly tired”. Some empathize with others discomfort if they were to cry knowing when they witness the tears of others they are uncomfortable.

Crying has more or less been destigmatized across genders. Men know they can cry as much as they can wear pink. But do they allow themselves to tear without judging themselves as weak? Tragically, not often. And do women know it's ok to show emotion? Yes. But do women feel aware of being seen as “moody” when tears appear? Also yes.

What if we didn’t reflexively sneeze out “I’m fine” when crying? What if we allow ourselves and others to appear not-so-fine, ever so briefly, as a way to make room for tear duct overflow, and expect, to feel better in just a few moments once that which really matters has been revealed?