Updated: Oct 9
"Don't worry," I often say to my clients "Therapy isn't about getting you into the foetal position and crying about all of your childhood hurts." Yet, having a good old cry can be a cathartic process.
Charles Darwin once stated emotional tears were “purposeless." We know that as babies, tears elicit care from adults. But why do we cry when we are grown up? Does it have a purpose beyond prevention of dry eye? What was once afforded little thought or attention in psychology is increasingly being put under the research lens as a complex phenomena with various functions.
Crying isn't just associated with sadness. Research shows we cry when surprised, empathetic, excited and in love. Also, we are not the only animals that express emotions through crying. Almost all mammals show emotions and behaviours around loss (just ask old mate Attenborough) and some shed tears.
There is a hardwired biology to crying however we have shaped our understanding of this act on a social level. Across many cultures, humans are taught self-expression through crying should be tamed or suppressed. Girls are told to stop being so “sensitive”, and boys are told to "man up". Boys are taught that crying too much makes them weak, and girls are told crying too much makes them crazy.
Some indigenous cultures (indeed my own, being Maori) see crying or wailing around the passing of a loved one as a meaningful spiritual practice. Our understanding and experience of crying is heavily influenced by our culture and upbringing.
I did not cry much growing up (publicly anyway). I developed a survival strategy of emotional suppression pretty early on during a difficult childhood. While it probably helped me to get by then, as an adult, this strategy started to show some cracks, and so did I. Years of emotional suppression lead to what was probably a mild form of cyclical depression for most of my 20's. This was characterised by long periods of distance from my emotions (and high functioning) interspersed by tearful downturns. These cycles created a rollercoaster ride of emotions that made me feel I had become weak. I remember being fearful that if I really touched what I was feeling underneath that the water would just pour out of me, like a tap, and not stop. I now see many clients who experience the same fears.
One study conducted by Cord Benecke found that non-crying people had a tendency to withdraw and described their relationships as less connected. They also experienced more negative aggressive feelings, like rage, anger and disgust, than people who cried. I observe this within sessions. My clients who are apprehensive to cry experience more negative symptoms of depression and anger and report feeling misunderstood or not trusting of others with their emotions. Most people I see who are uncomfortable to cry did not have caregivers or loved ones to model this behaviour. They often report that parents or love ones did not express emotions in an open manner.
Over the years I have learnt how to touch and experience my emotions and have come to understand more about the beauty and mystery of crying.
Crying is often coupled with a building of emotion, a welling up of feelings that is paired with a physical sensation somewhere around the chest and throat. I repetitively hear clients report in sessions that just before crying there is a "lump in my throat" experience.
I am going to take a woowoo left hand turn here for two seconds. If you believe in the chakra system, it makes sense that the welling up of emotions is experience in the heart and throat chakra where feelings like love, anger, loneliness and sadness are experienced and expressed.
Back to the main story...at the emotional crescendo our eyes release salty water from ducts that are there to keep our eyes from drying out. This represents an alchemy of invisible energy (feelings) to visible/tangible matter (tears).
The magic doesn't stop there. Crying often creates a neurochemical change in the people we are with. In trusting and safe relationships, crying releases hormones that are designed to connect us more. Crying increases a sense of empathy and our brains literally start to mirror each other in terms of the areas that are firing (think of crying when you watch a sad moment in a movie, your brain is starting to fire as though you are having the experience as well). Research has found that after crying (not straight after, some hours after) there is an improvement in mood and a sense of happiness.
Whether you believe in a greater universal meaning or a creator, there is something going on with tears that deserves our attention. I do not believe that we have tear ducts just to keep our eyes from drying out. There is a higher purpose to this very interesting phenomenon. What is that purpose? CONNECTION. Most of the psychological research has moved away from the "dry eye" theory and recognises that tears play a role in our sense of belonging.
Crying helps us to connect to our emotions and to others. So, next time you feel that lump in your throat, try not to swallow it. Let it move! And if your face gets wet, that is totally okay (as long as you are a mammal who wants to feel a sense of belonging that is).