“And then, I just broke down.”
We know this phrase. You’ve probably said it. I know I have. “I broke down” doesn’t mean you became sick, or that you suddenly couldn’t move your body, or that your brain stopped working. There’s no actual breaking down of anything. It simply means you cried. That’s it. More than a single tear, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean you collapsed into a wailing puddle on the floor, either. You cried. Some tears fell out of your eyes, you made some funny faces and sounds, and if you’re like me, you produced a hell of a lot of snot. And then, after a few minutes or a short while, it’s done. We might feel tired or drained, but we generally move on with our day. But we all talk about crying as if we are rendered completely useless, or as if we become defective, in need of fixing. And I think we can find better ways to talk about our tears. Because we all cry, and we are not broken.
A colleague recently commented on my Instagram post that we often see characters on TV and movies apologizing when they “get emotional.” My clients do this too in our sessions, and it breaks my heart, time and again. If you can’t cry in therapy, then when the hell can you? I remind them that crying is not against the therapy rules, and that there’s no better time or place to cry than in therapy. This exchange of apology and reassurance is such a frequent occurrence, that it is one of the main reasons I felt compelled to write and post about crying.
Why do we in western culture speak with such disdain for crying? It might be, in part, because it is poorly understood. Scientists have identified three types of tears – one for eye moisture, another for flushing out irritants, and the emotional kind we are talking about today. The first two have a clear physiological role to play in keeping our eyes safe and operational. But the purpose of the third type – the emotional kind – is a little less straightforward.
Researchers suspect that social connection may be the main function of tears. According to WebMD,
“Crying often connects people, whether it’s out of grief, love, passion, or another strong emotion. Crying may cause others to be empathetic and compassionate toward you, softening anger or unpleasant emotion that caused the tears to flow in the first place.”
So it does seem to serve a purpose, but one that is undervalued in our individualist culture. You may also be familiar with the conventional wisdom that “a good cry” is cathartic, but actual research is mixed on whether this is the case. Regardless, it is clearly a very normal part of human expression that many of us experience quite regularly.
Statistically speaking (and unfortunately, using an outdated gender binary), the research indicates that cis women cry far more often than cis men. Gendered socialization may play a role, but there is some indication that hormones have a significant impact as well. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or started HRT, or remember puberty clearly, you know first hand the wild and powerful impact that hormones can have on your emotions. It’s definitely a thing. And as this article from the American Psychological Association indicates, less testosterone and more prolactin do seem to make one more prone to crying.
And, in our patriarchal society, woman stuff is bad stuff, right? If you’ve ever been told to “man up” through your tears or been called a “pussy,” you’ve been demeaned for your feminine emotional display. Crying is seen as a chick thing – less functional, less rational. But everyone cries at one time or another, regardless of gender, even if it is infrequent for many cis men. We can’t all be “breaking down.”
But what’s so terrible about doing chick stuff? Crying is not stopping us from functioning. Harvard Health indicates that “on average, American women cry 3.5 times each month.” (Which means, for some people and some months, it’s a lot more than that.) And, let me tell you, even with all this crying, women and non-binary folks are GETTING. SH*T. DONE. And we are so far from broken. We are crying before/during/after managing our projects, hiring and firing people, serving customers, grocery shopping, changing diapers, working out, supporting friends, reassuring partners, taking aging parents to their appointments, walking the dog, and so much more. Clearly, crying is not stopping us from routinely jamming through the neverending to-do list.
It might be inconvenient or tiring, but there is nothing broken about crying. Nearly everyone does it, and some more than others. None of us are broken down. We are all just being human.