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To Cry or Not to Cry?

Some people may think that tears are what healing and therapy are all about, but that’s not necessarily true. I see two types of clients: those who cry easily and those for whom shedding a tear is like pulling teeth. Both sets suffer from emotional management problems, and my goal is to help each move toward a healthier middle ground.

Some clients begin to cry the minute they sit down on my office couch. Either they’ve been holding in tears until they see me or they’ve been on crying jags throughout the day (or week) and can’t get a grip. Others let loose the minute we touch on painful subjects such as childhood abuse, the death a loved one, frustration with their weight, or family or work problems. They complain about lacking control over when and where they cry: the tears just come unbidden. Most end up feeling ashamed, out of control, and angry at themselves for what they view as a weakness. My work is to help them build skills for containing affect, to teach them how not to cry when they’re upset but to self-soothe or distract themselves instead.

Then there are clients who never cry. No matter how painful the subject, they’re stoic. Most of the time, often at the end of a year or so of therapy, they’ll allow themselves to tear up or shed a tear or two. Gradually, they learn to let tears flow, but it’s so hard for many to simply let it all out. They’re afraid of feeling vulnerable, of being mocked, of my thinking less of them. My work is to help them understand that I’m not judging them, that grieving through tears is essential to emotional healing, and that crying is a healthy, natural, normal response to psychic pain.

Both criers and non-criers lack a complete set of emotional management skills. A healthy person recognizes that it’s fine to cry sometimes because it’s comforting and cathartic and relieves inner tension. She also realizes that crying can become a bad habit, a ineffective coping behavior (like unwanted eating, purging or over-exercising) if not modulated. The client who cries a lot needs to tighten the reins and decide when and where it’s appropriate to cry and do less of it. The client who rarely if ever cries needs to tolerate her tears and, instead, surrender to what’s dying to pour out of her.

These skills fall under the category of self-regulation, the same ones that drive eating too much or too little, another manifestation of what I call a yes-no disorder. Modulating your ability to cry will help you move away from an all-or-nothing perspective and support your efforts to balance yourself with food and in other areas of your life.