How to Hold Back Tears (Plus Two Big Myths About Crying)

Manostaxx - Industrial Management Consulting
Manostaxx – Industrial Management Consulting

All crying is not created equal. There are times when it’s appropriate: your best friend’s wedding, after a heart-shattering breakup, or the first time you hold your grandchild.

But there are also times and places our culture has decided it’s inappropriate to cry, like at work or school. But many of us struggle with seemingly random crying, including listener Jessica, who wrote in and asked how to avoid bursting into tears, whether in the conference room at work or attempting to get past page two of The Giving Tree with her kids.

Originally, I had intended this week’s episode to cover only how to hold back tears. But in diving into the research, I found that many of the truisms about crying are wrong, or at least partially wrong.

Therefore, this week we’ll cover two big myths of crying and round it out with how to access the shut-off valve for your own waterworks.

Why Do We Cry?

Interestingly, humans are really bad at pinpointing why we cry. When asked, most of us report we cry when we’re physically hurt, or someone we care about gets married, dumps us, or dies.

Those all make sense, but those are the prototypical reasons to cry, not the actual reasons we cry. When researchers ask about the most recent time we cried, we tell a very different story. It turns out we cry for really mundane reasons: we have a small personal failing, a minor conflict, or we’re on the receiving end of criticism. In short, we do cry over life’s milestones, but mostly we cry over everyday interactions.

Does Crying Really Make You Feel Better?

Let’s look at the idea that crying makes you feel better. Again, this is an area where popular perception isn’t the whole story.

Most psychologically-minded people, mental health professionals included, are guilty of encouraging crying. Let it out, we say. It’s cathartic! We even warn that bad stuff might happen to your health if you bottle up your feelings. But is that true? Not so fast.

Turns out we only feel better after a good cry 50% of the time. What’s happening the other half of the time? Well, anyone who’s ever been depressed can tell you crying doesn’t make you feel better in the midst of a depression. Neither, it turns out, does crying over an event that’s uncontrollable.

Likewise, if people react to your crying with disapproval, you definitely won’t feel better. And crying often gets a bad rap, especially for men. Anthropologists would say that inopportune crying breaks what’s called “display rules.” For western culture, crying in public or at work registers for men as weak and for women as hysterical, emotional, or at worst, manipulative.

That’s sexist, to be sure, but still, no one wants to cry in front of the boss. So how to play within the display rules of crying? There’s no foolproof way, but the best of the science offers three things to try.

Tip #1: Act more powerful.

Let’s look more closely at those mundane reasons we cry. Most “irrational” crying is actually triggered by feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

This is why a minor brush-off, getting stood up, a confrontation at work, or not being taken seriously at the conference table can lead to unexpected tears. It seems random, but when we look deeper, it makes sense.

It also makes sense according to evolution. Tears do two things. One, they signal that we need support from others, and second, they diffuse aggressive situations. A study in the uber-prestigious journal Science found that women’s tears contain an odorless chemical that reduces testosterone levels in men.

At the time the study was published, the popular press spun it into “crying turns men off,” but in evolutionary terms, it’s super-practical, signaling to potential partners that what she needs when she’s upset is some support rather than a roll in the hay.

Evolution aside, the way to hold back tears when you’re undercut or disregarded is to act more powerful in the moment.

Try this: if you feel tears coming on, channel your inner boss. Be assertive. Take up space—stand up straight, put your hands on your hips. Act like you own the place (politely, of course). If you’re a customer or patient, remember the outlet in question works for you. All in all, remember you’re not helpless. You have rights, dignity, and a voice.

Okay, you say, that’s great for when I feel invalidated or disrespected, but what about getting through The Fault In Our Stars or even a pregame “Star Spangled Banner”? How to hold back tears when we feel empathy, compassion, or are simply deeply moved?

First, cut yourself some slack and reframe your self-judgment. Think of yourself as someone who feels deeply, who sucks the marrow out of life. Thoreau would be proud.

But if you’re welling up at a commercial not involving injured puppies and a Sarah McLachlan song, compassionate crying can feel awkward, especially if you’re in public. So try this…

Emotion determines your expression, to be sure, but it turns out your expression also determines emotion.

Tip #2: Arrange your face.

Participants in a research study at Columbia University were told they were taking part in a brain-wave monitoring study. Monitoring electrodes were placed on their face and they were instructed to keep as still as possible because movement would compromise the data. Then, they watched a series of both neutral and emotional videos.

What happened? The study, which wasn’t about brain waves at all, instead found that inhibiting facial expression decreases the strength of emotional experience. Emotion determines your expression, to be sure, but it turns out your expression also determines emotion.

So next time Adele’s “Hello” comes on in a crowded elevator, or the TV over the bar shows a toddler being reunited with a parent in army fatigues returning from their tour of duty, keep a poker face and you might not have to fake having something in your eye.

Tip #3: Breathe slowly. 

No matter the trigger, if you do find yourself crying, you can rein it in faster by breathing slowly. Since crying is a form of stress relief, substitute another form of stress relief—slow breathing—to lower the pressure.

Notice I say breathe slowly rather than breathe deeply. Deep breathing, especially if done at a rapid pace, can upset the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and make you feel anxious or lightheaded, which is the last thing you need when you’re trying to keep it together.

Finally, what about welling up in tears of joy, gratitude, or the awe of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Psychologist Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in The Netherlands, arguably the world expert on crying, calls tears from positive emotions “exclamation marks.” They express feelings that cannot be expressed any other way. So when you well up with positive emotions, just let the tears flow. And also during “Steel Magnolias.” Nothing but a box of tissues can save us there.

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