Liberating your tears can make you stronger and wiser
“Don't cry, eagle nose”, my father pleaded when I burst into tears of joy as my soon-to-be-husband got down on one knee and proposed.
What captured my attention wasn't dad’s selection of that life-changing moment to remind me of my most prominent (and beautiful) facial feature, but rather the urgency with which he pleaded for no tears.
Growing up, crying was not welcome in my family, even though we did plenty of it –when passing kidney stones, when being passed over for promotion, or upon the passing of pets. Societal pressures keep many of us from crying, worried that others will think we are weak, but that wasn't the case with us. Our family believed that crying begets crying. All it took was one person to start, and their tears would pierce through everyone’s chest, grab our hearts by the throat and make them confess all sins, wounds, and longings.
In our busy lives, we rarely stop and ask ourselves what we actually gain by (not) crying? For me and my family of origin, avoiding tears is a coping strategy. Life comes with frustrations, disappointments, hurts. If I were to weep every time, how could I possibly get on with it? Especially when I have responsibilities towards others.
And yet, this strategy comes at a cost. On one hand, if we cannot tolerate tears of sadness, we cannot tolerate tears of joy either. Even wonderful moments such as your daughter’s engagement come wrapped in a foil of fright. On the other hand, holding back our tears makes us less resilient. In one clinical trial studying the impact of avoiding negative emotions on mental health, participants were asked to put one hand into ice water and to either a) accept their feelings of pain or b) to suppress them. Those who accepted their discomfort experienced less pain and were able to endure the ice water longer than those who fought their feelings. As a corollary, given that emotional or physical pain usually generates an urge to cry, we actually become stronger by yielding to our tears, rather than suppressing them.
It is peculiar that such a basic human behavior remains “intriguing and still poorly understood” in the 21st century. Research to date confirms that crying eases both physical and emotional pain thanks to the release of endorphins and other neurochemicals. We also calm down because we take deeper breaths between sobs, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Crying is also hypothesized to be an attachment behavior, a way to communicate distress to others and therefore enables social bonding (as long as it’s perceived as genuine, I would add).
Learning to Cry
Once I left my family's gaze and bosom, I slowly started to learn that crying leads to greater self-understanding. As a result of my conditioning, I had developed a defense mechanism I called “the French guillotine”. At the earliest signs of incoming tears- a swelling in my throat or heat in my eyes - a psychological metal blade of sorts would drop heavily and nip the whole thing in the bud. Over the years, with the help of teachers, inquiry, and practice, I learned to tolerate and inquire into uncomfortable emotions, rather than push them down.
For example, the last time my heart was broken, I cried like a champion: in the fetal position, snot flowing abundantly, eyes buried under puffy eyelids, the full shebang. I circled through memories and imagined conversations, allowing all images and thoughts to come through. After that good sob, I felt fresh and expanded, as if my soul had just gone through the car wash, with still a few droplets of sadness sliding down the windshield, but no more mud or roadkill under the chassis.
Apart from relief, there was also insight. About what I wanted in a relationship, and how to recognize when it wasn’t available. And I even felt compassion towards my former object of affection, who was just another human being trying to be happy. When you let crying run its course, it’s like Drano for the soul. The ultimate truth serum.
Crying at Work
You can wail in private, with the luxury of time, and perhaps with someone you trust. But what about crying in the workplace? Vulnerability can be a double-edged sword in the corporate setting. Don’t show enough, and you can’t connect with people. But show too much, and you will be seen as ineffective and unprofessional. After all,
“No-one wants to follow a sourpuss” (a brilliant remark I heard Condoleezza Rice share in a recent talk).
It took me a few years to accept that I am a quiet, sensitive leader. As a woman (and a Latina in the eyes of most Americans), I was even more adamant about keeping my emotionality in check, lest I fall into or confirm a stereotype. Looking back at my two decades in the corporate world, I remember crying only three times. The first was when I bid farewell to a beloved team. The second was at a gathering to memorialize a colleague who had passed away. And the third was after a tough meeting, where I everything I said was misunderstood. I was under a lot of pressure back then, building a new team that was tasked with “breaking things”, but I was having trouble getting support for my approach. After the meeting was over, my partner on the project pulled me aside and asked if everything was ok. Despite my effort to keep composure, crying ensued, which made me even more frustrated and embarrassed because I didn’t want him - or anyone- to think that I couldn’t handle the job. So I tried to defuse the situation: “don’t worry, when I’m upset, water comes out of my eyes. It’s not a big deal.” But he could tell it that it was a big deal, and rather than pat me on the back and leave, he stayed and helped me clarify why I was angry, and then turn that anger into agency.
I was lucky to have a colleague who not only could tolerate the discomfort of seeing someone cry at work, but also didn’t judge me for being… human. From that moment on, I was devoted to making it safe and appropriate for everyone on the team to be real with each other. Not that I wanted people to start collapsing into puddles, or share their deepest, darkest secrets. The vision was a community of vibrant individuals who cared for one another. That team that my partner and I founded went on to deliver so much value to the business that their work goes on today, and expanded corporate-wide. I like to think that the seeds of kindness and authenticity that we planted early on had something to do with their success.
Crying Over Miracles
I was on road trip with my mom recently, and we decided to take a detour through my grandparent’s hometown. We visited their grave at the cemetery, and then drove by their old house, which was abandoned. The grounds were covered in wild brush, but we made it walking across the front yard to the small, one-story house. I peeked inside the sunroom, my favorite spot to hang out as a child, which now looked like an archaeological site. Right next to the house were a series of sheds enveloping a central courtyard, where my grandma used to do everything, from baking bread in the adobe oven to raising rabbits, chickens and pigs. Mom navigated the grounds with ease and familiarity, as I stayed safe on the concrete pavement to avoid snakes and ticks, just as I would when I was younger. We plucked a couple of oranges and lemons from the surviving trees, and went back to the car, exchanging memories from the old days.
As we drove through the rolling hills of grass, mom wondered if her cousin Maria Jose’ who lived nearby might be home: “I haven't seen her in years”. As instructed, I turned the car into a narrow street with four whitewashed houses, all with colorful window sills and doors in the traditional style of Ribatejo architecture. We walked up to one of the houses which had a tractor parked outside, an ancient olive tree, some chickens roaming the grounds. A barking dog announced our arrival.
An older man opened the door and mom smiled in recognition: “I'm your wife's cousin”. Excitedly, he called to his wife inside: “Mari Ze’, come here!”. I could hear her voice answering the call and then a shuffling of feet approaching, as we eagerly waited in the foyer. When she arrived, I was stunned. Right there in front of me, living and breathing, was my grandmother. Or her ghost. Everything blurred into the background, except this woman who was clear and sharp. She looked at me with curiosity: “We are related, aren’t we?”. I felt the wetness on my cheeks. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I miss my grandmother. Mari Ze’ had her voice, her mannerisms, and she even dressed the same way. We hugged tight, and I apologized, “it’s just that you really remind me of grandma Rita”. I know, everyone says the same, she whispered in my ear.
Rita died of breast cancer when I was 20 years old. We saw each other two or three times a year, so we weren’t very close. She wasn't physically affectionate either, but her love came disguised in many cloaks: delicious cooking, wisecrack jokes, and crochet lessons. Every summer during my childhood, we would become roommates when the family would vacation at the beach. I would get annoyed at her because she snored really loud and always talked in her sleep, arguing with the pigs and the neighbors. One evening, as we returned to our vacation rental from dinner, I realized that the Barbie doll I was carrying was missing one of its pink ballet slippers. These were fragile little things loosely tied around the doll’s ankles, so they often fell off, which required constant vigilance on my part. That night I wasn’t vigilant enough. We all looked for that ballet shoe in the dark, retracing our steps from that evening, but to no avail. I went to bed heartbroken. At breakfast the next morning, my grandmother walks up to me and holds out her stocky hand. At the center of her rugged palm, a tiny pink shoe. She had gotten up at dawn to avoid the vacationing crowds and had looked for it for hours.
I wish I had appreciated my grandmother more when I was younger. If she were here today, I would tell her everything that I have seen and lived since she’s been gone, and hopefully make her proud and happy that, even though she lived most of her life in poverty, her granddaughter turned out OK. That’s what my tears were about. It is too late for that, but perhaps in meeting Mari Ze’, her spitting image, Rita is telling me to keep my heart open for those who are still here. I was so happy I got to hug my grandmother again. How can you not cry at this miracle?
Left: My late grandma Rita; Right: cousin Maria Jose' (right), my grandmother's spitting image, posing with my mom
I set out to write this post to explore the benefits of challenging society’s pressures against crying. But it evolved into a personal reflection on what we all gain by welcoming the totality of human experience, not just the parts that feel good. There are many facets of crying that I didn’t look at, such as different cultural interpretations and stereotypes, or why some people are unable to cry, just to list a few. I’d love to hear what this post stirred in you, or your perspective on any of these topics.
We possess ideas, but we are possessed by feelings. Tom Flanagan, Irish novelist
I end this exploration with a list of songs I love that speak to the intricacy and magic of tears. I hope they inspire you to investigate the unique truth behind yours.
A Playlist for Crying
The Sky is Crying (various artists, I like Gary Moore’s version, I could swear his guitar is weeping)
Frágil, Jorge Palma (no reference to crying, but a beautiful ode to that feeling of fragility that often triggers it)
Crying In The Rain, A-Ha (a smart strategy for masking your tears)
No More Tears, Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer (when crying is a sign that “enough is enough!”)
Tears in Heaven, Eric Clapton (heart-wrenchingly beautiful)
Boys Don’t Cry, The Cure (a pervasive myth)
I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Marvin Gaye (when we can’t just hold it inside anymore)
Learning to Fly, Tom Petty (replace Fly with Cry and see what happens)
What others come to mind? Drop me a line!