On Welcoming the Discomfort of Tears



“After adolescence, human empathy matures, and adults might cry in reaction to the suffering of others…Strong positive emotions from a reunion, team victory or moving artistic performance might cause adults to cry, too….[But] there are two major consistent triggers for adult crying. ‘The first is helplessness and powerlessness…the second, separation and loss.’

… If you think your emotions are regularly getting the best of you, chat with your doctor about it just in case — an underlying condition like depression or anxiety could be causing you to cry a lot. ‘There is no specific amount of crying that is a problem.’”

(“How to Stop Yourself from Crying,” The New York Times, 15 October 2018)

One of the most influential and venerable sources of information in the country just told me that I don’t have to cry.

It’s an odd article—the author isn’t telling me that I shouldn’t cry, or not exactly. But the framing of the advice, not to mention the fact that both author and at least one editor thought the article ought to exist in the first place, suggest that crying is a bad thing that readers can, might want, and ought to avoid. At a minimum, you don’t want to be caught crying…anywhere? At work, certainly not. 

An accompanying article on “Why you shouldn’t feel bad about crying at work” makes it very clear that you should feel bad about crying at work, as the author and his interview subject explain how, if you must cry, you can downplay its occurrence. We get the idea that while some mild welling up is an acceptable excess of emotion, crying excessively (honestly?) in the presence of others is a sign of weakness, instability, and might (just incidentally) be a sign that an employee is in trouble. Or that the employee is trouble: if you’re crying all the time, “your boss is probably going to worry about how much stress you’re under and whether you can handle the demands of the job.”

What I’m hearing – when I and everyone around me seems on the verge of tears multiple times a day – is that the thing to do with our emotions is NOT examine them for what they can tell us (about, for example, whether our working, social, political, and environmental lives are profoundly out of balance) – but rather, to do what it takes to avoid crying in front of others….Because others might be embarrassed and confused by your feelings? Because you’re not surrounded with people who understand and care for you and want to comfort you, but because you’re an anomaly in a world of otherwise stoic, disciplined people who are all Getting On With It, and your indulgence of frustration, grief, anger, and alienation is just getting in the way…?

“If you identify potentially fraught situations beforehand, you can limit your emotional response.”

Let’s just slow down and examine that oddly disembodied claim, shall we?

Here’s a sample of potentially fraught situations which might prompt me to cry:

  • being tired
  • having your mind and energy colonized by an onslaught of bureaucratic tasks of varying urgency and uncertain purpose
  • not being listened to
  • being interrupted, and still not listened to
  • being lonely
  • promising yourself that you’ll go to dance class to rejuvenate your spirit after an especially soul-sucking day only to find the class has been cancelled
  • being so busy (with what?) that you don’t have the time to eat (or stay hydrated, or close your eyes, or go to the bathroom, or take a pill for the headache/nausea/anxiety that you can’t seem to shake)
  • being confused by what it is exactly that you’re supposed to DO to change ANYTHING and even if you had the least clue, not being sure where to start
  • needing to get somewhere and having all public infrastructure fail you
  • being betrayed by someone you trusted
  • missing someone you love
  • being too far away from friends and family
  • being terrified by the absolute peril facing this whole planet
  • being grief-stricken at the depletion of our environment
  • being outraged by seeing your elected government slide further into fascism and oppression every day
  • witnessing your fellow human beings being disrespected, unregarded, and violated in more ways than you could think possible
  • ignorance
  • cruelty
  • selfishness
  • indifference
  • being really, really tired.

The question I have is not, how do I stop myself from crying? Rather: how is it that we’re all going about our business—working, shopping, investing, sitting in meetings, sitting through tv—as though everything is normal?

Why do I want to limit my emotional response? Why should I? Why should any of us?

I think we need more tears. I suspect that the first steps in trying to enact revolutionary change are NOT

  • saving face
  • denying your own emotions to protect other people’s comfort (and by “comfort”  I mean, a desire not to confront the fact that we’re all going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable if we want to save everything we really love)
  • denying that we care, that the suffering of others hurts.

Today, I think we should all go out into the world, and in exactly those places where crying would be least welcome, least convenient, most messy, most provocative—we should let the tears flow. We should weep, snivel, howl, gasp, cry.

We should feel.

We should demand that the others around us feel too, as an essential impetus to think.

We should turn to one another for comfort.

Then we should decide what to do next.

About Carol-Ann Farkas

Writer, editor, researcher, educator, and dancer. Will opine for cash, pastry, or attention.
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2 Responses to On Welcoming the Discomfort of Tears

  1. dogpromise says:

    Thank you for writing this Curge! I was so annoyed at the article you shared from the NYT. Your take on it is spot on. Hugs! I’m proud to be your friend.




    • farkasca says:

      The only useful thing about that article was the advice about how to reduce redness and puffiness after you’ve been crying! (and I’m so glad you enjoyed my response!)


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