In a recent group support session, an active and generous participant choked up with emotion as she spoke of the anniversary of her husband's passing. She tried hard to stop her tears, repeatedly apologizing for them. "I really am okay," she insisted, "I don't know why I am crying again. It's been five years. I'm so embarrassed." If she had not furiously wiped away her tears and instead looked into the caring faces around her, she would have realized immediately that there was no need for an apology. She would have spotted the responsive tears in my eyes and those of several others, signaling our deep acceptance of and empathy for the loss and grief that she was feeling.
Tears can be effective and powerful messengers, but they have always carried mixed messages. Some of us have assimilated cultural messages that warn of the inevitable disapproval that can follow a public display of tears. Many view crying as overly sentimental or a sign of emotional imbalance and deficit while others see it as cathartic, a sign of emotional strength and expression. Some tears may be perceived as profound while others may be viewed as confusing or even manipulative.
The workplace is especially controversial on the issue of crying. Even though business leaders like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have recently put forth the idea that expressing emotions, even tears, at work, is actually good for team building, crying is still frowned upon in many offices as a sign of weakness.
It turns out that those who are pro tears are on to something. Recent scientific research is validating the health benefits associated with expressing your emotions. When researchers at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands showed study participants tearjerker films, the ones who cried after the films reported that their moods got even better than before they watched the film compared to the non-criers whose moods stayed the same.
There is a physiological reason for this difference in mood. Biochemist Dr. William Frey found that there is a chemical difference between emotional tears (crying when upset) and reflex tears (ones that occur when cutting onions). When we feel stressed and upset, there is a buildup of chemicals in the body and crying helps to reduce that. Emotional tears contain high levels of adenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Removing this chemical from the body is beneficial because it triggers the stress hormone, cortisol, which is directly linked to the inflammatory processes leading to heart disease. While the biology behind this release is now better understood, the newer studies also validate a long held concept in human psychology. Pioneering nineteenth century British psychiatrist, Henry Maudsley observed, "The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep."
Tears Bring Us Together
This hormonal release also helps to make our relationships stronger. "Crying is a highly evolved behavior," evolutionary biologist Dr. Oren Hasson of Tel Aviv University has said. "Tears give clues and reliable information. My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defenses and reliably function as signals of vulnerability, a cry for help, a mutual display of attachment, and as a group display of cohesion. This is strictly human."
A deeper and broader understanding of the importance of tears can be found in the book, Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears. Author Tom Lutz writes, "Tears often resist interpretation, and an explanation that is obvious to the crier may be lost on the person whose shoulder is getting wet."
While the reason for our tears is unique to each of us, our shared recognition of the significance and validity of tears is necessary. Tears alert us that invaluable information may be forthcoming and call us to pay close attention to ourselves and to others. They can build a bridge of understanding from one heart to another in order to initiate a deeper connection. While tears relay frustration and loss, they can also convey messages of joy, victory, love, and reunion. All of these emotions bring us closer together.
Attempts at learning how not to cry are an effort to control how much we reveal to others. While this is sometimes warranted in certain unstable situations that require self-protection, an over reliance on the ability to suppress emotions can result in an increase in emotional isolation. Lack of emotional and social intimacy and an increase in emotional isolation has been proven to be a risk factor for heart disease.
Our Most Primal Language
Skillfully blending both art and science, Los Angeles artist Rose-Lynn Fisher created a project titled, "The Topography of Tears." She collected one hundred samples of tears and photographed them through an optical microscope at magnification 100x. She believes that tears are the medium of our most primal language. She writes, "Tears are evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries. They release us to the possibility of catharsis, realignment and reunion. It is as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean."
I share her reverence for tears and their expression. While some may believe that crying is a factor of maturation and so the older we get the less we should cry, I respectfully disagree. In my many years as a psychotherapist, I have come to appreciate the expression of tears as a sign of tenderness, not weakness. I have learned that the sharing of this vulnerability requires and is an indicator of inner strength. I continue to learn firsthand what true courage looks like in the presence of those who are bravely willing to share their tears. When another "gifts" me with their tears, and the depth and range of feeling that catalyzed them, I feel honored and entrusted. I am grateful to be the recipient and holder of this intimate and highly sensitive form of expression. I feel privileged to be a part of this deeply felt and very sacred aspect of what it is to be human.
What benefits have you noticed when allowing yourself to express your tears?
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