I am 30 seconds into a discussion with an administrator at my son's daycare when I feel it coming. I have asked her to watch out for another boy who has been biting my son, but she brushes off my concerns. "It's just a phase," she tells me. "It will stop. Besides, the boy who bites is much smaller than your son."
In that moment when I feel ignored, dismissed, infuriated (because, really, what kind of argument is that? Do we dismiss shooters who are shorter than those they shoot?), my cheeks flush, and I start to cry. Mind you, I'm not sobbing. I'm not hiccuping for air. But it doesn't matter. I learned long ago that the sudden appearance of tears turns me into someone who is not to be taken seriously.
I'm a crier. Like many people, I cry at funerals and graduations or when I hear a sad story. The problem is that I also cry when I need to confront someone or when I am discussing anything with a foregone negative conclusion. And I am tired of my inability to contain my emotions; I am tired of feeling like a total mess. So I have decided: It's time to learn to control my tears.
Don't believe people who tell you that you should just "let it out." In everyday human interactions, crying isn't innocuous. While researching this story, I discussed the subject with everyone from academics to acquaintances and learned that there are two distinct groups of people: those who cry too much, and those who are annoyed by them.
Among the latter, the word that popped up most often was "manipulative." One researcher reasoned that if children turn on tears to defuse anger, adults surely do, too. And a friend told me about a coworker who seemed to cry to get people off her back. Their stories reminded me of my former boss, who once blurted out that he was tired of being "held hostage" by my tears in budget meetings. (I was eventually replaced by a woman whose neck got blotchy when she was uncomfortable. On meeting days, she wore turtlenecks.)
I'm not trying to be manipulative when I cry -- at least not consciously. A 2011 Israeli study published in the journal Science found that female tears contain an odorless chemical that appears to reduce testosterone levels in men; high levels of testosterone are associated with aggression, so one function of women's tears, it seems, could be to stop men who are on the attack. In those budget meetings where my boss would repeatedly ask me aggressively to justify my spending, perhaps I was only heeding nature's call.
The Israeli study could also explain the resentment my tears provoked, says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Rutgers University: "Once someone cries, the playing field is no longer level. With their testosterone reduced, men feel empathy when perhaps what they wanted to do was get angry."
But no matter the motivation behind tears, they are rooted in sincere emotion, says William H. Frey II, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and the author of Crying: The Mystery of Tears: "I have never been able to get subjects to cry without an authentic emotional trigger." (To create tears in the lab, he has had to resort to screenings of heartbreakingly sad movies like "The Champ.") You can't fake tears, which is probably why they're so hard to turn off.
So how do I stop crying at inopportune times (like, say, when I'm discussing my uterus with my obstetrician)?
Some of the experts I interviewed suggested pinching the bridge of my nose, where the tear ducts are, to stop the flow. But I couldn't get my hand to my nose fast enough. And though I received excellent advice about rehearsing nontearful things I might say in a confrontation, such as the one with my son's daycare administrator, that didn't work, either.
Then Jerry Bubrick, Ph.D., a cognitive and behavioral psychologist in New York City, told me to take a step back -- literally. "It's not what the other person says that's causing you to cry," he explained. "It's how you interpret it." I'd never thought of it this way, but Bubrick had hit on something that made sense. I may be frustrated or angry in the moment, but I can decide which insults or slights are worthy of such an outpouring of emotion. Getting to the root of why I well up so easily will probably take a lifetime of therapy, but for now, Bubrick provided me with a practical way to deal with its effects. The trick, he told me, is to remove myself from the drama, even by just a foot, to short-circuit the usual rush of tears.
As I listened to Bubrick talk about the possible effect of something so simple on my mental state, I remembered a study I had come across weeks earlier, suggesting that even our facial expressions can influence how our brains process emotions. Researchers at Columbia University had found that study participants reported having a less intense emotional reaction to a scary video when they didn't frown during the viewing. Was it possible, since I enter most fraught interactions with eyebrows raised and knitted together, mouth pressed into a frown, that my expression might actually be triggering the feelings that lead to tears? If so, could I really cure the crying problem with a neutral face and a single step away from whatever was upsetting me? It seemed unlikely, but I decided to give it a try.
Two days after speaking with Bubrick, I showed up for a doctor's appointment only to learn that the doctor wasn't in. His assistant cavalierly mentioned, without a trace of apology, that he had meant to cancel my appointment but got distracted. Meanwhile, I had hired a babysitter, blown a deadline, and driven an hour through maddening traffic to get there. I felt anger welling up. But instead of getting flustered, I relaxed my face and took a step away from the counter, which felt only a little weird.
"Are you kidding me?" I blinked, tearless.
And then: "That's incredibly rude."
It was a small victory -- but an unbelievably empowering one. For the first time in 25 years, I expressed a strong emotion without dissolving under its weight.
Since then I've been practicing the new technique -- in talks with my husband about money, in a minor confrontation with a friend, in meetings with editors. It's sometimes hard to remember to use the tricks in the heat of the moment, but with every tearless encounter I'm gaining confidence that my emotions won't get the best of me. I recently made a follow-up visit to my son's daycare, where I told the administrator I was transferring him to a preschool. When I gave her the news, my eyes were as dry as her heart was cold -- and that felt right.