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Sadness: You're Doing It Wrong (Why I'm Mad at Crying)

It's not for me to judge how you process any disappointment you may have experienced as a result of the narrow-minded approach to emotional health evidenced by that test. But when it comes to the emotional intelligence you evidenced by your quiz answer, you get an A+ in my book.
07/16/2014 11:23am ET | Updated September 15, 2014
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If you don't cry when you're sad, you're apparently doing it wrong. Crying has become the "it" emotional response. No longer is it viewed as one of many healthy ways to process sadness; it is the only acceptable way. And on top of that, it's mandatory.

I understand how we got to this point, but that doesn't make it okay to get stuck here. For decades crying was treated as something shameful. People viewed it as a sign of weakness -- and men weren't allowed to do it at all. Then, the 1970s shed new light on shedding tears. It was as if the clouds suddenly parted and everyone realized that crying wasn't bad, after all. In fact, crying could be quite healthy.

Then the pendulum went and did what pendulums often do: It blew past the point of correction and swung straight into the land of overcorrection. And you know what happens when you fishtail your way into the land of overcorrection? You end up flipping the car.

I first noticed this overcorrection several years ago when a friend of mine named Jenny* was telling me about another friend whose father had just passed away.

"She's not handling it well at all," Jenny explained. "She's not grieving. She hasn't even cried yet -- at least, not that I've seen."

Jenny's comments raised several questions for me. Like what made Jenny, a CPA-turned-stay-at-home mom, think she was in a position to judge her friend's grieving process? And why did Jenny think her friend should cry in front of her? Maybe Jenny's friend was crying herself to sleep every night in the privacy of her own home. Or perhaps Jenny's friend would cry later when she felt she could let her guard down -- after the arrangements were made, the funeral was over, and the relatives had all left town. Or maybe she had an entirely different approach to processing her grief -- an approach that didn't feature crying as its centerpiece.

The most recent example of the overemphasis on crying happened a couple of months ago when my friend's nine-year old daughter Peyton* brought home a quiz about emotions that she had taken at school. The quiz featured fill-in-the-blank questions like, "An emotion is a ___________ inside you," and, "A healthful way to express fear is to _____________ to a parent or trusted adult."

Luckily for the adults in her world, Peyton is a lot more mature than me. She took this quiz in earnest, and got both of the above questions right by answering "feeling" and "talk," respectively. But her luck changed when it came to the next question on the quiz:

"_________________ is a healthful way to express sadness."

Peyton answered "writing," and for that answer, she got a big, red "X." Peyton's teacher wrote the "correct" answer underneath Peyton's "wrong" one. The correct answer, of course, was crying.

In response to tests, kids often ask, "Why do we have to know this stuff? It's never going to come up in real life." The story of Peyton getting robbed on her feelings quiz ended up making me sad -- which means it amounted to one of those rare instances when life actually did require me to know something from a test that initially seemed pointless. But ironically, it was Peyton's "wrong answer" that provided me with information that was useful in real life. I needed to process my disappointment over this ridiculous quiz and how it was graded, but crying wasn't the answer. So I decided to take Peyton's advice and try writing about it instead. I have to say, I feel better already.

In all seriousness, there are many healthy ways to express and process sadness. Crying and writing are two of them, but so are singing, drawing, and talking things out with a friend, just to name a few. As my sister once said of parenting, "There are many right ways." The first part of the trick is figuring out what works best for you. The second part of the trick is resisting the urge to declare that everyone has to do it your way, or to conclude that your way is the only way.

I don't want to return to the days when crying was the whipping boy of emotions. But I'd like to break the stranglehold crying has on society's response to sadness. Crying is a normal and healthy emotional outlet, but it is by no means the only one.

So, thank you, Peyton, for your enlightened view of emotionally healthy responses. It's not for me to judge how you process any disappointment you may have experienced as a result of the narrow-minded approach to emotional health evidenced by that test. But when it comes to the emotional intelligence you evidenced by your quiz answer, you get an A+ in my book.

*The names used in this story have been changed.