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How to make a crier cry

When I was eight I went with my Mum to buy a new school backpack. I grew up in France where buying the correct school stationery is more complicated and important than filing your annual tax returns.

Very little in my life was as exciting as buying new school supplies.

From July onwards, the airplane hanger sized supermarket where we did our weekly shopping was transformed into a carnival of educational doodabs. I would wander through the tall aisles awestruck at the hundreds of different fountain pens, neck craning like a first time visitor to Sequoia National Park. I was completely oblivious to how bewildering (and expensive) it must have been for my mother who was sent a novella length booklet every August with detailed instructions, in a language she didn’t speak, listing precise exercise books, pencils, erasers, protractors and lined paper to get for each subject. I adored it, she dreaded it.

My favourite part was the backpacks. There must have been over a hundred different types hanging in rows. They ranged from teenagery Eastpaks in an array of dark broody colours, to square German styles that looked solid enough to double as a step stool (way before Fjällräven hit the scene), and the ‘cool kids’ bags in bright primary colours with more pockets than an Arctic explorer’s kit bag.

german backpack

Obviously, I wanted a cool kid bag; predictably they cost more than my Mum’s Ford Fiesta. My Mum, thank God, has the patience of a saint and she carefully steered me towards the supermarket’s own-brand bags, pointing out potential winners in her most upbeat voice. I scanned them critically. Luckily, for both of our sakes, I alighted on one that I unexpectedly loved. I remember it being mostly pale marshmallow pink, with purple details, like a My Little Pony in bag form.

Most memorably, on the front pocket there was an ironed on transfer of a Barbie-like woman with opulent blonde hair flowing around her tiny symetrical features. Underneath the floating head was the memorable slogan: ‘Pretty Baby Love’. Clearly this bag was designed by a French person who spoke minimal English and who’d spent the past year listening to Milli Vanilli. My eyes gleamed. This was a bag I could wear with pride, this was a bag both grown up and feminine. It may well have been the last really feminine thing I ever owned.

Before I continue with my story, you should know that I am a crier. Always have been. I didn’t realise that crying was a problem however until THE BACKPACK. I do a slightly better job of staunching the tears now (I’ve developed such a fixed stare for tricky moments that sometimes I worry I’ve killed my emotions completely), but when I was younger I cried all the time. My parents have a theory that it’s because we moved from England to America when I was just a few months old. The plane journey set me off crying and I didn’t stop for two years. After that, crying was a daily occurrence.

So I walked into school with my new highly-prized backpack, eager to show it off. With the perceptive skills of an FBI profiler, my friend Anne-Line (France loves a hyphenated name) quickly observed how proud I was of my new possession. With the cruelty particular to young children, she immediately began to tease me about it. She honed in on the nonsensical ‘Pretty Baby Love’ slogan as the best way to knock me down a peg and chanted it relentlessly and gleefully throughout morning recess, all through lunch and right into afternoon break.

At which point, I reached breaking point. With crystal clarity I can remember jumping up and down shouting, ‘Why are you always teasing me, teasing me, teasing me?’ repeating the last part until it descended into spluttered snotty bawling. I cried so hard I couldn’t speak. My friends were stunned into silence, at first. Then they began to laugh. No matter that I was upset; they found my tears extreme and ridiculous.

Since that day, I have been aware that my tendency to cry is a problem. The difficulty is that society reacts to tears in different ways depending on the circumstances, so my crying is not always a problem. For a long time, this was hugely confusing to me. I couldn’t understand why sometimes when I cried people rushed to comfort me, or brushed it off as perfectly normal, no big deal, or began to cry themselves, in recognition. Other times, my tears were seen as manipulative, weak, pathetic, hysterical, imbalanced, rude, unprofessional, and often incomprehensible. What was the difference?? I felt like I cried when I was overwhelmed in some way, so why did it matter to other people if it was because I was tired, or embarrassed or upset? And why were the negative reactions SO negative? Why were people sometimes so uncomfortable, disgusted even, by my crying?

Crying signals to yourself and others that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope.

Jonathan Rottenberg

My friends at school were the first to establish this baffling behavioural pattern. Sometimes they saw my tears as vulnerable and sensitive and we hugged and were bonded closer together. Mostly though, they saw my crying as weakness and I became an easy target for their bullying. They knew that even the slightest dig could make me blubber so they taunted me just like they did our teachers, to see us lose our shit. For them it was like was live TV.

My family didn’t know how to handle my crying. And I can understand why. For them the fact that I cried so often must have been worrying and embarrassing and frustrating. They didn’t know how seriously to take it. They definitely couldn’t ignore it, we’re not programmed to ignore tears. Psychological research tells us that crying is an evolutionary mechanism that is meant to trigger compassion, that it signals temporary helplessness, it’s a call for help and attention. That makes sense when we think of babies and children. Jonathan Rottenberg, a Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida suggests that crying continues into adolescence and adulthood because our ability to feel helpless and overwhelmed continues. He says, ‘Crying signals to yourself and others that there’s some important problem that is at least temporarily beyond your ability to cope.’

Of course, I was aware that bursting into tears mid-negotiation with my Mum could play in my favour. Like any kid with loving parents, I knew that crying could soften them, could help me to get what I wanted. As Rottenberg says, ‘We learn early on that crying has this really powerful effect on other people. (…) It can neutralise anger very powerfully.’ I was also aware that my ‘waterworks’ drew attention away from my younger sister. As we became teenagers, she understandably lost patience for my crying. There was no way to compete for my parents’ attention when I was sobbing. Again.

I did use my powers for evil occasionally.

In our family folklore, there is one particularly infamous Christmas, when I was five and my sister was two and we had not long moved into our first house in France. My parents had bought us both American Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. As soon as my sister and I unwrapped them, I decided that I preferred my sister’s doll to the one my parents had chosen for me. Her doll had long auburn plaited hair, mine had boring brown hair, too similar to my own. I burst into tears. I cried and cried. When my parents asked my why I was crying, I said ‘I just love her so much!’ gesturing towards my sister’s redheaded doll. My bewildered, easy going sister handed the doll over without a fuss. I did use my powers for evil occasionally.

As a teenager and young adult however, my crying changed and became much more intense, and more unmanageable. I still cried when I read a powerful book (Their Eyes Were Watching God) or hurt myself (all sports) but I also cried whenever I had a discussion that got a little heated and I often felt overwhelmed and just cried. I switched from being proud of my ability to show off my emotions to desperately wanting to repress and hide them. That only seemed to make the crying worse. There was one particularly spectacular instance, when I was sixteen, and my Mum and I were shopping in town and we got into a fight. I don’t remember what the fight was about but I absolutely could not control my tears. We started off arguing in hushed angry whispers near the tinned goods and ended up with me, stood red faced, tear stained, facing the frozen pizzas choking out ‘I… ccan’t… hhelp…it!’. My Mum was mortified and worried and completely at a loss.

Recently, I had a similar moment with Andy. I started a discussion about Twitter trolls, refused to back down from my point and ended up starting an argument. Within a few minutes of us arguing, I was in tears in the bar where we were having a drink. Then I was in tears in the street on the way home. I finally stopped crying back in our living room when we agreed the whole argument was silly and a misunderstanding (it’s amazing how arguments you can have as adults that you can’t explain). Throughout the whole thing, Andy hated that I was crying. My tears immediately shut him down and pissed him off more. I don’t blame him for his reaction, it’s exactly the negative reaction that I often- but not always- encounter when I cry. The next morning, when all calm had been restored, I thought about my teenage supermarket incident and the night before and I realised why these usually empathetic people had reacted so negatively to my crying.

It’s about confrontation and blame. I cry when I am in a disagreement with someone and when I do, they hate it. Pretty much without exception. From my side, I cry in those moments, whether it’s a heated debate that gets personal, or a difference of opinion at work, or a misunderstanding in my relationship, because I think I’ve failed and/or I think the other person doesn’t like me. It’s that elemental. I’m trying to focus on the words that are being exchanged but because my emotions are strong, they appear on my face and I can’t stop them. The tears are not a sign that I am faking my emotions or exaggerating them or trying to use them to win the argument. They are a sign of that I am upset that I have done the wrong thing, said the wrong thing or can’t see eye to eye with a person I respect.

So why is the person on the other side of this having such a hard time? Why do they see my crying as an attack, or a trick or an overreaction? In every other situation we see tears as a sign of distress so why, during a disagreement, do other people see them as anything but that, as anything but the straightforward: I’m upset.

In my experience, society often mocks criers, it condescends to them, it belittles them, it bullies them into more crying. And frankly, I’ve had enough. If we are starting to open up about periods (THANK GOD! And thank you Wearehappyperiod, your Instagram inspired me), then it’s time we talked about crying (just another bodily function) and the unfair perception of it. Crying is annoyingly impractical, an obstacle to constructive discussion just when you need it most. Crying is unfairly linked to false stereotypes of hysterical women. Crying is perceived as within the person’s control, therefore if you give in to crying then you must be weak and submissive, or an embarrassing over-sharer who is too ‘emotional’.

If I had a penny for every time that accusation was levelled at me while I tried to sniffle my face back under control. I may well have developed a thicker skin as I’ve grown older, particularly in professional situations where I am keenly aware than crying instantly casts you as unstable and incompetent, but I still can’t control my crying once it hits. I have wished many many times that I could stop the tears. Sometimes, if I clench my jaw and throat hard enough then I can hold them trapped somewhere in the front of my skull and hovering in my chest. The effort gives me an immediate headache and prevents me from swallowing properly. It usually buys me enough time to get to a bathroom cubicle or quiet corner. Rarely have I been able to stop them completely.

My tears are physical, outwardly visible signs of my emotions, just because you can see my strong emotions doesn’t mean I am weaker or less rational or less sincere than you.

To sound like a nineties ballad, I don’t want to hold back my tears any more. I don’t care at all that my features scrunch up and my voice goes wobbly.

I am not doing it on purpose to make you uncomfortable.

I am trying to deal with my emotions and tears are a byproduct of that for me. ‘Just ignore the crying!’, I used to shout at my parents and friends, ‘Listen to what I’m saying. Forget about the crying!’. My tears are physical, outwardly visible signs of my emotions, just because you can see my strong emotions doesn’t mean I am weaker or less rational or less sincere than you. When they get in the way of communicating what I feel because they make it difficult for me to speak clearly, believe me, that it is more frustrating for me than it is for you, so have some fucking patience.

So if you think the person opposite you is crying because they are trying to manipulate you, then ask yourself what are they trying to manipulate you into? I bet you, most of the time, the ‘manipulation’ is to get you to agree with them and that may be more about them wanting you to like them than for some mental scoreboard. If you think the crying is an overreaction then ask yourself if you have strong feelings at that moment. You probably do. Yours just aren’t visibly running down your face. What you see as an overreaction may simply be a different reaction. If you think that crying is weak then you may well be an asshat that hasn’t spent enough time noticing the world around you, and inside of you. Every human has emotions and we express them in a huge range of ways, some of those ways can traumatise and oppress other people, and those forms of expression should rightly be questioned. Crying during a discussion does neither of those things.

You think that my crying means that I have already made my mind up and that I am therefore blaming you for the argument and for upsetting me.

Except, and this is the real crux of the issue I think, that my crying does make you feel bad.

You see me crying and you feel like I’ve cast you as the ‘bad guy’, the villain. [Sidenote- it is mostly men who react negatively to crying but not exclusively, women often have similarly negative reactions.] You think that my crying means that I have already made my mind up and that I am therefore blaming you for the argument and for upsetting me. Your reaction is defensive and it shuts down the conversation. To shift the blame back onto me you criticise the crying.

Let me ask you this- if we were having the same argument and I wasn’t crying, would you think I was blaming you? If you answer yes, then that’s clearly something for us to address in our discussion, but the tears aren’t the cause of that. If you answer no, then stop seeing the tears as blame and see them as emotion- fear, frustration, embarrassment. A whole range of emotions that aren’t as final and paralysing as blame.

I don’t know how to stop crying so much and I don’t know if crying makes me feel better. I know it makes me feel worn out. It does help me to know that something is wrong, that something is bothering me.

My tears are a sign that I care. They are a sign that I feel empathy. They are a sign that I am anxious or sad or tired. They are not a sign that I hold you responsible for my distress. They are feelings just like you have feelings. Stop misunderstanding my crying… now I am blaming you. 

Top image by Andrew Halloway.

Quotes by Jonathan Rottenberg from this article in Time. 

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  • Catherine

    It has been hard through the years watching you in floods of tears at what sometimes seemed inappropriate moments but this really helps to understand how you are feeling and to be able to cope if it happens again. It must have been hard to write and remembering how cruel your so-called school friends were to you.

    • Emma J

      It must have been so hard! You must not have known how to help and it must have been so frustrating sometimes. I’m angry at how judgemental people are about crying but I do also see that it’s difficult for them to know how to react.

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