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Why We Cry: Part III

We’ve been trained to restrain ourselves from emotionally expressing ourselves. “Keep your feelings to yourself.” “Boys don’t cry.” “Don’t embarrass yourself.” “I have to be strong.” These lessons we learn as a child often come from our parents. Or, they might have come from our caregivers if our parents were absent. Sometimes, they come from teachers or close relatives or family friends. Other times, we just learn them out of the necessity to care for others more than ourselves. If we allow ourselves to “break down” (as crying is often called), then others – our younger siblings, for example – become vulnerable. As the eldest sibling, we need to be present for our brothers and sisters or they might put themselves in danger. Here, the eldest is “parentified” – is given duties more properly belonging to parents – often without thinking (more or less by default). The parents, however, are absent and the eldest is trusted to become a built in babysitter, effectively a “third parent”. At times, one or more parent is abusive or neglectful, overtly or covertly giving children the message that emotions are a sign of extreme vulnerability and may be followed by a lack of attention or extreme punishment. The necessity to “hold it together” can be so strong that the child learns not to cry at all, ever. Imagine the consequences if crying took over and one of the youngest went toddling off into the street, only to be killed by a passing car. Consider a choice between crying and betraying the trust of one’s family. Clearly, when one knows one’s family is safe and cared for, one might cry out of relief. Or when one knows a family member has died or is very sick, crying can be an appropriate expression of emotional connection to family. But some families don’t even allow that.

Even when parents are present, messages like “It’s okay, it will be fine” or “You’ll be just fine” can be given to console hurt or emotional pain. But these messages are notoriously false, or why would the person be crying at all. No, things are not fine right now. That’s why tears are shed. Truer messages like “It’s okay to cry” or “I understand why you are upset” are probably more empathic. But people who don’t go to counsellor training programs don’t learn these more accurate and more realistic statements which are actually more emotionally supportive in the present moment when we are experiencing the impulse to cry.

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