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The Truth About Tears - Part Four
Compiled by Dr. Rae Baum, Ph.D.
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(Source: William H. Frey, II, Ph.D. with Muriel Langseth, CRYING: The Mystery of Tears. Copyright 1985, Winston Press, Inc. with permission of the author)


Uncontrollable Tears

While some are unable to cry even when they try, others have the opposite problem of not being able to control their crying.  Just as the lack of tears makes many persons feel deprived of the relief of weeping, those with an abundance of uncontrollable tears often feel deprived in other ways.  Many people who cry readily often consider their inability to stop the flow of tears as a social handicap, especially in their communication with others.  "I cry often from a few seconds to thirty seconds," wrote one subject.  "I'm very sensitive about these episodes and try to hide my tears.  It's a social handicap which creates much strain for me at weddings, funerals, concerts, recitals, movies, ceremonies, etc." Other subjects reported that crying interfered with their ability to communicate their feelings to others.  "I cry easily. Some things I want to say very badly I can't get out at all."  Another appeared only to have trouble relaying her positive feelings.

I find it difficult to tell others when I have strong, good feelings toward them or want to tell them how great I think they are or tell them I think what they did or said was wonderful, warm, beautiful, or whatever.  Very often I give the opposite impression of what I'm feeling because I'm trying so hard to keep from crying and instead of conveying the warmness I'm feeling, I appear strained and unpleasantly tense, when actually I'm feeling very positive and loving toward the person or situation.  HELP!!

    I have received several letters from women troubled by excessive crying.  In some cases excessive crying may indicate a physical or psychological problem in which case the individual should seek professional help.  But according to our study the range of crying frequency in normal, apparently healthy individuals varies from zero to seven episodes per month for men and zero to twenty-nine episodes per month for women.
    If individuals cry in excess of this range, it is unusual but does not necessarily indicate a problem.  If the crying is so excessive as to be problematic to them or interfere with their functioning, they should seek professional help to find out if physical or mental illness has affected their crying.  We are currently studying individuals troubled with excessive crying and a very low threshold for crying to determine if they may have altered levels of hormones, which contribute to their problem.
    Obviously there are times when it is best and in your own self-interest to hold back your tears, just as it is advisable to sometimes control your temper.  And there are times when you feel the need to be "strong" for someone else.  Many how-to-attain-success articles written for working women allude to the importance of controlling emotions in the workplace to reinforce the impression of stability, strength, and competence.  Of course, there are times when it is not good to be in tears, for example, when a nurse or physician treats an injured child.  However, I have seen women cry at work when their crying very effectively made their boss feel like a real heel and insensitive jerk.  Seriously, crying at work is probably something that only rarely should be prevented.  Although many people seem to feel tears do not belong on the job, we need to learn to accept crying and human emotion in the workplace.
    Perhaps someday we will discover why some people shed tears so often and so readily.  Until then these persons with a tendency toward lacrimosity will have to find a way to deal with their untamed tears.   This account, written by a woman who has learned to accept her tears and is teaching others to accept them, may help other very frequent criers who often fight a losing battle to control their tears:

I often shed tears when I feel angry, hurt, sympathetic, or disappointed with myself or others.  I may cry when someone pays me a meaningful compliment about my work or my family.
    Until about four years ago, my uncontrollable tears were responsible for many embarrassing, frustrating, and annoying situations.  Tears interfered with communication as I tried to settle conflicts and relate strong feelings--both good and bad.  Instead of holding my ground, I would retreat and hold back what I wanted to say because I knew my crying would be misunderstood or cause others to overreact.
    It was often much easier and less traumatic to stifle my desire to be assertive, show warm feelings, or just carry on a normal conversation by withdrawing rather than risk exposing the tears about to erupt.  When discussions were cut short because I felt as if I may cry, the encounters ended up unsatisfying and unproductive, not only for me but also for the others involved.  Occasionally I managed to check the tears, but usually they ran down my face and neck before I could react.  Stopping the tears took tremendous energy and concentration and left me exhausted and drained, giving others the impression that something was drastically wrong.
    It dawned on me one day that, even though I couldn't always control my tears, I perhaps could learn to keep talking and not withdraw whenever I felt the tears coming.  If I couldn't lick them, maybe I could learn to join them.  I promised myself I would try to keep on talking or carry on whatever I was doing in spite of the tears, explain that I cried easily and my tears didn't mean anything serious and ask others to not let my tears interfere with our conversation or activity.
    Shortly after I decided to go public with my tears, I began a new job.   During the first few months the owner and I spent one hour a week reviewing my work and planning short-term and long-term objectives.  During one of our meetings following a hectic week both at home and at work, he pointed out several major errors and poor decisions I had made.  As we came to the fourth error, tears flooded my eyes and splashed onto the paper before I could catch them.  I resisted the strong urge to excuse myself, head for the rest room to collect my wits and reapply make-up, then return and apologize for the interruption.  I stayed put and said, "I cry very easily, but I'm not crying because of the criticism.  It's more from the frustration with lack of time and because I was careless and didn't catch the mistakes.   Please (sniff, sniff) ignore these tears.  I want to hear what you have t say about my work."
    Much to my surprise he said he had planned to ignore my crying before I said anything.  His office manager who had been with him for many years often cried easily, and he had learned if he just went ahead with the discussion, everything was fine.
    It was not nearly that easy to tell some persons to try to disregard my tears.  Many became very uneasy when I cried and although I could carry on through the tears, I found that some people couldn't.  Few persons are totally at ease with my tears but after the second or third crying session, they seem to be more tolerant and less uneasy.
    The following explanation seems to satisfy all but the most dubious persons.  "I cry very easily over many things. Please understand that just because I am crying does not necessarily mean I'm very upset and that I want us to stop talking.  I know it's hard to overlook these dumb drops sloshing all over my face, but please, for my sake, try to ignore them.   I'm trying hard to not let these tears interrupt and stop conversations.  I'd appreciate it very much if we can just carry on where we left off."
    The main thing I've learned is that if I am comfortable with my tears others will be too.  Even though I still wish I could control my crying, I feel that by learning to accept my frequent tears I am less handicapped by them.
    Many persons with whom I come in contact often understand the fountains that readily spring from my eyes with most strong emotion and react to them about the same way as they would to other body language or reactions--drumming fingers on the table, a change in voice pitch, a nervous twitch, fidgeting with hair, or clearing one's throat.  They realize my tears are like unpredictable geysers that I'm trying to deal with.  They know the tears are not there to manipulate or because I'm very upset or overwrought, but are just a quirk of mine.

    When I speak to various groups about crying, I always emphasize that I do not necessarily recommend that people try to cry, but rather that they allow themselves to cry when they feel like crying.  I think many people need to learn that it is OK to cry and that they do not have to be strong all the time.  One man told his therapist that he was afraid to let go and cry because he was afraid he would never stop.  He and many others need to learn that they will not have a nervous breakdown if they just totally let go and cry and sob; they can give themselves permission to feel and express their feelings as long as they do not hurt others.  We all have the right to be human, to feel, to cry.  There is no need to deprive ourselves of the natural healthy release of emotional tears.

    The next time you feel tears coming and struggle to hold them back, think of Mr. Bumbles' lines from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist: "It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper.  So cry away!"  To return to the beginning of this article...

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