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The Truth About Tears - Part Three
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)

Learning to Release Tears

Some subjects in our adult crying behavior study expressed concern over the fact that while they could cry for a variety of what they considered unimportant reasons, they did not shed tears over major events such as death and serious illness. One subject wanted to know "why I cry over impersonal things and don't cry over personal things." Another subject wrote that she "found it interesting that when crying is appropriate, such as my grandfather's funeral or serious illness, I don't cry. Makes me wonder if I'm cold, but I do cry easily for sentimental reasons or thoughts, or if someone close to me cries or when watching TV." She surmised, "I must need this to release pent-up emotions."

Several persons in the behavior study expressed concern that they seemed to have lost their ability to cry. One subject wrote, "I'd give anything if I still could cry. It helped me feel I could go on and overcome the problem." Another wrote, "Wish I could cry, but it has been ingrained in my mind that crying is not an answer to anything; so I am no longer able to cry over nonmajor events." Some women who feel that they need a good cry to relieve stress but can't get the tears started, seek out sad movies. For years, Wuthering Heights was one of the classic tearjerkers. Terms of Endearment heads the list of recent movies that elicit tears, according to a preliminary survey we conducted for a study to determine which movies make men and women cry.

Being able to produce tears at will is a skill many actors and actresses develop as part of their theatrical training. While some actors use menthol crystals (or some type of eye irritant) to stimulate tears, and others substitute drops of glycerin for tear drops (especially in movie retakes), many actors prefer to trigger their theatrical tears with real emotion.

Kate Fuglei, an actress from the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, described in a phone interview how she brought forth her theatrical tears:

Ideally, I would like to always be able to cry real tears during a performance. Sometimes the tears come easily. On nights when I'm really into it, really connected with the character, the tears just come. Recently, I played a fourteen-year-old who was about to have an abortion. Most nights I felt I was the character and could believe that I was in the situation, so during the sad, wrenching scenes I cried real tears.

Other times I'm just not into it. Things have been rushed before the performance, the car wouldn't start, or I don't feel well, or something personal is bothering me. I'm not living the character. During times such as these I use emotional recall to generate tears. Usually two instances in my childhood or one incident I experienced as an adult help me cry. I think of specific details--how someone's face looked, something in the room, anything that brings back strong emotion that went along with the episodes. (Kate Fuglei, telephone interviews, Fall 1983.)

Actors and actresses learn to use such emotional memory--a technique developed by Constantin Stanislavski--to elicit tears as part of their theatrical training. Each one must search for unhappy events in their lives that will trigger tears. Although just thinking of sad events may bring tears occasionally, it fails to consistently release tears.

In her book, Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen gives precise instructions for the technique described by the Guthrie actress to induce weeping on stage. She advises actors to find their own "release object" connected in some way to the sad event they are focusing on. These seemingly insignificant objects-a ring on a finger, a painting on the wall, the smell of freshly brewed tea, the sound of raindrops hitting a tin roof- are more effective at triggering tears than dwelling on the essence of the painful event. Hagen herself used this technique for years without understanding why it worked. She later learned that the release objects may have been unconsciously perceived and thus bypass the conscious voice that tells us "Don't lose control." (Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 46-49.) Regardless of the reasons, this technique is used successfully by many actors.

To teach their clients to release tears, some grief counselors recommend deliberately recalling a memory by going to a specific place or finding something that belonged to the person that died. Certain music or artwork done by the deceased works in some cases. If their clients feel choked up with tears but cannot let themselves cry, some counselors suggest they pant rapidly. Supposedly, the abrupt breaths help make crying possible for some persons. (William H. Schatz, Healing A Father's Grief (Redmond Wash: Medic Publishing Company, 1984), 13-14. Gay Luce, Your Second Life: Vitality and Growth in the Middle and Later Years (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978), 71.)

For those who cannot learn to cry by drawing on their emotional memory, a few simple suggestions for releasing tears offered by a Los Angeles psychologist may help. Anthony Tinn suggests that persons may be able to reclaim their ability to cry by (I) actively challenging the old cliches about why one should not cry, (2) expressing feelings associated with the need to cry, and (3) being with someone who is comfortable with crying when crying is appropriate. (Anthony Tinn, "Everyday Coping Skills," Northwest Orient (Spring 1981): 16.)

Ingeborg Day interviewed a cross-section of the population for the article "What Makes You Cry?" in Ms magazine. One woman's mother passed on her method of dealing with life's blows: Peel and mince onions to start the tears and don't stop until you feel better. (Ingeborg Day, "What Makes You Cry?" Ms (June 1980), 46-55.) Perhaps her irritant tears help start her emotional tears flowing.

I feel that many persons lose the ability to cry emotional tears because of social conditioning. When children (particularly boys) are told crying is childish, or when others react negatively to our tears as we grow older, we try to hold back our tears. However, it is difficult to feel very sad or hurt without crying, and we soon learn that it is easier not to cry if we do not allow ourselves to feel strongly in the first place. If we suppress the emotions that cause our tears, we avoid the feelings of embarrassment or loss of control or vulnerability that can accompany a weeping outburst. As I mentioned earlier, individuals who learn to hide their emotions from others may eventually hide them so well that they no longer know what or how they feel. (Obviously, there are some who seem to do well without crying and do not want to change.) For others, perhaps the only way to reverse the problem and regain the ability to express emotions is to work with a psychologist or other health professional who will help them to experience, own, and express their feelings. When we reclaim emotional expression, begin to know ourselves better, and thus become more fully human, we may also be able to once again utilize one of the few physiological functions that separates humans from other animals - emotional weeping.  To continue...

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