The science & shame behind crying | ELLE
I have never seen my mum cry. Not even a single tear have I seen snake tremulously down her cheek. When I was little, this used to worry me greatly. ‘But why don’t you cry?’ I would squeak, through my own snuffled sobs. ‘Because it doesn’t solve anything,’ she once replied, calmly. Yes, my mother is the ultimate pragmatist. (She doesn’t drink, either, because ‘it doesn’t get you anywhere’. Well, no, I used to say as a teenager, but it’s fun.) While I’m no longer fazed by the fact I’ve never seen my stoic mother cry, I can’t claim to take after her on that front.
To quote Jude Law in The Holiday, I am a ‘major weeper’. I cry at the usual fare – adverts, books, someone I love getting ill, seeing a friend get married, watching films on aeroplanes (there’s actual science behind this last one) – but also on a regular basis, for no reason at all. In my most narcissistic moments, I have even been moved to tears by the prospect of my own death. Of course, I am talking about emotional, or ‘psychic’ tears, here (there are also basal tears, which lubricate the eye, and reflex tears, the kind you get from chopping onions). A good old cry offers catharsis. How many times have you curled up into a ball and bawled, then on finishing felt a little bit reborn? It is a ‘healing experience’ that is important for its ‘reprocessing of a memory or thought,’ says psychologist Natalie Cawley.
The perception of crying is that it’s a feminine emotion. Women cry over men (and spilt milk). Ripped tights and handbag spats. Our tears are irrational, copious and tedious. Gwyneth Paltrow sobbing her way through her 1999 Oscars acceptance speech was cemented in the media-ordained canon of worst acceptance speeches ever. Meanwhile, men rarely deign to cry, and certainly not in public, because society has taught them they must ‘buck up‘; only sissies and wet blankets cry.
But, thankfully, that is changing. Not only tears shed as a private act, but as part of the public discourse, from actor and model Cara Delevingne saying her sanity depends on crying every day, to Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis admitting to crying after interviews. It’s pop star Ariana Grande tweeting ‘bye crying’ when she matched the Beatles’ chart record in the USA. It’s also Lady Gaga, weeping with euphoria backstage at the Oscars, Drew Barrymore red-faced and sobbing on Instagram (because, ‘sometimes life can just get to you and take you down for a minute’) and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tearfully mourning the victims of a terrorist attack at a mosque in Christchurch earlier this year. And it’s not just women. When Andy Murray announced his retirement from tennis in January, he broke down in tears and his weepy face made front page news.
Have you ever curled up and bawled, then felt a little bit reborn?
Crying has gone from being viewed as a sign of weakness to an experience that is highly encouraged: last October, the World Economic Forum published a video revealing that Japan is recommending crying once a week to its population to relieve stress, while a ‘namida sensei’ or ‘tears teacher’ (former high school teacher Hidefumi Yoshida) recently made the news for his series of (very oversubscribed) lectures aimed at raising awareness of the benefits of crying.
I dive straight in and call up Professor Ad Vingerhoets, who is based in the Netherlands and has been studying crying since 1987. He wrote the 2013 tome, Why Only Humans Weep. The man who behavioural psychologists refer to as ‘the tear professor’ says one of the biggest misconceptions is that we cry because we are sad. Rather, we cry because we are angry, helpless, grieving, surprised or empathetic. Vingerhoets, who has carried out dozens of studies all over the world, says ‘crying waxes and wanes in society’ and that we are going through a ‘sentimental time in society. Never before will you have seen so many tears on television, from politicians to athletes.’
Vingerhoets says the widely held notion that tears are always followed by relief is a myth – I grudgingly agree that, sometimes, I just feel exhausted – but rather, he says, we feel better for what our crying represents.‘It signals to others that you need them. It shows that you are not aggressive and that you have peaceful intentions. And if you cry in a positive situation (if you are moved by something, for example) then it reveals your morality. It is about altruism and self-sacrifice; it’s the good overcoming the bad.’
My pressing quest is to determine if women are biologically predisposed to cry more than men, or if we have been socially conditioned to do so. ‘There is reason to think that there might be a specific female hormone that facilitates tears, but social learning is more important,’ says Vingerhoets. ‘There are factors that shape our crying behaviour: our exposure to emotional situations (women engage in more emotional material, whether that’s books, literature or friendships); our choice of profession (historically more women have worked in emotive industries like healthcare); and how powerless or helpless we may feel,’ he says – the latter being a central factor in recent campaigns such as #MeToo.
‘As a practitioner, I don’t think men cry less than women, but in my social realm that observation would be true,’ says psychologist Cawley. ‘Research shows that prior to puberty, there is no difference in the frequency of males and females crying. This suggests men learn via their social context, post-puberty, that it is less acceptable to be seen crying or exposing their vulnerability in such a way.’
Writer and mental health activist Matt Haig agrees: ‘The flipside of patriarchy is that, for all the privilege and social space men take up, we have backed ourselves into a corner emotionally. I cry quite often, but not in front of male friends and acquaintances. This shit is ingrained. But I can talk about crying with men now, so I suppose that’s personal progress.’ Toxic masculinity dictates the narrow parameters in which men express emotion (at sporting fixtures, mainly, which might explain why they sob there). I’m lucky enough to be married to a man who weeps freely while slow-dancing in the kitchen to Labrinth (he’ll never forgive me for revealing that) and to be the daughter of a man who, unlike his wife, proudly sheds tears on a regular basis.
The drive to remove the shame from crying is gaining momentum. Author Holly Bourne is so passionate about destigmatising crying, she has written an entire young adult novel about it: The Places I’ve Cried in Public (out in October). ‘I wanted to explore how common public crying is – every girl has lost it in public at one time or another – but we never talk about it.’ Bourne was fascinated by ‘psychogeography’, which is the idea that places hold memories. Her own meltdown was on Platform 1 of Clapham Junction train station, ‘where I sobbed for 90 minutes during a train strike.’ In trying to make sense of a recently demised dysfunctional relationship, Audrey, Bourne’s teenage protagonist, travels to all the places she cried during their time together. ‘It’s a book about consent and power dynamics’, says Bourne. But it is also an encouragement for teenage girls to acknowledge their feelings ‘and see that they are telling us something. This obsession with happiness and wellbeing means we fall into this trap of chasing happiness. We need to spend more time with our emotions and stop labelling our feelings – happy equals good, sadness equals bad – and just let them sit.’
So, is it bad if you don’t cry? Will my mum explode like Violet Beauregarde? Experts hold differing views. Vingerhoets says that some people cry more than others – and it’s as simple as that – though ‘criers are more empathetic and feel more connected to other people’. But when clinical psychologist Corde Benecke conducted an experiment with both criers and non-criers, he found non-crying people have a tendency to withdraw, and experience more negative, aggressive feelings, such as rage, anger and disgust, than those who do cry.
I don’t think I will ever agree with my mum that crying is pointless. But I might not have to. Just before I finish this piece, I ring her for a chat. I tell her what I’m writing, and that she features in it. ‘Oh, I do sometimes cry now,’ she says. ‘You WHAT?’ I reply. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I cried watching Poppy [my niece] sing a solo the other day.’ I’m shocked. But also quite excited. Maybe, for once, I’ll be the one to hand my mum a hanky.
This article appeared in the July 2019 issue of ELLE magazine