Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2012
Someone recently asked me what to do about crying when she doesn’t want to, especially when her feelings are hurt during a confrontation. I thought it was a perfect subject for Comfort Zone.
Crying easily can be a problem in many situations: in doctor’s offices, when under pressure at work, or just when something touches you that is not having that effect on those around you. HSPs do cry more readily than others. It was a strong finding in our research. The only reason it is not on the self-test is that women answered yes to it more than men did, and we didn’t want items with a gender bias. I am sure that most HS men cry easily, too, but for various reasons suppress it more.
A Problem of Ranking
You know my liking for the terms “ranking” and “linking.” Ranking–comparing ourselves to others to see if we are better or worse than they are–is totally natural to all social animals. Like it or not, everyone does it. Still, if you ask yourself who you do and do not enjoy being with, almost always the people you predominantly link with (are friends with) are on the positive list, and the unpleasant list is of people who tend to generate ranking feelings in you or are themselves stuck in a state of ranking most of the time.
The point is, crying is usually only a problem in a ranking situation. With a friend or in an accepting group, either you appreciate the support that tears bring or you will be believed if you choose privacy and say, “It’s nothing, really. Please ignore it.” You do not lose others’ respect because you are quick to tear up. Friends know this is just how you are and probably like your deep feelings.
In ranking situations, on the other hand, crying feels like a weakness and may indeed be seen that way, so you feel one down. Even when the situation could go either way, either ranking or linking, perhaps in a committee meeting, crying can make you feel like you are now going to be pitied, or seen as someone who lacks emotional control or has some psychological problem. If you are a woman, you fear being stereotyped or being seen as “hormonal.” If you are a man, the other men may find you pretty scary–a man “losing control.” The unspoken implication: “That could be me.” Almost all men recall the day they learned not to cry around other males.
It could be that you can turn the moment into one of linking. How you treat yourself will tell others how they should treat you, as a friend or as an inferior. If you are not receiving any sort of appropriate response (appropriate depends on the people and situation), you have to remember that others’ tears can frighten and worry people. When you cry, such people are usually too overaroused to think of the simple solutions of asking what’s wrong or touching you in a gentle, reassuring way. When they were the cause of your tears, they really don’t like the harder solution, of apologizing for being too rough with you, or admitting that they did not have a clue about how you have been feeling. So unfair as it is, if you want linking you will have to reassure them.
Usually simple is best. “I’ll be all right. I just cry easily. Please ignore it.” Or “It’s true I’m upset, but not as much as I seem. I just cry easily.” Reassuring people can cause them to feel warmly towards you because you seem like a safe person to be with, someone who would not shame them for their uneasiness or their own tears, and at the same time you are considerate, even when upset. Further, people like to help others, and you are giving them the chance. But sometimes crying just triggers ranking, in you or the other, and those are the times when you need the most help.
Making Crying a Sign of Being Superior
When everyone else is ranking, I think the only solution is to regain your rank. Indeed, perhaps you can raise it. Remember, our culture may see emotions as weakness, but the real truth is that feelings that move us to tears are what keep us human, compassionate, and wise. I like the words by Alexander Lowen, the doctor and therapist who created bioenergetics: “We stop other people from crying because we cannot stand the sounds and movements of their bodies. It threatens our own rigidity. It induces similar feelings in ourselves which we dare not express and it evokes a resonance in our own bodies which we resist.” That is, your tears may remind the tearless of their rigidity, and rigidity is a form of weakness. They may sense the truth Victor Hugo expressed in Les Miserables: “Those who do not weep, do not see.” However, first you will have to believe this with all your heart–that you are right to cry, you are stronger for it, and they are wrong to look down on you for it and weaker because they cannot.
Second, treat your tears in this situation with some objectivity, as information about your state of mind. Check in and discover what has triggered your tears. Dealing with that may be all that is required. Usually honesty is best. You have to translate your tears into truthful words, but ones that will regain your rank. I like the idea of emotional leadership. So you might say (in a tone of voice appropriate to the situation–sometimes teasing works), “At least I’m reacting to this like a flesh-and-blood human being.” Or, “Seems like most of us are ready to cry, yes?”
If the situation is more hostile, make crying a virtue the other lacks: “I am easily moved, and I’m rather proud (or glad) of that fact.” If you are an artist or creative type, you get to say, “I’m an artist, and so I am easily affected by things, thank goodness.” If you are in the helping professions you can say, “I’ve always been easily moved, and I tend to think of it as an advantage in our line of work. I don’t always show it like this, but it’s there, thank goodness.”
In a confrontation, keep in mind that the person who dares to be honest is often the one who gains the most respect in the end. “You are receiving my authentic reaction: This is unpleasant for me. I thought this was settled.” Or, “I’m crying because I thought our relationship was on better footing, but clearly it was not for you. I’m sorry it took you so long to tell me.”
If you have been criticized, try “You can see by my tears that I take your opinion seriously and will consider it carefully. But perhaps you do not need to say any more about it at this time. I’ve gotten your point.”
Finally, in many situations, a deeply dignified silence is the best option. Think of yourself as supremely confident of your wisdom and your emotional honesty. Pause, let the tears form, dry your eyes, then when you are ready, resume speaking. This often moves people in strange ways. (As an aside, making others wait is another sign of high rank!)
Remember Martin Buber’s words: “Greatness is an inner powerfulness, which sometimes grows suddenly and irresistibly to power over men, sometimes exerts its effects quietly and slowly… sometimes, too, it seems to have no effect at all, but rests in itself, and sends out beams which will perhaps catch the glance only of some far time… The great man… is powerful, involuntarily and composedly powerful, but he is not avid for power.” Perhaps in every ranking situation, the best option is to strive for greatness and to live with the consequences.
I know this sounds like pie in the sky, but think of your other option, which is to continue to feel weak about crying easily and maybe be seen that way over and over. Further, the more dignity you show, the more this helps the rest of us who cry easily. Where I live, Northern California, crying is often seen as fine or even a sign of a deep, New Age virtue. It could be because so many HSPs live here now, since that wasn’t true here one hundred years ago, I’m sure. The culture is changing, and that happened because people changed it.
So Haul Out the Big Guns
Since I seem to be fond of quotes in this issue, here are some big names that support your turning your crying easily into a virtue:
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” Charles Dickens
“Crying is one of the highest devotional songs. One who knows crying, knows spiritual practice. If you can cry with a pure heart, nothing else compares to such a prayer. Crying includes all the principles of Yoga.” Kripalvanadji (a noted Yoga teacher)
“All the books of the world full of thoughts and poems are nothing in comparison to a minute of sobbing, when feeling surges in waves, the soul feels itself profoundly and finds itself. Tears are the melting ice of snow. All angels are close to the crying person.” Hermann Hesse
“So there.” Elaine Aron