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How to Hold Back Tears (Plus Two Big Myths About Crying)

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen questions everything we know about crying, reveals why we sometimes burst into tears at seemingly random times, and offers 3 ways to stop. 

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #197

image of woman holding back tears

All crying is not created equal. There are times when it’s appropriate: your best friend’s wedding, after a heart-shattering breakup, or the first time you hold your grandchild.

But there are also times and places our culture has decided it’s inappropriate to cry, like at work or school. But many of us struggle with seemingly random crying, including listener Jessica, who wrote in and asked how to avoid bursting into tears, whether in the conference room at work or attempting to get past page two of The Giving Tree with her kids.  

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Originally, I had intended this week’s episode to cover only how to hold back tears. But in diving into the research, I found that many of the truisms about crying are wrong, or at least partially wrong. 

Therefore, this week we’ll cover two big myths of crying and round it out with how to access the shut-off valve for your own waterworks.

Why Do We Cry?

Interestingly, humans are really bad at pinpointing why we cry. When asked, most of us report we cry when we’re physically hurt, or someone we care about gets married, dumps us, or dies. 

Those all make sense, but those are the prototypical reasons to cry, not the actual reasons we cry. When researchers ask about the most recent time we cried, we tell a very different story. It turns out we cry for really mundane reasons: we have a small personal failing, a minor conflict, or we’re on the receiving end of criticism. In short, we do cry over life’s milestones, but mostly we cry over everyday interactions.

Does Crying Really Make You Feel Better?

Let’s look at the idea that crying makes you feel better. Again, this is an area where popular perception isn’t the whole story. 

Most psychologically-minded people, mental health professionals included, are guilty of encouraging crying. Let it out, we say. It’s cathartic! We even warn that bad stuff might happen to your health if you bottle up your feelings. But is that true? Not so fast. 

Turns out we only feel better after a good cry 50% of the time. What’s happening the other half of the time? Well, anyone who’s ever been depressed can tell you crying doesn’t make you feel better in the midst of a depression. Neither, it turns out, does crying over an event that’s uncontrollable.

Likewise, if people react to your crying with disapproval, you definitely won’t feel better. And crying often gets a bad rap, especially for men. Anthropologists would say that inopportune crying breaks what’s called “display rules.” For western culture, crying in public or at work registers for men as weak and for women as hysterical, emotional, or at worst, manipulative. 

That’s sexist, to be sure, but still, no one wants to cry in front of the boss. So how to play within the display rules of crying? There’s no foolproof way, but the best of the science offers three things to try.

Tip #1: Act more powerful.

Let’s look more closely at those mundane reasons we cry. Most “irrational” crying is actually triggered by feelings of powerlessness or helplessness.

This is why a minor brush-off, getting stood up, a confrontation at work, or not being taken seriously at the conference table can lead to unexpected tears. It seems random, but when we look deeper, it makes sense.

It also makes sense according to evolution. Tears do two things. One, they signal that we need support from others, and second, they diffuse aggressive situations. A study in the uber-prestigious journal Science found that women’s tears contain an odorless chemical that reduces testosterone levels in men

At the time the study was published, the popular press spun it into “crying turns men off,” but in evolutionary terms, it’s super-practical, signaling to potential partners that what she needs when she’s upset is some support rather than a roll in the hay.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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