Are You Tough Enough to Cry?

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

“There’s no crying in baseball!”, whines the Tom Hanks character in the movie A League of Their Own. But what about the rest of life? There are many people who have trouble with crying. Some refuse or hold back only in public situations, and others resist allowing themselves to cry altogether. And although a higher percentage would be men, many women would identify as well. Let’s look at some of the reasons for this resistance and explore the unhealthy beliefs behind it.

1.       I Don’t Want to Be Perceived as Weak

·         If people see me crying, they will take advantage of me

·         If people see me crying, they will pity me or see me differently

·         If people see me crying, they will not respect me any more

·         If people see me crying, they will reject me or abandon me


2.       I am Afraid of Connecting with my Pain

·         If I feel my pain, I will be overwhelmed or will lose control

·         If I feel my pain, I will be vulnerable and that means to be in danger

·         If I feel my pain, I will stop pressing forward


What do we derive from these thought processes and conclusions? We learn that those who think this way believe that crying makes them vulnerable to attack, abandonment, and disgust from others. Crying when things are bad then could make things worse. So, holding in your tears is protecting yourself. And it seems necessary.

When you learn such things, you learn to submerge most negative feelings, except for anger, that is. Anger makes you feel strong and tough and protected, the opposite of those vulnerable feelings. And so anger becomes the emotion and display of choice. If I am afraid of being perceived as weak, then anger is an attractive and powerful alternative. In this form anger demands respect. And, internally, the anger protects the subject from feeling vulnerable and gives them a sense of control. And so many become trained in converting their sadness and disappointment into the hardness of anger.  

But what happens to us when we convert our sadness in this way? Where does our sadness go, and how do we heal? How can one who converts sadness to toughness ever experience true strength and ever learn the meaning of courage? Because yes, I am asserting that those who are ‘tough’ like this are not truly strong or courageous.

One result of cutting yourself off from your sadness is that it sets you up to be hard and unforgiving, and so sabotages meaningful relationships. You develop a thickness of skin in order to protect, and yet the protection meant to keep out hurt becomes the same barrier that holds these parts of you in. This means that it keeps you from showing compassion, from developing empathy and from building intimacy with others. You see, the capacity for softness is necessary for connection with others. This is more easily understood in terms of intimate relationships, but it is also true in friendships and family relationships. Maybe you haven’t completely shut off the value of empathy and care for others, but it may be so plugged up that only a trickle is able to leak out, or it comes out awkwardly in spurts and is poorly applied. And so maybe you find yourself confused sometimes, wondering why you have trouble with relationships and with connecting. Maybe you struggle because you do care about someone but you have trouble getting the message to them in a way that is received and appreciated. On the other hand, in your hardness, you may have developed a pattern of attributing the problem to other people and choosing not to see or own your own issue.

Stuffing or converting our sadness also results in stifling our emotional growth. Being tough is in some circles applauded as being resilient or being “grown up”, as in “big girls don’t cry”. Or we have the hero, the model man who seems to not let anything bother him and seems to take all the chaos in stride in utter confidence. And so we develop the picture of apparent emotional control wedded to aloofness and calm rationality under pressure. And we really like that, we want to become that! So we stuff our hurts and tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter, or that it didn’t really hurt, or that we need to move on. We told ourselves whatever we needed to in order to not let it get to us. And each time you got hurt you got a little better at not feeling it. And it got easier to not feel it. And you felt tougher, and so you thought you were doing it right.

But feelings, hurts, rejections don’t go away. It’s like the cartoon of the guy who picks up a bomb (those kind that look like a bowling ball with a big fuse sticking out), and he throws it over his shoulder and runs. But in the cartoon he doesn’t know that it is chained to his ankle and so he keeps looking back, only to find it coming after him. We thought we could outrun our hurts - only to find they were chained to our ankles. These old hurts show up in likely and unlikely places. They show up as triggers when you experience a similar hurt in the present that resonates somewhere in your memory. And when that happens you react with an intensity that is out of place for the situation. It’s those times where you walk away going, “Where did that come from? It really wasn’t that big a deal.” Or maybe you simply become someone who is angry much of the time, with either everyday things setting you off, or you walk around with a constant irritableness. And that’s what I mean by stifling your emotional growth. You’ve become emotionally stuck, bound up by the stuff you stuffed.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, you may be wondering if I am about to recommend that the dam be smashed and you just let it all out and become a big marshmallow.  If so, you’d be wrong. I don’t believe that is necessary. Although I don’t believe that staying where you are is in your best interest either. In fact, my concern is not on where you need to end up at this point but on helping you to begin moving. That’s the hard part. There is a tender part of you in there, underneath all the protective layers. And there was a reason that you formed those layers. You were protecting yourself. And I know that any suggestion to remove the layers feels like an invitation to become unprotected, and that seems foolish and scary. The goal here is not to become unprotected, not to just roll over and show your tummy to everyone who enters the home, like a friendly dog who sees everyone as his best friend.

The problem with becoming tough and living by self protection is not that it protects. It is that self protection can become blind and undiscerning, like a car alarm that is turned up so high it can’t tell if the car is being robbed or some child brushed against it. And so addressing the problem is about finding a way to fine tune the protection, to be able to discern between threats and safety. And it is about learning how to recover from hurts when they happen. I see no way to do this other than by trial and error. What that means is that you will need to ‘experiment’ and let down the toughness at some point with someone in order to find out if that person is safe. And that means there is risk - the risk of being hurt and feeing it!

I can’t protect you from all potential hurts, nor do I believe that would be what you really need. The goal of life is not actually to avoid all hurts. Doing that shrinks life until it is not really life. And that’s how you got stuck in the first place. Feeling a sense of safety and protection is more about learning how to deal with hurts when they come rather than trying to make sure they never come.

In part two, I’ll address how to develop discernment in issues of safety as well as how to recover from hurts.


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