I used to cry a lot. It didn’t end when I hit puberty, or even when I finished puberty. The only reason I’m in a state to write this article today without tearing up is because I take testosterone, which has a range of physiological effects including making it harder to cry. For me, testosterone treatment affected me severely enough that while I used to cry at getting hit by a foam sword or the thought of homeless kittens, now I can get through a rough breakup with only a couple of stray tears.
Crying can be great. It can release stress hormones, actually helping you to calm down and feel better. After a particularly challenging or upsetting event, being able to break down and cry can be therapeutic. People can also cry from joy, even those who rarely cry, like how my dad cried at the birth of his first child.
However, crying can also be awful. For me, I hated it because I had internalized societal messages that crying was humiliating and inappropriate, and I was a bad person for doing it.
Throughout my teen and early adult years, no matter how much I was chastised for crying, no matter how embarrassed I was to be crying, I literally could not stop crying. Not until it had run its course, which was usually several tissues and an awkward few minutes, if not longer. It was like someone telling you to not sneeze or cough when you have a severe cold. You might be able to hold it in for a bit, if you’re lucky, but ultimately there is an involuntary physical reaction you can only do so much to prevent.
I cried during breakups. I cried during sex. I cried thinking about philosophy and death. I cried when plans fell through. I cried when I did poorly on a test. No matter how big or how small, certain things would just set me off and no matter how much I told myself to stop being such a baby, I could not stop the tears.
Countless times that I cried, I wasn’t even upset. My freshman year of college, I tried out live action roleplaying (LARPing). I was into tabletop roleplaying games and I wanted to join some clubs on campus, so it seemed like a good fit. I only went for one session because every time I was hit with a foam sword, tears welled up in my eyes. Even though it didn’t hurt much and I wasn’t upset, I couldn’t stop my body’s automatic reaction of “hit = produce tears.”
The fact that I couldn’t stop tearing up, and that people asked me (albeit sometimes well-intentioned) why I was crying, made me so embarrassed that I never went back.
Even worse than people drawing attention to my tears were the people who would simply tell me to stop. If only it were that simple! I rarely wanted to be crying, even when I was upset, because it made me feel immature and it made it harder to communicate effectively (if only because it’s hard to talk while sobbing, and while self-conscious about said sobbing). When I was told by others -- teachers, family, partners, acquaintances, and more -- to stop crying and I physically could not do so, it only made me feel worse about myself. As I got older, it made me wonder if something was wrong with me.
In retrospect, I know this wasn’t because crying is inherently bad, but because I was regularly told by both society and people in my life that crying makes you a bad person.
I had heard countless times that crying was either a sign of weakness or a sign of being manipulative; either way, it was inappropriate for adults to do in public, except at funerals and maybe weddings. Since I physically couldn’t stop myself crying in certain circumstances, the only thing I could do was to try to avoid the upsetting situations. LARPing wasn’t the only thing I missed out on because of that.
The biggest myth I hear about crying is that it’s a manipulation tactic. Men often accuse women of this since men are taught by society that they, and hence their reactions, are “reasonable,” whereas many of women’s reactions, such as crying, are viewed as weak, “emotional,” or manipulative.
It's true that occasionally, there are situations where if you're crying, you should step out because your reaction may be distracting to the issue at hand -- such as if you're an ally in a space and your crying is focusing all the attention on you. However, that’s not the case in most situations.
A couple of years ago when I was at work, I overheard my coworker talking on the phone to her teenage daughter. Her daughter was clearly upset about something, and trying to talk in between sobs. My coworker kept saying, loudly and angrily, “Stop crying!”
In that moment, I remembered how many times people told me that, like it was something I could control and simply wouldn’t. I remembered, with painful intensity, how that only added to my self-esteem problems, solidifying the feeling that since I couldn’t stop doing something “immature” or “manipulative,” I must be an immature or manipulative person.
It hit me how much the negative messages about crying that we receive can hurt us. I knew by then that my crying had been hormonal because of the stark difference in my reactions before and after starting testosterone, but I hadn’t realized until then how much I had internalized unhealthy messages about crying.
People can use crying as a manipulation tactic, but that doesn’t mean all crying is manipulative. To claim that crying when upset is inherently manipulative is a form of emotional gaslighting.
Gaslighting, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a tactic used to convince people that their grip on reality is unstable, and that their own perceptions are unreliable.
For example, one of my ex-boyfriends told me that I was a manipulative person for crying because the only reason I would be crying was to manipulate him. He simply couldn’t recognize or accept that I was upset (often due to him being dismissive or mean) and that I was having a physical reaction I couldn’t control. Instead, he made me doubt whether I understood my own motivations and actions.
Deep down, I knew that I was trying extremely hard not to cry and that I never purposefully made myself cry to manipulate people. In fact, I couldn’t make myself start crying easily. Despite that, his gaslighting, combined with societal messages, made me internalize the idea that crying = manipulative = bad person.
I’ve only been able to shake off that feeling about crying now that I don’t cry very often. Before starting testosterone treatment, I cried several times a month, if not several times a week, sometimes for long periods of time. By the end of my first year on testosterone, I was down to shedding a handful of tears a year.
It was like a switch was flipped. I still experience all the same emotions I did before I got on testosterone. Sometimes, I get upset by things, or sad, or angry, and I have most of the same reactions -- the desire to run away from the situation, the awful clenching in my gut, the self-loathing thoughts, the overwhelming sense of defeat -- but I don’t cry.
Not crying has helped me by avoiding the embarrassment of uncontrollable sobbing in situations where that’s deemed inappropriate. I do occasionally miss the relief of shedding tears, of the real and documented benefits of crying. There is a sort of closure that can go along with crying, the feeling of just getting it out of your system and being able to move on emotionally.
Then again, when I got drunk at a St. Lucia concert and felt just two tears running down my face as the band was playing their final song of the night, that rarity did make those two tears all the more treasured.
To those of you who cry easily: I empathize with you. I hope that you take care of yourself. I hope that you strive to communicate in healthy, effective ways, but I want you to know that crying doesn’t make you a manipulative person or a weak person.
To those of you who don’t cry easily: please recognize some people are simply more prone to it. It can be uncomfortable to be around a crying person. I still feel uncomfortable when other people cry around me, because it means they’re experiencing a lot of emotion, likely a negative one. However, that doesn’t give me the right to tell them to stop crying. I know that for many people their tears are a natural expression, not a calculated tactic to try to guilt me into something.
It’s easy for me to write this now. Honestly, it feels almost cowardly, making myself vulnerable only once I’ve perfected my hormonal armor. I’ve been able to get past my baggage about crying and shed my internalized self-loathing because it no longer affects me personally.
Still, I feel strongly that shaming people for crying won’t make them stop doing it -- it will only make them feel worse about themselves and encourage them not to push themselves or try new things. And that is a real tragedy.
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