Break Down and Let it All Out: On Crying in Public

Like Nina Simone sang: holding back ain't gonna do no good.

Aug 31, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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Sadness is not my forte. I am adept at anger. I excel at happiness. My areas of greatest expertise include disdain, enthusiasm and sympathetic support.

But my own sadness is something I avoid. There is a helplessness to it, a lack of restraint, and both of these circumstances are in conflict with my fairly controlled, logical nature.

I suppose we could argue that nobody is good at being sad, but I do think some of us are more accepting of our sadness than others. Historically, my inclination is to resist sadness for as long as possible, until eventually the weight of it overcomes me, crashing over my mind like a tsunami of anguish, and I wind up curled fetal-style on the bathroom floor, sobbing like I might die, chased by a dehydration headache that would make Chuck Norris himself beg for the sweet release of unconsciousness.

I have mentioned before that my cat -- with whom I have lived for almost 14 years, longer even than I have lived with my husband -- has been very sick. This past Monday morning, he reached the point where his courageous battle against his own pain and suffering was doing him more harm than good, and so we took the difficult but merciful path and had him euthanized.

Because I had months of advance notice that this was coming, I assumed I would handle it with relative ease; I would be sad, certainly, but he was an old cat who’d had an amazing life. And death is inevitable, right?

I underestimated my reaction. To say I have been devastated would be putting an optimistic face on the matter. My crying has been near-continuous, and even when I am not actively crying, I am always one kind inquiry about my well-being from bursting into heartrending sobs again.

How am I doing? Not well, in fact. Not well at all.

All of this public crying has been instructive for me. I have always found crying in public embarrassing, even when it happens in a movie theater, which is the public place I am most likely to cry, and also the most forgiving, being so dark. The opening sequence of Disney/Pixar’s “Up” caught me totally unprepared -- I am used to crying at the END of movies, not the beginning -- and so I found myself desperately suffocating what would have been mournful wailing were I in a more private space.

I was not entirely successful, and heads turned at the sound of my half-crushed sobs, and horrified as I was, I could not stop.

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Crying itself is not always unpleasant, especially when it’s a movie or song making me cry. There’s often a lovely release to it. And there are numerous studies that have looked at the impact of crying from a scientific perspective, some of them finding that crying is beneficial, some finding that crying does no good at all, and some noting that women’s tears throttle men’s testosterone production --  in other words, ladytears are nature’s tiny cockblocks.

Public crying is almost always culturally coded as shameful, though, even when it happens as a result of tragedy or loss that most people can understand. Why are we ashamed of this most overt expression of sadness, whether we are engaging in the crying ourselves, or witnessing it in someone else?

I am not immune either; when I see someone crying, even someone I know well, I invariably have a moment in which I freeze with astonishment and fear: There is crying happening! What do I do? 

Women who cry at work may be accused of being overemotional, unstable, manipulative or all of the above. Grown men who cry publicly -- well, that’s even more loaded. Culturally, frequent crying persists in being identified as an explicitly feminine endeavour; it’s all those hormones, you understand.

According to this ideology, it’s not NORMAL to cry -- frequent crying is a mental affliction, and while women with all their natural imperfections may be forgiven, any man who succumbs frequently must be defective in some respect. 

We’re certainly not comfortable seeing it in our leaders. House Speaker John Boehner’s occasional televised weeping has flummoxed people regardless of their politics, with routine (often sexist) jokes at his propensity for emoting. In my own lifetime I have heard otherwise-reasonable individuals express their doubt that a woman could be president because she might destroy the planet in a fit of PMS-addled angst upon seeing a diaper commercial.

Hillary Clinton had a single filmed moment during the 2008 campaign in which she looked as though she could cry -- as though she were at least CAPABLE of crying, maybe -- and this was a major story: turns out Hillary Clinton is a woman after all, and will this harm her campaign?

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This feminine association with crying is not only inaccurate, but distressing and damaging. If you run a search for “crying in public,” the breadth of Internet literature on the subject is impressive. On Yahoo Answers, a young man inquires:

I'm an 18 year old male...and I cry during "sad" parts of movies sometimes......like not brawling but like my eyes get watery mayb a tear will fall down and sometimes my throat will feel wierd....its seriously ******* embarrassing to say the least...what the hell does this mean??....I'm straight, like woman..so dont call me gay...does this happen to certain group of guys or what, like i can controll myself in the theaters in public...but if im alone watching a movie in my room on the laptop it happens more....Any cure for this?..again it ******* embarrassing!!!!!

The indignation of his query is illustrative: Why is this happening to me? What is wrong, and how can it be fixed? What is this moisture coming from my eyes? Is there a cure?

This poor kid cannot fathom that occasional crying is a behavior normal and healthy for all genders; indeed, he even seems to think it could suggest he is gay. To cry is to be out of control of one’s emotions, and men -- straight manly men, at least -- are never supposed to be out of control of anything.

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It has occurred to me that my two days (so far) of crying may seem excessive to some; unstable, perhaps, or overemotional.

I lost a cat. Certainly, he was a cat I saw every day for nearly 14 years, a cat that I considered a family member and a companion, but ultimately he was a cat, and anyone who hasn’t had a similar experience of loss with a beloved pet could be forgiven for not understanding the intensity of the loss I’m feeling.

But I am trying not to feel ashamed by it, as I usually would. It is OK to feel sadness and pain; it is OK to let those feelings go when they are overwhelming, and if that results in a few tears, then I can’t regret them.

Crying, one might say, is the mark of a person who feels their loves and passions most keenly. I will take some public crying, and the funny looks it might get me, if it means I am truly putting all of myself into my experiences and my relationships -- even the one with my cat. There's no shame in that.