There I was, my head on my companion’s shoulder, openly crying in the carriage. Breaking Protocol.
The London Underground is, after all, infamous for its emotion devoid interiors. Smiles are to be avoided. Eye contact is a myth. Crying? Don’t even think about it.
Yet tears flowed, noiseless but unhidden. Instead of the usual desire to compose myself, turn my face away or do anything at all, I sat back and let it happen.
If this experience had occurred a year earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to move past the mortification. Instead, I was experiencing, and actively processing layers of discomfort, resistance and subtle shame. All triggered by the experience of crying in public. I was releasing exhaustion and pent up emotion.
I couldn’t have said why I was crying.
As the tears came to their natural end, I started to notice the specks of dust and light in the air. I became aware of the way the sun reflected off the edge of a window as we came overground. I felt my hands, the breath filling my chest and the warmth of the body next to mine. I was in the elusive present state yoga teachers and New Yorker articles kept praising. It was an effortless state, an effortless noticing, and I’d arrived at it by crying.
Crying: A Personal History
I grew up learning not to cry. Only young children were allowed to cry and once I neared 10 years of age, I was encouraged to stop. Crying wasn’t something I saw adults do freely; it was taboo, a sign of weakness and a public loss of control.
By the time I was a teen, the fear of crying had become a mechanism which kept me from talking about my feelings and vulnerabilities. If I tried to speak about a topic close to heart, like self-doubt or family troubles, the tears would come rushing and I’d instantly back away, afraid to meet them.
The change started a year and a half ago, when I was jolted by the realisation that the fear of crying was inhibiting me from expressing myself. It happened when I was overwhelmed at work. Every time I sat in a 1-on-1 with my manager, ready to address the frustration, I nearly cried. So, I’d stop talking before I vocalised the problem and nothing changed. Eventually, I stepped back and noticed this pattern everywhere: I stop talking when I’m afraid of becoming emotional or bursting into tears. I avoid sensitive and stirring subjects. In this way, I’d avoided talking to my father about the breakdown of our relationship, simply because I couldn’t stand the shame of crying in front of him. It turned out, I hardly talked about difficult topics, which varied from burning out at work to telling my mum I loved her.
I’d accidentally bumped into a core-conflict. My biggest goal is free self-expression. I want to be able to share my internal world easily and honestly, without blocks. It’s a goal I set at 14, when I first noticed the gap between my thoughts and words. When I came to speak, my throat would close up, swallowing the words back to their birthplace below my neck. The frustration I experienced started my journey in personal-development and years later the inability to cry was the last of the remaining gaps in the bridge I’d built. To reach unhindered self-expression, I’d have to become comfortable with crying.
Over the last year, I’ve been reconditioning my resistance to crying. It’s been a jaw-achingly vulnerable and uncomfortable experiment involving crying at work, with partners, in front of groups of friends and countless other scenarios. In the process, I’ve recognised different modes of crying, discovered tools to help me cry and found ease in the act itself. My reward is richer conversations, more moments of lightness and an increasing comfort in my own skin.
The rest of this article explores:
- why crying is stigmatised
- the crying states and how to access them
- the relational benefits of crying
- tips for becoming comfortable with tears
Crying, free of shame and convolutions, is an art form. It requires deliberate practice and patience, and delivers the benefits and rewards of mastery.
_ _ _
Why Is Crying Vilified?
Crying is a powerful tool for processing experiences and clearing emotions stored in the body. The fear of crying and our insistence on not allowing ourselves to cry can lead to emotional blocks and, as I discovered, restricted self-expression. When we stop ourselves from crying, we inhibit ourselves from feeling our emotions and, by extension, sharing them with others.
It begs the question: why am I writing to defend an act as natural as breathing? Why do we resist crying? Why is it that when we cry, shame and embarrassment rise to the surface? As opposed to when we sneeze, cough or belly-laugh?
I’m not the first nor last person to meet the urge to cry with a wall of internal resistance. Where did I learn it’s not okay to cry and why did I accept this claim?
The answer lies in cultural conditioning.
In the West, and the world at large, the culture holds an unfavourable view of crying. A view which encompasses all displays of emotions except a select, gender-appropriate few. As A.J. Bond described in his shame exploring podcast, Discomfortable:
“The culture we live in says emotions are childish, feminine, animalistic and unevolved … [the] culture … says you should be in complete control of your emotions at all times. You should … never allow them to overflow such that you would cry in public”
As we move through stages of development, from childhood to adulthood, we pass through a merging of culture and self. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist, formulated a model for human development which theorises that this merging is the 3rd of 5 stages.
“You become more a part of society because you’ve made society more a part of you” says Kegan in an interview on Emerging Podcast, discussing the 3rd stage. “That is you internalise the expectations, the shared view of reality, whether that is the internalisation of your parents’ views, your faith, community or your country’s views. You’re … unconsciously taking in the subtle values that run through our culture.”
Looking at the present state of the world, it wouldn’t be amiss to assume that the average human adult is at the 3rd stage. While this stage holds many benefits it also leads to us absorbing toxic elements of the culture such as sex, race and class-based biases. Unfortunately, many of us also unquestioningly adopted our culture’s view of crying.
‘Not All Cries Are Created Equal’: The Modes of Crying
In one coaching session, I discovered there are different modes of crying. It’s useful to be able to distinguish the modes and to guide ourselves towards the emotional processing based crying.
The first is a crying which leaves us feeling hopeless and tired. It’s triggered when we’re feeling overwhelmed, stuck or frustrated. If allowed to run its course, this cry can be a great release. The issue arises when we don’t allow ourselves to finish the cry; as can happen when we begin to cry over a lost relationship and judge ourselves or hold back before the emotions are processed. Then, we feel exhausted and in a worse position than we were before crying.
I’ve found myself in the first mode of crying when overworked. I remember, several months ago, walking into my flat, sitting on my bed and sobbing. Uncontrollably, inexplicably and with no relief in sight. It was a disconnected cry: I was watching myself cry but I felt nothing. It was, upon reflection, a warning. A sign to slow down and pay attention, rather than an active emotional processing.
The second is what I call a ‘sweet’ cry. It’s the crying which happens when we feel love for ourselves; when we’re filled with awe or captured by beauty. It happens when we move through an emotion. It’s what heartbreak looks like at the end of tears, when we’ve cried so fully our chest feels clean and our senses open. I share my sweet cry experiences in the breathwork section.
The sweet cry is emotional processing. It arises when we allow ourselves, and our bodies, to cry and move as much as we need to, without judgement or disconnection. The key is the ability to let go, to lose our sense of observer-self in the experience. In a sweet cry, we are embodied, our awareness drenched in the sensations brought to the surface by the tears.
What Happens When We Allow Ourselves to Cry?
Deep into my crying experiment, I found myself in a feedback session with a colleague after having said I’d been feeling uncomfortable. When it came time to talk about why I’d been feeling uneasy, I froze. If I spoke now, I would cry.
My crying-as-a-filter mechanism had kicked in and almost subconsciously, I asked myself, ‘do I, at 25, want to cry in front of my employer?’ Not necessarily. So instead of speaking openly, I was in control mode: expending energy to keep the tears at bay.
What if we could redirect the energy we spend composing ourselves and instead use it to communicate more effectively?
The conversation with my colleague helped me answer this question. By now, I’d begun to dance in the unfamiliar landscape of public crying. As I felt the tears rippling beneath the surface, I decided to take the risk of crying over not speaking. So, I told him I felt I was pouring my heart into the company and not receiving much acknowledgement for it. I could feel my face heating. My eyes watering.
By opening up, we give others permission to help us. My colleague accepted this nonverbal invitation and asked questions to support me navigate the mess of emotions I was feeling. With an unfurling clarity, I began to see the narrative I’d come to believe: ‘I’m not appreciated and my work isn’t seen’. As he acknowledged what I felt and proposed solutions, the emotional drought I’d been experiencing began to ease.
By opening up, we give others permission to do the same. With the emotional tint of the conversation changed, he said: ‘we’re also figuring it out’. I was flooded with sympathy. My focus expanded to notice that my colleagues were also making sense of our shared experience.
By opening up, we strengthen our connections. Speaking through the tears deepened my work relationships. It turns out crying is how I’m able to free up the energy I use to compose myself. The unoccupied energy quickly found a new calling: unlocking a further level of comfort and mutual understanding with the people I spent my days with.
How To Become Comfortable With Crying
Crying had undeniable benefits. It cleared my head, cleansed my body and improved the way I felt about most problems.
There was a small issue. I was more likely to want to cry when talking to other people than when practising inner-work alone. But, I also felt uncomfortable crying in front of others. So, where to go from here?
Below are the practices I used to become comfortable with crying, starting with practising in isolation to working with others. I found that once I became used to allowing myself to cry alone, I naturally moved to working with facilitators and feeling at ease with becoming emotional with friends and partners.
So, the first step to becoming comfortable with crying is learning to cry alone. The most reliable methods I found for solo emotional release were breathwork, music, visualisations and embodied processing (feeling the body).
By the time I discovered breathwork I’d been meditating for 7 years. I came to it cocky and thankfully, the experience humbled me.
My first breathwork session, recommended by the lovely Anita, was online. I lay back in bed, pulled up the covers and relaxed. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale and … repeat. For 15 minutes. In the background, strikingly hippie-ish music played, the type I occasionally enjoyed in private but would be embarrassed to be caught listening to.
As my mind continued its musical critique monologue, my body began to fill with life. At one moment, my mind was gripped by a melody so beautiful, it stopped in silence. For the next 50 minutes, though I had no sense of time then, the music worked its way through my body, coaxing hidden pockets of emotion to the surface. A sob hiccuped in my throat and I was at once surprised and overcome by emotions.
At first, the tears were subject-less, an expression of emotion with no reference. Then, I began to cry for my younger self. I cried for her desire to love and do good. I cried, for the first time, for how confused and lost she felt when the world didn’t respond in a way which made sense. And when she watched her parents, disconcerted by the ways they treated her and each other. There was grief, loss and sadness which eventually gave way to gentle love and care. The change in feeling remained long after the session.
The emotional power of breathwork seems to come mostly from the accompanying music. Music speaks to the body. As I’m naturally drawn to music, I find it a perfect entry into my body and in turn, my emotions.
Beautiful sitar instrumentals can bring me to tears from their sheer beauty. So can old Arabic music which played during my childhood and so unexpectedly, did Jhene Aiko’s recent album, filled with soothing singing bowls and chimes.
My current practice is simple. I select a piece of music which moves me and listen to it in a comfortable space for >5 minutes. The only instructions are to relax and feel. Usually, I lie down. Sometimes, I cry. Other times, I feel the vortex in my chest, following its movements until the time is up.
When I was learning (and I had to learn) self-compassion, feelings of love towards myself were met with disbelief and antagonism. Once, in a guided meditation session, Tara Brach recommended imagining our child-self then directing love towards her instead of our present self. When I pictured what I imagined to be my younger self, emotions flowed. They had stories to tell and they’d been waiting for years to share them.
It’s hard to feel resentment towards a child. We can’t hold children to the same standards we hold our adult selves. Mental images of our younger selves can, therefore, act as the third door to emotions, self-compassion and tears.
Feeling the Body
The final method for accessing tears is embodied experiencing. I’ve experimented with multiple practices: Focusing, Vipassana, Tara Brach’s RAIN, the NEDERA process, dance and somatic work, to name but a few. All can help us become more aware of our bodies. In my opinion, all these processes point to the same experience: learning one is like learning the others. We can sample each and stick with the flavour we find ourselves craving.
I’m going to share the most recent tool I’ve learnt, the Bio-Emotive Framework: a resonance-based emotional processing system developed by Douglas J. Tataryn. The clinical psychologist teaches a 6 step technique called NEDERA, an acronym which stands for:
The NEDERA technique is a tool for noticing what we feel in our bodies and finding language to help us voice those feelings. I use the technique in one of two ways: self-facilitation or with a coach.
My first experience of the NEDERA technique was a coaching session to explore my tumultuous relationship to making. I found it difficult to produce work yet I was constantly plagued by the drive to create and a never-ending stream of ideas. It sounds dramatic but it’s really how I felt internally: a recurrent state of unfulfilled desire. I wanted to make but I couldn’t make and when I did create, the price was chronic tension, muscle inflammation and sleepless nights.
I began the session by telling my story. The facilitator listened as I detailed a work research project I was avoiding and the resulting dread. As I talked, he recommended I open the files in question and look at them. After a few minutes of speaking and looking, I became activated, feeling the emotions of the situation. When I mentioned this, the facilitator encouraged me to notice what was happening in my body: my shoulders were tight and my chest felt blocked. In my torso sensations moved slowly, sluggishly, as if they were pushing against resistance. I spent time feeling into them, noticing the physical qualities of the sensations.
The next step of the process was expression. With gentle guidance from the coach, the words, ‘I feel trapped’, ‘I feel stuck’ and eventually ‘I feel scared’, fell out of my mouth. It turned out my resistance to making had a core filled with fear. Avoidance was a mechanism to mask the layers of anxiety beneath the surface.
As I continued vocalising my emotions, and checking with my body to see if the words I spoke resonated, memories began to surface. I remembered an incident involving Kellog’s cereal, too long spent playing atop the kitchen counter and my mother. I remembered using a screwdriver to take apart my silver robot toy and being shouted at when I couldn’t put it back together. One after another, the memories came, and slowly a link appeared. My mind was flashing memories of play, creation, and their consequences.
I was torn between sharing the thoughts with my facilitator and feeling too exposed and raw. These were my secrets and revealing them felt wrong. But the desire to find a resolution was stronger than the apprehension encouraging me to keep quiet.
The moment I started to share the memories, I began to cry. The shoulder shaking, chest heaving cries. As I spoke, my arms and legs tremored, my breathing intensified, becoming an audible inhale and forceful exhale. All happening outside of my control. We sat together while the feelings worked their way through my body.
The next day, I finished an application I’d been evading for weeks. Several days after, when I returned to the project I’d mentioned in the session, I found a new spaciousness and one less layer of emotional complexity to contend with. When I began to feel the familiar fear and resistance, I could see the causes. I was no longer held down from the shoulders with a fear which felt so large, I couldn’t see past it.
Crying, and the NEDERA technique, isn’t a magic pill. I’m not trying to advertise a one-time-only solution. Still, it’s evident to me that each session of emotional processing work, especially those where I feel the release of crying, has led to a more enjoyable experience of making. It’s also just led to more making.
It’s highly likely that without the processing session described above, and those which followed, I would not be sitting here writing these words. The emotional triggering would’ve overwhelmed me and I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to handle more than 1 or 2 hours of the discomfort.
Summary of the NEDERA process by @FioraAeterna. In her words, the process is “crying to release the emotional blockage and then explaining to yourself that it’s alright, you’re safe, and it’s okay. like a good mom would do”. If you’d like to explore the NEDERA process further, I’ve written about the process here.
Reviving the Lost Art of Crying
To paraphrase Kegan, eventually we must pick up the psychological pen in our heads and be the authors of our own meaning-making system. We can choose our relationship to crying. We decide the narrative we wrap it in, for while culture may shape us, it’s also shaped by us.
Like most cliches, the adage to be the change you want to see holds a truth. I plan to cry, write and talk about crying until it becomes the norm.
In the words of Anne Lamott, “Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you, and the ground on which you walk.” So, let them.
Breathwork Online is a comfortable entry point. The first session is free and they also hold occasionally monthly free sessions. If you try it, I’d love to hear about your experience.
There are in-person breathwork sessions which you can attend. If you’re in London, I’d be happy to recommend some.
*Note: not all breathwork is designed equal. I personally avoid breathwork which attempts to force a certain breath pattern on the body. If you feel resistance to the way you’ve been told to breathe during a workshop, I’d recommend listening to your body first and foremost. You’ll see the breathwork workshop linked above recommends a gentle, natural breathing method. Breathwork is a powerful way of releasing emotions but it shouldn’t be used as a tool to force the body to experience emotions it’s not ready for.
Music for Emotional Exploration
It’s difficult to recommend music as it’s a matter of personal taste. In my experience, music which holds personal historical importance or makes you stop thinking is the way to go. Nonetheless, here is a list of songs for exploring various emotions. Many of the songs from the list are recommendations by Sarah McManus.
- Calm & Peace
- Movie soundtracks in general are phenomenal
- The responses in this thread of ‘emotionally resonant songs’ by Jason Snyder
Share any recommendations you have and I’ll add them to the list.
Visualisation: if you have trouble visualising, fret not. My visualisations tend to be a mix of feelings, words and sounds, and they do the job. If you’d like to improve your visualisation skills, I’d recommend the Image Streaming process and exercises.
Focusing: a therapeutic technique for noticing bodily sensations and speaking directly from them. Here is the best explanation of focusing I’ve ever read, in less than 700 words. Here are the 6 step focusing process and the book.
Tara Brach: a psychologist and meditation teacher with an abundance of self-compassion resources. I’d recommend reading her book ‘Radical Acceptance’ to learn more about compassion and self-love. Or trying out her RAIN meditation process when you find yourself triggered. She also has an excellent set of talks which helped me form the basis for a more loving relationship to self.
Vipassana: an ancient Buddhist meditation technique. Known as awareness or insight meditation, the technique directs attention to the body and its sensations. You’ll find the technique used everywhere from popular meditation apps like Headspace to your local mindfulness class. Typically, you can learn vipassana by attending a 10 day retreat.
Note: I no longer practice the recommended form of vipassana which suggests to ignore pain arising in the body, staying still and observing it. Instead, I’m attempting to develop a more responsive relationship to my body, noticing when pain is arising and moving to generate comfort rather than ignore the request of the sensations. My gut feeling is, I’m doing harm by ignoring my body. Still, vipassana is thousands of years old and I am 25, so take my musings with a pinch of salt 🤷🏼♀️
NEDERA technique: you can find out more about the technique and the bio-emotive framework here. Douglas holds monthly and weekly group calls and offers introductory courses.
In addition to the below summary, I’ll leave you with another NEDERA process gem from Fiora: “let yourself feel shit, don’t explain to yourself why you shouldn’t feel shit, keep going until you are sad”
If you’re exploring crying, emotional processing and inner work, I’d love to hear from you. My DMs are open on Twitter.