I’m a 43-year-old male who — until about a year ago — always relied on my intellectual and logical ability to sort out life problems. I entered psychotherapy to improve my relationship with my stepson, Oliver (8).
Counseling initially began as a journey regarding parenting issues and communication with my wife. I was extremely surprised to discover I had a lot of feelings about my own parents and how I was treated as a boy. Recently (and inevitably) therapy started focusing on my life growing up, and I’m shocked to find that these childhood situations are extremely sad to me. My body gets warm, my chest gets heavy, my throat gets tight and tears well up, but even though the counselor encourages me to release my feelings, I don’t cry. I haven’t cried in years. I leave therapy feeling tight, emotionally unfinished and unsatisfied. I know I carry a lot of grief inside, yet the tears never come.
I fantasize about breaking down and sobbing in front of my wife or my therapist but, in actuality, I never do. I feel that if I ever did cry it would be easier to do so when alone. It’s not like I was criticized or ridiculed for crying as a child; it’s more that crying feels foreign to me and it may be something I can’t learn. When I feel sad, I immediately go up in my head and think about how I can solve the problem.
— James Robert
Dear James Robert,
Tightening up, shutting down and focusing on your intellectual capacities in order not to cry is a learned response. Crying is natural as well as a behavior fairly easily relearned. Every baby is born knowing how to cry—and so did you. Crying is your birthright. It’s not as if we’re trying to teach a sparrow how to swim but, rather, trying to teach a duck that has forgotten how to swim to swim again. Instead of training yourself to cry, it’s more a matter of not using the defense of thinking, tensing or tightening up against your tears and just naturally letting go and allowing your emotions to be experienced.
You also don’t have to face all of your grief or sadness at once. Just because you need protein, for instance, you don’t eat a whole cow at one meal! If you’re afraid to cry because you believe you’ll be sad all the time once you succumb to these feelings and never be able to stop, that’s just not true. I’ve been supporting patients to face their sadness for many years and have never met anyone who cried and never stopped. Actually, the opposite is true; the more you face your grief, the more you generally become a less sad person.
At first, it might be easier to cry alone, and that’s OK. Rigidly willing yourself not to cry in front of a trusted, supportive loved one or therapist, however, can be a sign of a fear of intimacy, a fear of being vulnerable with others, or a fear of exposure due to internalized shame. An insistence on always crying alone can lead to painful feelings of loneliness. Allow yourself the support and closeness of loved ones by letting them see how you truly feel.
If Oliver walked into a room crying and was truly sad, would your wife tell him to stop crying because it’s weak or childish? Would she tell him to go into a closet and cry alone? I doubt it. It’s more likely she’d stop whatever she was doing, ask what’s wrong and then hold him until he was finished crying, felt better and could tell her what was hurting. After Oliver appeared visibly better, you might then suggest doing something else together, such as playing a game or going to the park, but only after he was finished expressing his feelings.
I want you to begin to give yourself this same love and attention no matter how you were treated growing up. Treat your sadness with the same respect and concern. Pay attention to your feelings and allow yourself to fully express your grief until you feel better. Suppression of feelings—including sadness—can lead to depression and anxiety and is a form of emotional neglect.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.