Her voice quivered as she spoke over the phone and slowly but surely tears emerged. First gradually, then in quick succession, until they became a steady stream. By now she had disconnected the call but her body shook in uncontrollable sobs. I gently put my hand on her shoulder and checked if she was okay. She looked at me through her teary eyes, shaken out of her reverie and gave me an embarrassed nod indicating that she would manage without my help. I sat there next to her on the train, feeling pained, wondering why a stranger’s grief caused me so much suffering.
Sadness is one of the longer lasting emotions and we feel it when we have experienced loss. The loss could be anything – a breakup, death of a loved one, loss of financial security, loss of respect in the eyes of others, feeling rejected, loss of a job, regret about opportunities lost, loss of a body part or loss of health, to mention a few. We not only feel saddened but also feel the need to reach out and help, when we see someone in pain (like I did with the girl in the train), especially if it’s a loved one. According to Dr Paul Ekman, the reputed psychologist who studies emotions, this impulse is fundamental to the sense of community. This feeling is motivated by the suffering we experience when we see someone else’s suffering.
However, expressing sadness and especially doing so through tears is not something that comes easily to a lot of us.
The main reasons why people may try to suppress sadness are:
- The fear that if we start crying or expressing sadness, we may get engulfed and may not be able to stop – This is a misconception. The reality is that strong emotions like sadness, when unaddressed, distort our thinking, prevent us from being reasonable and may drive us to make poor judgments. Hence, it is critical that we process these feelings through healthy expression. It is true that sometimes when we feel sad about a particular event, it may trigger off unexpressed pain from earlier times, making us revisit unresolved hurt. It is okay for that to happen. This may become a doorway to re-examine earlier unacknowledged losses of our lives. A good cry allows us to release the hurt and sadness through tears. It lets out the painful emotional energy and makes room for positive thoughts and feelings in our heart.
- Sadness can be a difficult and painful emotion to experience and one wants to avoid going through it – The best way to overcome any emotion is to acknowledge and process it, rather than trying to reject or bury it. Trying to reject sadness may lead to additional feelings of anger, shame and helplessness. Every emotion has a role to play in human life. It would help us to remember that experiencing emotions, even the painful ones, is a sign of the compassionate human heart that beats in our chest and that experiencing a healthy dose of any difficult emotion is the pathway to growth.
3 The Social stigma attached to shedding tears – There is this idea that feeling hurt and crying is a sign of weakness. Crying is often accompanied by feelings of shame and embarrassment because many of us worry about appearing helpless, dependent and powerless. The cultural stigma around men shedding tears explains (to a certain extent) the frequency with which men turn to, substance abuse, angry outbursts, violence, bullying, isolation or emotional numbness. This is not to say that all women are comfortable with expressing sadness. Often women who cry openly are ridiculed or may be treated with indifference, making one feel weak and inferior. This makes women wary of crying as well.
While the first two reasons are something for each of us to work through individually or with a therapist, however, the third one is far more complex than it appears on the surface. Most times when we think of social stigma, we do not think of ourselves as contributors to it, but unfortunately, almost all of us may be contributing to this stigma not just in the way we treat others but more importantly in the way we treat ourselves. When children grow up watching adults shaming each other for crying or adults shying away from shedding tears and/or when they are repeatedly told that strong people don’t cry, the message becomes deeply ingrained, making its way into their words and actions as they grow into adults.
People who try to bury their feelings of sadness are not the only ones who pay the price for doing so. Deep sadness that goes unexpressed could result in long-lasting suffering. It could result in unhealthy behaviours like substance abuse, misplaced anger and may also pave the way for depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders ( OCD) or mood swings, to name a few. We may withdraw, make ourselves emotionally unavailable, thus reducing our capability to form authentic meaningful relationships and shrinking our ability to experience positive emotions like joy and passion. Our loved ones would invariably feel the distance this creates. We may at times end up behaving inappropriately because these unresolved feelings may be pulling us in different directions, thus leading us away from our goals. Buried feelings lead to health issues that include high blood pressure, increased incidents of diabetes, heart diseases, stiff joints and frequent infections due to lowered immunity.
Though undoing this social stigma can take time, each one of us has the power and choice to start this process of change. Here are a few things we can do towards bringing this much-needed change:
- Allow yourself to have a good cry when you feel sad and pained, and instead of criticizing, talk compassionately to yourself when you feel sad.
- When your loved ones shed tears, let them know through a hug, gentle touch or just your quiet presence, that you feel their pain and that you honour their feelings.
- Become aware of any comments you may be making or any gestures you may be displayed, which implies that crying is a sign of weakness and consciously make an effort to change them.
- Be an ambassador of healthy expression of emotions by starting off conversations about the social stigma of shedding tears, within your family, workplaces and social circles.
In conclusion, the main function of involuntary expression of sadness through tears is to signal the need for help, so others are moved to help. But that’s not the only purpose. Acknowledging and experiencing our sadness fully, allows us to honour the thing we have lost and acknowledged the importance of what the loss signified. It helps us to process the grief in a healthy way, such that the body can rebalance and heal itself. It is an opportunity for us to connect with ourselves, to hold our experiences sacred and honour our valuable existence as individuals and as part of a community.