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Why you should shed your embarrassment and let tears flow

Tapestry49:57Let yourself cry, baby

When was the last time you cried?

If you feel embarrassment over the idea of a good sob, Benjamin Perry, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based minister, says it’s time to shake that shame.

“Emotional suppression is sneaky,” the author of Cry, Baby: Why Our Tears Matter told Tapestry host Mary Hynes. 

“Often it doesn’t happen because of some traumatic incident, but by a slow process of attrition where we stop making room for emotions in our lives.”

It was in Perry’s early 20s, at seminary, that he realized he hadn’t cried in years. He attributes that to negative perceptions of masculinity, internalized homophobia and a fear of confronting his own queerness. The realization led Perry on a mission to get closer to his emotions.

For months, Perry pushed himself to cry — in part by thinking about the potential death of his parents.

“I realized that if I was going to be an effective care provider — or just a full one, an honest to God person — I needed to look into the parts of myself that I had killed and resurrect them,” Perry said.

Now, Perry says he’s a person that just “feels more deeply.”

A human experience

Weeping is a uniquely human experience, according to researchers. 

While most animals have ways of expressing distress — typically through vocal calls — people are the only ones who express it with tearfulness.

Crying can inspire ’emotional solidarity’ in others, encouraging them to provide comfort and compassion, says Perry. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

In his 2013 book Why Only Humans Weep, Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist and leading researcher on crying, describes it as a “ubiquitous part of the behavioural and emotional repertoire of every healthy human being.”

And yet, societal norms have discouraged certain people, in certain scenarios, from letting tears fall.

“It is quite a personal thing in that, for some people, crying can be felt as quite a weakness,” said Marc Baker, who researches crying at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.

“You see it especially in men — especially in people in, say, leadership positions — and in contextual situations in which crying would not be part of the behavioural repertoire, like a workplace.”

Baker says, however, that society offers more leeway for weeping to people consuming art, like films, or attending a funeral.

What I really try to tell people is that trying to make yourself cry is the wrong intention.– Benjamin Perry, minister and author

Viewing tears through a religious lens, Perry says it wasn’t always this way.

“The Bible is filled with examples of transformative weeping,” the Christian minister said. 

“Jesus cries directly before he resurrects Lazarus. That famous verse, ‘Jesus wept.’ Mary Magdalene cries as she’s weeping outside Jesus’s tomb…. Joseph cries in the moment, before he reveals himself to his brothers.”

But a veil of shame has been cast over weeping for centuries, Perry says.

During the Medieval period, people began pointing to philosophers like Aristotle and Galen who opined that crying was a “violation” of the male body, the author told Tapestry

Then, during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, people started to become more “suspicious” of emotions.

And in Victorian times, Perry noted, women would wear veils that covered their face to conceal their weeping “so that it wouldn’t, you know, disrupt the rest of the public.”

Crying leads to increased physiological arousal

The benefits to crying can vary from one person to the next, says Baker. 

For some, it can be an avenue to processing emotions — but striking a punching bag can have similar benefits for others.

What’s clear, Baker says, is that crying isn’t like some physiological release valve for stress, anger or sadness. In fact, research shows that the body sees increased arousal during and after weeping.

“The skin temperature when you start to cry rockets up,” he said. Using thermal imaging, Baker has studied what he calls “super criers” — people who are easily triggered to cry by a variety of emotions and circumstances — to see how crying induces body changes.

“You get this kind of massive surge of sympathetic nervous system activity — so this kind of fight, flight surges as you cry — and then we start to see the increase in the rest and restorative parasympathetic come in.”

WATCH | How crying affects tempertures in the face:

What happens when we weep

Thermal images capture temperature changes in the face while crying during a study by University of Portsmouth researcher Marc Baker.

In one study, Baker had a group of super criers hold back tears while watching a sad movie. While most did eventually cry, he says their physiological changes didn’t occur until they began crying — suggesting that suppressing tears held back the sympathetic nervous system’s response.

“When you ask people just after they cry, ‘Do you feel better?’ they typically say no,” said Baker. 
“It’s only later when they kind of reflect on it, or a bit more down the line, they typically say, ‘Yeah, actually it made me feel better.'”

‘Really try to to feel deeply’

Perry says the push to suppress tears isn’t accidental. Many consider it unprofessional to cry in the workplace, for example.

“One of the things we know from the physiological and psychological literature is that when people cry, it inspires emotional solidarity in their neighbours,” Perry said.

Close up photo of a crying person wearing a clerical collar
Perry is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based minister and the author of Cry Baby: Why Our Tears Matter. (Submitted by Benjamin Perry)

“Who does it benefit if people aren’t able to reveal the fact that they are suffering in a workplace? It benefits the people who run that workplace.”

Perry says many people have told him they crave a journey toward embracing emotion like his own.

“I’ve heard again and again [from] people who have had their tears deadened and walk around with this yearning to be alive again — that yearning that I felt when I was, you know, 20, 21,” he said.

“But you can travel that journey whenever.”

Opening yourself up to tears, Perry argues, can help alleviate the pressure to suppress emotions and allow you to feel them more.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to getting there, but Perry suggests beginning the process by being more aware of your emotions.

“What I really try to tell people is that trying to make yourself cry is the wrong intention,” he said.

“What I think is actually more effective is if you just really try to to feel deeply and to rekindle that ability to have, you know, full and robust emotions. 

“If you can do that, the crying will come.”

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