One of the first things we do in life is cry. As babies, we do it a lot. We’re all really good at it, then we do it less and less. Part of the reason is because we have less to cry about. We can walk without falling. We can get our own food. But there is also another really big reason why we cry less.
Picture this. You’re little. You fall or get upset because you can’t play with a toy, and what happens? Often someone will come over and say, “Don’t cry.” Right? So you learn that crying makes other people uncomfortable. So, when you have those feelings, you may hold it in or go off by yourself to cry.
Let me tell you a little secret. Crying is good for you. That’s right. Crying slows down your breathing and helps to relive stress. It can help to keep you safe because crying indicates submission. If you are less threatening, the other person becomes less aggressive. Crying can also create more connection between people. It’s a sign of vulnerability. We need to be vulnerable to be intimate.
And here’s one more little tidbit you may not have known. Healthy men cry more than unhealthy men. So that whole idea of “boys don’t cry” is something that creates men who are not well adjusted. Ladies and gentlemen, if you need to cry, let it all out.
It may be easier to do than to witness. For those who are left wondering what to do with a person who is crying, here are some do’s and don’ts for handing tears.
Don’t Say “Don’t Cry”
A lot of people automatically reach for the “don’t cry” or “shhhhh.” It’s meant to be comforting, but when you tell someone not to cry, what you are conveying are things like: your feelings aren’t valid. There is no reason to cry. You’re making me uncomfortable. None of those things help. So be careful about moving in to savior mode. It can shut the person down.
Do Give Them Space
Don’t rush in to hug, offer tissues, or pat them on the back. Give them space. They are having a feeling. Let them feel it. While this is happening, your job is to create a safe container and witness it. If you do this, you will keep them from spiraling out of control, allow them to feel connected, and keep them from shutting down their feelings.
Do Follow Their Lead
If the person is crying silently, be still and quiet too. Ask them for what they want. If they want to be held, do that. If they want privacy, provide that. If they just want your presence, sit with them. Sometimes they will be talking. Give answers and gestures that focus on affirming their feelings, not problem solving. For instance, head nodding and paraphrasing what they just said works here.
Do Stay Present
If the person is emotionally out of control, you’re going to take the lead by talking slower and lower. This will help to bring them down. You still want to stay out of problem solving mode unless it’s an emergency. The focus is on the crier’s feelings in the present moment.
If they are verbally wandering all over the place, you can help to get them focused by asking questions like, “What happened?”
Don’t Tell Them What to Feel
It’s normal to want to make someone feel better. We sometimes do this by joking, minimizing the problem, or offering a bright side. These aren’t “bad” things to do, but wait until after the crying is completely finished. If you jump too quickly to cheering them up, it can feel like you just want them to stop crying so that you feel better.
Don’t Make It About You
Sometimes someone is upset about X and their support person will say something like, “I know exactly how you feel! The same thing happened to me…” and then go off talking about their experience. Remember to be present for the other person. Talking about you is a distraction from their present moment. It probably makes you feel more comfortable, but it’s not about you when someone is crying. It’s about the one who is crying.
Talking about your experience might seem like empathy and creating bonding. It could be under different circumstances. When someone is crying, it’s probably not the best time for stories about you.
Some of us have been taught that tears are a sign of weakness. Tears are normal. Some of us are more expressive than others and cry more readily. Some tears are happy tears. Even when they are not, no one ever knows what it’s like to live someone else’s life. So don’t judge. People are intuitive. They can sense judgment and disapproval. That’s not going to help you or them.
Now do you have to take care of someone who is crying? No, of course not. It’s never your job to care for someone else. However, if you do decide to stay in that space, using these tools can help you and the person who is crying get to the other side feeling okay. Handling tears doesn’t have to be a big deal if you just know what to do ahead of time.