We all have those times when a cascade of tears is seriously threatening to burst through. We try, very valiantly, to hide them. And, we profusely apologize when we just can’t do it and the flood gates fly wide open. We feel embarrassed by our excessive emotional exhibition. We beat ourselves up for not being more effective at keeping our feelings at bay … out of clear view. And, we often deem ourselves “weak” when we can’t soldier on and just muscle through the ache … when we fail to adequately ‘man up’ through the pain. And, for some crazy reason, we have been taught to admire and glamorize those who have lost their tears … reverently applauding them for being “so strong.”
And, forgive my language, but it’s all such bulls#*t. From where I am looking (both professionally and personally) this stoic, stalwart stance is just not optimal for humanity. There are some circumstantial exceptions (which I won’t discuss now), but it’s typically not beneficial for any one of us to harden our hearts in order to hide our pain … whether we are babies or children or teenagers or adults.
Tears are a natural and normal and necessary part of healing. They activate our parasympathetic nervous system … which helps to process our pain and dampen our internal alarm system. That is why we often ‘feel’ like a weight has been lifted after a good, long cry. Dr. Gordon Neufeld (a renowned attachment theorist) asserts that the tears of pain release toxins from the body … that the chemical composition of tears we cry when we express our emotions is different that the tears that leak out when we are cutting an onion. That is why our eyes burn and swell … and … our cheeks get uncomfortably chaffed after we have spilled our tears without trying to stop them.
I wish we could collectively and universally get comfortable with tears. We are not. As a counselor, though, I always know we are edging close to a heartfelt ‘truth’ when someone’s eyes begin welling up. Tears are an honest and authentic expression of our wounding. They are a wise reminder that our tender, tattered hearts need to be nurtured. Tears are an important invitation for someone to lean in and provide comfort. And … at the most primal level, isn’t compassion what we most need when we are hurting … emotionally, physically or otherwise?
Imagine a wee little child, helmet on, riding their two wheeler and totally enjoying the thrill of it. And then, for some reason, they get caught up in some loose gravel and they bite the dust. And then what happens? They cry. And then what? They seek out someone for comfort. And then what? They find you and climb up onto your lap and sob freely while they explain what happened. And then what? You get the ‘boo boo’ cleaned up, and get them a band-aid and give them a kiss to make it all better. And then what? You compassionately hold them until there are no more tears. And then what? They jump off your knee, put on their helmet and gleefully get back on the bike. And then, at the end of the day when you ask them how their day was … they say “Great! I love bike riding!” Probably no mention of the fall … unless, of course, you inquire about how their knee feels. They will likely assure you, “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” Their pain has been processed, their hurting has been invited to heal and ‘the crash’ is reduced to a faint recollection of a past event.
On the other hand, imagine the same wee little child, helmet on, riding on their two wheeler and totally enjoying the thrill of it. And then, for some reason, they get caught up in some loose gravel and they bite the dust … but they have learned through teasing, shaming or scolding that they are not supposed to cry. They have determined that there is no safe place to have their tears. Then what? Perhaps a bit embarrassed, they look around in the hopes that no one saw them. And then what? They fight back the tears and pretend it didn’t hurt. And then what? They act mad instead of sad and look for something or someone to blame. And then what? They kick up the gravel and throw some at their bike. And then what? They might think if they had a better bike … maybe a blue one … they would not have crashed. And then what? They angrily protest their upset with the ‘stupid green bike’ by pushing it home instead of riding it again. And then what? They kick the cat on their way in the door. And then what? You sternly remind them that cats are not for kicking. And they sneer something under their breath. And when you ask them how their day was … they say, “Stupid. My bike is so stupid.” And then you tell them to stop being so silly because you know how much they love riding their bike. And then what? They snarl back at you with seemingly unwarranted and irrational rage, “No I don’t. I HATE it! And I’m never going to ride that stupid bike again! And you cant make me!” And then what? You firmly remind them, “don’t you use that tone with me” and may even send them to their room with an invitation to “stay there” until they can “be nice.”
And they are isolated and alone. And their pain gets hidden. It is repressed rather than released. And their tears are lost. And the unprocessed pain of their past persists angrily into the present … and then … may be triggered again and again in the future. And no one else is any the wiser about what has transpired at the deepest level.
And, in all honesty, which experience would you rather have? Unless or until we have transformed into ‘the strong one’ who resists all measure of tearful displays … we instinctively crave comfort when we are wounded. That is why, on occasion when we have hurt ourselves haphazardly and publicly … all it takes is for someone to say “Are you okay?”and the tears escape involuntarily. And that is why, when we see a toddler trip and fall, we say “He’ll be okay as long as you don’t look at him.” We are instinctively wired to cry when we are hurting.
And, it’s almost humanly impossible to hold back our tears in the space of heartfelt compassion. However, if/when loving comfort is not a safe or viable option to mediate our wounding, we might subconsciously seek to numb our discomfort or distract ourselves with the next best thing … food, drugs (legal or illicit), alcohol, gambling, video gaming, social media, sex, pornography etc. As Dr. Gabor Maté contends, addictions are not the problem in and of themselves … they are more likely to be a symptom of unexpressed wounding and/or unhealed pain.
And honestly … don’t each and every one of us deserve to be lovingly supported through our pain? As Dr. Neufeld suggests, at the very deepest level of our being, don’t we all just want someone safe to tenderly and gently and compassionately offer, “Come have your tears with me.”
May we all find our way to that sacred healing space … and also … hold that sacred healing space for someone else, Karen
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