Featured on Tonic. Author: Philip Eil
By my best estimate, I went almost twenty years without crying.
I remember crying as a little kid, of course, for reasons both physical (bee stings, roughhousing with my older brothers) and emotional (failing while learning to ride a bike). And I’ve written elsewhere about how, in middle school, I was so anxious in the days leading up to my bar mitzvah that I broke down crying at least twice. (Feel free to laugh at this; I certainly do.) But then, for some reason, around age 13, I just stopped. And, although there might be an errant exception, I genuinely don’t remember any time that I full-on wept between 1998 until last year, at age 32, when I cried during a breakup.
Three of my grandparents died during those years, and I didn’t cry. A friend died. High school classmates died. I had a full-blown panic attack, and various bouts of depression and anxiety. I watched sad movies and read sad books and listened to sad songs. I attended weddings and graduations. I experienced breakups and romantic rejections. I underwent innumerable professional disappointments, and political disillusionments. I bore witness, as a citizen, to September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, Newtown, and countless other shared, public tragedies. And the closest I came to crying was a lump in my throat, a welling of my eyes, a brief trembling of some muscles in my face, or the wavering of my voice. (When you’re a non-crier, you become an expert in various stages of almost-crying.) At no point did I ever truly crack open.
Then, about a year ago, I had a depressive episode that prompted a shift in my life. While for years I had been a workaholic obsessively focused on writing about subjects outside of myself, suddenly, I was interested in me, and figuring out what had led me to feeling so numb. I began combing my past for clues to what had shaped the person I had become, and scanning my present-day life for ways to improve my wellbeing. What if I got a new mattress? Took more days off? Stopped drinking? Ate less greasy food?
At some point during this period of self-reflection, I stumbled on my lack of crying, and I was unnerved. Nineteen years between crying episodes?
Is that unhealthy? Could I—and should I—teach myself to cry again?
Human beings have been talking about crying for a long time. The ancient Roman poet Ovid wrote, “It is a relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.” The shortest verse in the New Testament reads, “Jesus wept.” And, of course, in the 21st century, crying is the subject of Jay-Z songs, James Van Der Beek gifs, Michael Jordan memes and wikiHow pages.
But only recently has crying been a subject of serious scientific and medical study. Ad Vingerhoets, professor of psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, is one of the world’s leading authorities on crying. And during a 2015 TED talk, he told the crowd that, “The study of tears is still in its infancy, and it’s still a very lonely business.” A similar idea is repeated throughout his papers, like one from 2011 that reads, “Tearful crying is among the most dramatic and unique human behaviors, yet we still have little systematic knowledge about it.”
But if you scan that literature and talk to experts, there are a few concrete and helpful things to learn. We know, for instance, that crying is an evolutionarily hard-wired plea for help. “Crying must develop early, as the life-and-death demand for essential caregiving, unlike the less critical social link of laughing,” writes Robert Provine in his book Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping and Beyond. “Crying is the solicitation of caregiving and succor, with its predominant stimulus shifting gradually from the physical injury of childhood to the emotional trauma of adulthood.”
It makes sense, then, that the sight of tears has “enormous impact in the brain” of the observer, as Vingerhoets told me. In one recent study, in which subjects viewed near-identical photos of people with tears visible and digitally removed, researchers found that “crying elicits helping behavior” and “visible tears facilitate feelings of social connectedness.”
We also know that, though there is an enormous momentum behind the idea that crying is good for your health. First off, tears contain an enzyme that is believed to stimulate our immune system.But while one 2001 article analyzed 140 years of popular articles about crying, and found that 94 percent promoted crying as beneficial, the actual research paints a murkier picture. "The empirical record is at best spotty, with many studies finding no benefits of crying,” reads one recent journal article.
But as far as how people feel after crying (a separate question from whether crying has objectively observable health benefits), it seems that a person’s response to their own tears depends largely on the context. Crying in front of your mother is not the same as crying in front of your boss.
I found some striking insights about my own experience while researching tears. We know that women cry more than men, and so, as a slow-to-cry dude, I’m not as much of an outlier as I may feel. And, because human crying frequency tends to dip in the teens and early-to-mid adulthood, I learned that my years of tearlessness fell roughly within established trends for when crying tapers and then starts up again. I felt even less isolated when I tracked down a copy of the seminal 1982 book Crying: The Mystery of Tears , in which the author, a biochemist named William H. Frey wrote, “I have received several letters from men ranging in age from the twenties to the mid-forties who have not cried since childhood and want to recover their lost ability to cry.” At one point in the book, Frey himself notes that he chose to study crying because, in his mid-twenties, it “occurred to me that I hadn’t cried since I was about twelve years old, and I wondered whether my complete lack of crying was healthy and normal.”
But not everything I read was completely comforting. In 2017, Vingerhoets and others published a first-of-its-kind article , in which they studied nearly 500 people who had reportedly lost the capacity to cry and 179 “normal” criers. The paper found that, while non-criers don’t necessarily report a lower sense of wellbeing, their situation is still...kinda sad. “In the overall sample, the tearless group felt less connected to others, less empathetic, and had less of an emotional response to almost all art forms and to nature,” the article reads. “They were less moved by human life events, which usually arouse emotions and crying.”
That’s not how I want to live.
One morning recently, I woke up, looked at my phone, and, within a few moments, started to cry. I want to keep some of the details of this moment private. But I can say that, the previous night, a younger friend of mine had experienced very intense and public professional setback. And, that morning I had awoken to an email from them asking for help, and then when I signed into Facebook, I read a long thread of people offering heartfelt words of support for them. The combination of sympathy for my friend, and personal associations with what they had just experienced (my twenties were a time of intense personal and professional turmoil, which I’m still unpacking) apparently unlocked something deep within me. And, right there in bed, before I had had my morning coffee, I started to weep.
Unlike previous instances of emotion, instead of trying to slam the brakes, I just went with it. I remained physically relaxed, mentally present, and I avoided any urge to judge myself. To an outsider, it wouldn’t have appeared terribly dramatic: some muffled sniffling and a few tears; the whole thing was over in two minutes. But, to me, it was a breakthrough.
A large part of this, I’m pretty sure, was because I had spent the previous months conducting amateur forensics to try to figure out some of the reasons why I hadn’t cried for so long. And I had come to appreciate just how many reasons there were. On the micro-level, I come from a hyper-intellectual family that doesn’t cry much. So, though my parents never explicitly shamed me for expressing emotion, I still didn’t have a lot of modeling for adult crying. Add to this the fact I’m a guy in America. And while norms about crying are changing—I see you, New York Times and Washington Post thinkpieces—we’re a long way from complete male emotional liberation. I’m sure I absorbed some of that.
Then there are other things about me that constricted by ability to cry: That I’m much more of a thinker than a feeler; that I’m quick to verbalize my feelings rather to sit with them; that I’m an anxious person who is often in a state hypervigilance in which I’m less likely to relax enough to cry; that I’m a journalist and thus part of a professional culture that places a high value on composure and stoicism; and that, like, a lot of guys, after years of painful personal and professional experiences, I had built a cinder block wall between me and my emotions that I’ve only recently started to disassemble.
On top of all that, the longer I didn’t cry, the more it became a scary, foreign experience that, among other things, represented a loss of control. Both of these things—the unknown and the uncontrollable—make my anxiety flare, which meant two more reasons to avoid crying.
I started my work on this article interested in exploring whether I could teach myself to cry. But at some point, I realized that learning to cry isn’t just what I’m after—I simply want to stop getting in my own way when I feel a wave of emotion. I want to unlearn all of the ways and reasons I had accumulated for not crying.
My aim in writing this isn’t to introduce myself as some kind of man-crying evangelist. Some people reading this may be healthy criers, others may struggle with crying too much. (As Provine notes inCurious Behavior, abnormal crying is slightly preferable to abnormal laughter, which “seems creepy, weird, or diabolical,” and carries major social consequences.) I just know that, right now, crying is something I welcome.
This is, more than anything, about the meaning and symbolism of crying. In one of his articles, Vingerhoets and his team write that crying can serve the valuable purpose of “remind[ing] the crying individual that the situation or event to which they are exposed is something that really matters.” Crying, in other words, can be a message from our subconscious about hidden wounds and values, and if you ignore or reject it, you miss out on connecting with yourself. After years of writing “Return to Sender” on the letters from my mind and body, I’m ready to start opening and reading them.
For me, crying also represents a step forward in many of the ways I’m trying to grow. I have difficulty being vulnerable, asking for help, and switching off my anxious hypervigilance, and crying is the embodiment of all those things. Crying also is a physical state of open communication with my feelings. When I ask one expert, Amy Blume-Marcovici, editor of the book When Therapists Cry: Reflections on Therapists’ Tears in Therapy, whether crying is healthy, she tells me that it depends on the situation. “If someone, through introspection, realized that they had an aversion to crying as form of emotional avoidance or repression, it may be [that] learning how to cry, and allowing tears to come as a way of coming into more direct contact with authentic emotional experience, regardless of how painful, would be healthy for them,” she says. Bingo.
This past year has also given me a chance to examine my attitudes toward crying, and rewrite them to better suit the person I want to be. If crying in front of someone I care about means connecting more deeply to them, then hell yes I want to cry. If crying means rejecting bullshit ideas about masculinity, then sign me up. If crying is an exercise in mindfulness that requires staying in the moment, rather than speaking or thinking or distracting myself, I welcome that challenge.
Toward the end of my conversation about crying with Michael Trimble, professor of Neurology at London’s Institute of Neurology and author of Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy, Evolution, and the Brain, I asked him why he had invested so much time and energy into researching crying. He said that he was interested in the fact that chimpanzees and great apes don’t cry for emotional reasons—and yet humans do. “At some point in evolution, things changed, and crying became a cipher for some particular behavioral attribute which had to do with linking one human being to another,” he says.
To not cry, therefore—whether at a wedding, or an opera, or after personal trauma or tragedy—is an act of “blanking out this very, very important part of human behavior, and, in my understanding, a hallmark of being homo sapiens, being human,” he tells me.
So perhaps the most compelling reason I want to cry is something more elemental, something ancient. I’m reminded of an idea expressed in Provine’s book: “The exclusivity of humankind’s crown jewels—language, laughter, and tool use—has been challenged, but emotional tearing still stands as a uniquely human trait.”