February 4th, 2014
Today was my daughter’s first day of her new teacher and classroom. She hasn’t been sleeping well with the hot, still nights and we’re struggling with early bedtimes again after summer holidays. So this morning began with a full-scale tantrum in the quad at school – a red-faced, helicopter-limbed six-year-old screaming ‘I’m not going to school!’
She ran away, I brought her back, she ran away again. Her anger was palpable – her entire class sat on their silver seats watching her rage. Other parents looked away. I began to cry. I couldn’t help it, I felt utterly overwhelmed.
Thank god my daughter’s new teacher is a brilliant woman who took the class to their room, then came back and talked gently until she was calm and ready to go to class on her own steam. Actually smiling. The teacher was full of empathy and she was as kind to me – a teary mess – as she was to my daughter. Several parents came up and chatted to me afterwards, gave me a hug, but I felt so mortified. How have I gotten here: 36 years old and still breaking down in tears?
I cry more than I would like to. I cry when I argue with people, when I am criticised, when I am overwhelmed and when I see things that make me sad. I sometimes cry just when talking about difficult subjects, or when people do things that I feel are unfair. Why do tears come so easily? Why are they so hard to control? Even worse is the feeling of powerlessness they give: you can’t communicate when you are crying, and you certainly can’t argue your point or tell someone off. You are the definition of vulnerable – a crying person is one of very little authority or strength.
When I worked in an office it was worse, any whiff of confrontation and I would be fighting back tears. A meeting with the editor for a performance review was torture as I was determined to avoid the waterworks. When you cry in those situations you derail everything, because the attention becomes focused on your emotions. People think you are being manipulative by crying, when it is often the last thing in the world that you want to do.
In my quest to avoid public tears, I’ve done what any reasonable person would do. I Googled ‘how to not cry’. It is a popular question, according to Google – fifth after ‘how to not eat’, ‘how to not be tired’, ‘how to not be jealous’ and ‘how to not care’. Swap around the to and the not: ‘how not to cry’ – and it’s fourth, after ‘how not to live your life’, ‘how not to be boring’ and ‘how not to get pregnant’. Half of the joy of Googling something is the little window it gives you into human nature. Dr Google provided me with some interesting advice. The most relevant was an article published in Oprah magazine by a woman who is similarly frustrated by her frequent tears, who spoke to several experts about crying.
It seems that taking a literal step back from the situation, placing some physical distance between yourself and the person/thing upsetting you is one way to avoid tears. Also, you should approach these emotional situations with an expression of neutrality rather than a frown and furrowed eyebrows. Supposedly the neural pathways which tell us to cry are following not just our brains but our facial expressions, so looking sad or upset isn’t going to help.
Other tips include pinching yourself, biting your tongue, and opening your eyes as wide as possible (all physical distractions which might look a little distressing to others). Allowing yourself to be angry was another suggestion. This could be useful for me, because the most frustrating tears come when I should be angry about something. Learning to vent anger can be a useful thing.
I console myself with the knowledge that tears aren’t always my enemy. It can feel good to cry, particularly at something controlled like a film or listening to a sad song. In high school, my best friend and I would purposely re-watch videos that made us sob. It was a sense of release; a sort of purging.
Crying in public breaks down those barriers that we build up around ourselves as well. It’s an admission of vulnerability and humanity. We can’t always be strong.
But it isn’t always the right response, or the most effective one, and I’m hoping to be able to control my tears.
Have you been in a similar situation? How do you avoid the embarrassment of a public cry?