I have always felt slightly bad about not really having cried for decades. People insist that crying is good for you and that not crying is bad for you. The danger is, you might be going to explode some day from repressed grief (watch this space).
And of course in the counselling side of my life I am supposed to consider it a Very Bad Thing if people don't cry. So I was pleased to see some of the orthodox views on crying disputed by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets in an interview with The Psychologist. He specialises in the psychology of crying.
Do people feel better after a good cry? Not necessarily, says Vingerhoets. Some feel bad. It helps if other people respond to tears with support but if crying is ignored or disapproved of the crier can end up feeling worse.
Women cry more often than men. Essentially, he says, women cry in situations that make men swear. These include computer crashes, car breakdowns and feeling frustrated or angry. So if you’re female and Vingerhoets’ statement makes you angry, prove him wrong by swearing.
Some people are more prone to cry than others so maybe my failure to turn on the tears is genetic – certainly crying was a fairly unusual event in our house. But crying is cultural too.
Some Indian tribes, he says, use crying instead of shaking hands as a means of greeting – since I’ve never heard of them before I assume these tribes are obscure and it’s not hard to see why.
You are most likely to cry in the presence of your mother or your romantic partner or another “attachment figure” to use the psychological jargon. Thus, children who are hurt physically or emotionally will sometimes hold off the tears until they get to a parent and then they let them out.
The idea of tears as a sign of weakness seems to have been introduced by the Victorians.
What about tears of happiness? Vingerhoets doesn’t believe people cry because they’re happy. Usually we cry because the happy event also calls up negative emotions, he suggests. An example is crying when you meet a loved one after a long separation. That’s a happy event but the tears come with the accompanying realisation of the pain of the separation.
What mostly makes people cry is “conflict, rejection, criticism and minor failure”. Frustration and helplessness also bring on crying.
The only time I recall my father crying was when he and my mother had gone away for the day (an unusual event) and I neglected to put the milk out for collection by the creamery. This meant the loss of a day’s income. I saw him go through a lot of hardship without crying but on this occasion it was, I think, frustration and helplessness that started the tears flowing. A small event but I can still see it in my mind’s eye.
If I can’t produce real tears I would certainly have no hope of turning on crocodile tears. People who are really good at this, according to Vingerhoets, include narcissists, psychopaths and actors.
Tears usually lead other people to feel empathy and to want to lend support, which is why narcissists and psychopaths use them to manipulate. It only works, naturally, if people think they’re genuine – and since psychopaths are really good at turning on the charm they can make very good use of tears.
Very empathic people are more likely to cry themselves in response to the tears of others.
Vingerhoets is currently researching crying among nurses, doctors and psychotherapists in the presence of patients or clients.
By the way, Vingerhoets says that in the UK studies show that most men are comfortable with showing their emotions and that the Victorian disapproval of tears no longer holds sway. Still, I don’t think you see men crying in public in the UK or Ireland except at football matches. So I am not alone.
Being Dutch, Vingerhoets has impeccable English and you can read about his work at advingerhoets.com firstname.lastname@example.org @PadraigOMorain Padraig O'Morain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.