Cry Me A River: What our tears have to teach us

“Sssshhhh. Don’t cry.”

At some moment, or more likely in MANY moments, in our most formative years, these words were spoken to us. Perhaps as a gentle whisper meant to comfort. Perhaps as a thinly veiled annoyance meant to chastise.  Whatever the intention and intonation, those words sank into our permeable, impressionable young selves and chances are, they are still very much alive.

There are more adult ways of reinforcing this message: “Have a stiff upper lip” or “keep your chin up” slapping stoic smiles onto our faces. “Look on the bright side” or “there’s always a silver lining” urging us toward optimism no matter how far off that feels.

What would happen if we actually let ourselves cry? What would it be like to give ourselves permission to feel only and exactly what is happening in the moment, free of shame or judgment or a desire to control the outcome, free of someone shoving a tissue at us or hissing “sssshhh” in our ear?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no issue with the tissue-wielding comfort brigade (bless you, everyone who has ever stood by me while I wept and snotted all over the place, tissues at the ready) and I encourage optimism whenever humanly possible (because it’s good stuff and it really works!)

But that’s just the thing. Sometimes it is not humanly possible. Sometimes we need to feel our sad, pessimistic, contracted, scared feelings all the way through so that we can claim them for ourselves and learn how to navigate them. For it is only by experiencing the dark terrain of our inner world that we can truly find our way through, and it is only by finding our way through that naturally occurring optimism and all the rest is humanly possibly.

When my sad, pessimistic, contract, scared feelings arise, I want to cry. That is simply what happens for me. And mostly I like to believe that I let it happen. I am quite comfortable with tears, mine, yours, the guy’s on the street or the girl’s next door. Yet at some point I realized that my comfort with my own crying was highly conditioned and conditional. So I made it a point to really observe when I am blocking this expression of emotion and what is going on in my body when I do.

First thing I noticed is that I often prefer to cry in company. Yup. That’s been my thing, apparently. There’s a conditioning no doubt carried over from my childhood that let’s me feel safe, attended to and loved when someone else is holding me (physically and/or energetically) as my tears move through, and crying without that was simply too scary. At times I’d find myself experiencing a surge of emotion – tears pricking at the backs of my eyes, a tightening in my belly and chest, heat creeping up the sides of my throat – yet despite clearly knowing I needed and even wanted to cry, the tears would simply stop before they truly started. And most of the time, this was when I was alone.

That may seem strange to some who far prefer the privacy of their solitude to move emotions through. Yet to me, who learned early that big displays of emotion often got me a lot of attention and that attention equaled love in my book, sharing my tears has been the option of my subconscious choice for all my years.

So I began to really watch myself when I was alone and the impulse to cry arose. I’d see how I very often moved toward a distraction, popping onto Facebook, choosing that moment to respond to an email or clean house, stopping the would-be tears in their tracks. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what started to happened to me earlier this evening, and inspired me to write about crying.

Second thing I noticed is that my breath was all but absent in these moments when tears sparked by despair of some sort arose. What little breath I allowed in was short and shallow, effectively cutting off my aliveness, deadening me to the sensations and emotions that were swirling uncomfortably inside me. Much like we hold our breath in a game of hide and seek when the seeker comes close to finding us, it’s as if by not breathing, I was making it such that the sensations and emotions seeking their expression wouldn’t be able to find a way out. Which is true. They ended up stuck and repressed and buried deep down in my tissues, bones and cells. Yuck! Imagine what we’re carrying around from years and years of this!

And so I began to really tend to my breath when these impulses arose. After noticing those short, sharp, shallow gasps, I would consciously encourage my inhales and exhales to be bigger and longer to flood my system with oxygen. This too got put into practice tonight.

And guess what happened?

I cried me a river, by myself and for myself, grief flowing freely and gratefully.

I moved around on the floor, shaking and undulating and letting my limbs, neck and spine express the sadness and overwhelm that was moving through me. I made sound, completely primal and nonsensical sound, allowing whatever wanted to voice itself to come out unimpeded. I focused on my breath and brought big inhales and exhales into my chest, heart, solar plexus, belly and all the way to my root. I even handed myself some tissues after awhile of sitting with the salty, snotty mess. And when it was done, I felt amazing. What wanted its expression had its expression, and since I had allowed for that to happen, where there had been a sense of despair, now resided a sense of deep peace.

Giving myself the gift of my own tears, moving and sounding and breathing big and free, now THAT is good medicine! And while it is a precious thing to share our tears in the confidence of a trusted loved one, sharing with our own self can be so powerful as well.

Thank you, adults who said “sssshhh” to my young self. I know you were doing the best you could with what you had. But I’m the adult now, and I give myself permission to cry whenever I want to. No “sssshhhing” allowed.