Confronting a fear of tears

Why we need to embrace the good, the bad and the ugly of crying

Image by: Zier Zhou
A girl crying in a crowd.

Most children grow up with common and shared fears—like a fear of clowns, spiders or the dark. But ever since I was little, I’ve been afraid of something much more unique: crying.

Growing up as an only child, I considered my pets to be the closest things I had to real siblings. When I was 11, I called my parents from a friend’s cottage announcing that we’d just rescued a bag of kittens from the lake. My friends and I decided to each take one cat home, and I picked an orange tabby who I named Oliver, like the titular orphan in Oliver Twist.

Oliver instantly became my little brother. Even at 11 years old, I knew pets didn’t live forever. Oliver turned out to be the runt of his litter with a heart defect and ended up passing away shortly after his first birthday.

I was devastated at his passing but had learned a few things about how to express my devastation that year. From my observations, I concluded that young children cry when they’re sad or scared or stressed, but grown-ups almost never do.

Crying when you’re a grown-up means welcoming pitiful attention, uncomfortable stares, or the claim that  “you’re too sensitive”. In fact, my parents rarely shed a tear in front of me. 

I wanted to be strong like a grown-up, so I didn’t cry about Oliver either—at least not in front of anyone. Instead, I went to the movies, waited until the theatre lights went dim and cried my eyes out silently to Pixar’s UP. No one had to see, and therefore I didn’t need to be embarrassed about it.

Eight years later, at 19 years old, my crying strategy remains unchanged. After receiving some really bad news this past year, I went to a nightly lecture, waited until the professor put the projector on and cried judgement-free in the dark.

The lengths I took to avoid crying publicly might seem extreme, but I see behaviour like this all the time. Attempts to fight, hide or avoid tears are so common, I can’t remember the last time I saw someone cry without being drunk, extremely embarrassed, or a good mix of the two. 

Most people treat crying this way because they view it as the ultimate rock bottom emotion—a sign of fragility. We equate a lack of emotion with strength and see grief as a sign of weakness, even though the opposite is largely true.

The strongest people, in reality, are the ones who can muster up the courage to face themselves and deal with admitting that sometimes, they need to be sad. Smiling is great—it’s like acknowledging you made it to a happy moment. But if I see someone crying out in the open, I’m feeling pride—not pity. It takes a special kind of bravery in this world, one I could only describe as having real guts, to let your sadness out. 

Tears have a kind of rejuvenating property and giving ourselves time to cry also gives us time to reflect on what really matters to us. We worry about being too personal with our sadness, but don’t hesitate to hold back a smile even if that smile is just as revealing. 

What many of us need to realize—and what I wish my younger self understood—is that smiling and crying make us human, and both should be treated with respect. Life is about maintaining and acknowledging an emotional balance.

It’s the 21st century and more people preach about wellness and self-care than ever before. I think we should all do ourselves a favor, practice what we preach and cry when we’re sad—no matter who’s watching. 


emotions, Student life

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