On a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles, I had a sudden urge to cry. I’d just said good-bye to my goddaughter after a wonderful weekend visit, and being with her reminded me of just how badly I wanted to be somebody’s mom and how that wasn’t working out so well.
At first I fought the feeling, mostly because I didn’t want to alarm the flight attendants. But also because my seatmate was a rather serious-looking man in a suit readingÂ The Wall Street Journal, and I was loathe to make the six hours I had to share an intimate space with him any more awkward than it needed to be.
So I pulled out an arsenal of reading material from my bag and willed myself to pull it together. But I just couldn’t snuff out the hollow feeling in my stomach or the burning sensation in my throat, and before I knew it, tears were slipping out of the corners of my eyes. Suit guy nervously asked if I was OK. “Oh, you’re so sweet,” I replied, mopping my tears away with the drink napkin he’d gently handed me. “I’m fine, really.” And I meant it. Crying–however ill-timed, humiliating, or unattractive–always makes me feel better.
I’m actually a naturally sunny person. I look on the bright side, and my glass is usually half full. But while I have a master’s degree in happiness, I have a Ph.D. in crying. Of course, we all have those seminal moments in our lives that fling open the floodgates. I cried when my heart was broken by my first love back in high school, and when my husband, Jason, proposed (and throughout our vows at our wedding). I cried when Newman, our beloved dog of 15 years, died in my arms, and I cried tears of joy when Barack Obama became our first black president. Lately, though, I’ve been a particularly active geyser because I can’t get pregnant–hence, the airplane sobfest.
Unfortunately, these days crying gets a bad rap, especially when the crier is a woman. Studies show that whenÂ men cry, they are viewed sympathetically, while women are often labeled dramatic, irrational, or manipulative if they turn on the faucet. When Hillary Clinton nearly broke down once–once!–on the campaign trail in 2008, the public (and the press) were divided. While some applauded her rare display of vulnerability, others saw it as a sign that she was simply too fragile (read: female) to hold the highest office. It seems that while it’s now socially acceptable for women to be CEOs and soldiers, it’s no longer appropriate for us to weep openly. We’re expected to suck it up, or in the infamous words of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin,Â man up.
Well, I think it’s time we reclaim our right to cry. A good cry is a purging of sorts–it unburdens me of all the mental baggage I’ve been lugging around town. Crying often gives me the clarity I need to make a big, important decision, and I can count on it to put me in touch with my empathy for other people. It’s the steam valve on my emotional teakettle.
And as it turns out, there’s a scientific basis to what I’ve always innately known: Crying has valuable mental and physical benefits. Tears banish stress hormones such as cortisol as well as other toxins that accumulate when we feel stressed, says Judith Orloff, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and author ofÂ Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life.
“Crying is our natural, built-in healing system,” she explains. “It can release stress and tension.” I was so happy to hear this validating news that I almost–you got it–cried!
And while shedding tears is healthy, even I know that sometimes it’s not appropriate. While tears in response to a sad or traumatic event (a death in the family or a bad breakup, for example) are expected and understood, crying over sour grapes (you didn’t get the office space you asked your boss for) is almost always judged negatively, says Stephanie Shields, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Penn State.
So if you do feel tears welling up at an inopportune moment, just try not to let them runneth over: A study at Penn State found that moist eyes are a sign of emotion under control, which is the most favorably perceived response of all.
Some might say that bawling in front of a perfect stranger who is silently trying to enjoy his newspaper on a long flight isn’t such a hot idea either. But I have to disagree. Letting my tears flow that day sparked a meaningful conversation between the two of us. My seatmate confided that he and his wife had also struggled with infertility, and then he pulled out a photograph of his daughter, whom they had just adopted. His eyes lit up when he looked at her smiling little face.
Which brings me to my final point about crying: Showing emotion and vulnerability can bring you closer to people–strangers, friends, family members, romantic partners, and most important, yourself. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from other species. It’s what makes us human. It’s what makes us real.
Andrea Buchanan is the editor ofÂ Live and Let Love: Notes from Extraordinary Women on the Layers, the Laughter, and the Litter of Love (Gallery Books, February 2011).