Crying our way to survival

by Kristin on August 23, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by David Shankbone

“Maybe good criers were survivors.”

That caught my attention this morning. The news stream was otherwise filled with the war in Afghanistan, football season, and discussion about whether a woman can effectively regulate the banking industry. So wait—survival isn’t all about being the toughest, strongest, and most formidable?

It was an NPR Morning Edition story about the evolutionary benefits of crying, and it opened by pointing out that humans are the “only species that shed tears for emotional reasons.” Scientists are concluding there must be some benefit—beyond the obvious idea that babies need to cry in order to communicate their needs. We know why babies need to cry, but why don’t we grow out of it entirely, as adults?

Less crying doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness

I started thinking about how I’ve gradually watched the number of tears my daughters cry decrease, as they get older. But it’s not that the intensity of their emotions has decreased. It’s that they’ve become better at internally managing those emotions, and at using words to express the emotions that need to get out.

But the tears still flow—and often not when you’d expect. My youngest daughter has said to me, more than once, “Sometimes I just need to cry for all of the little things I haven’t cried about yet.” And she always seems relieved after she’s done it.

As an adult, I certainly cry less than I did as a child, but there are certainly still those moments. Often, my ability to manage my emotions has been compromised in some way—a lack of sleep, for instance. But more often, it’s just one of those times when words don’t do justice to the feelings.

Beyond communicating to evoking

In the end, it can feel good to cry. I’ve always assumed it has something to do with our physical need to let out bottled up stress and sadness, but this NPR story has me thinking more about tears as a communication tool.

One theory is that crying may have evolved as a kind of signal—a signal that was valuable because it could only be picked up by those closest to us who could actually see our tears.

“You can imagine there’d be a selection pressure to develop a signaling system that wouldn’t let predators in on the fact that you’re vulnerable.” says Randy Cornelius, a psychologist at Vassar College.

As the story goes on to point out, one of the most amazing things about crying is that it goes beyond simply communicating how I’m feeling—it actually has the power to evoke strong emotions in the person who sees me cry.

Are we fully tapping our empathic inheritance?

That’s what empathy is all about, right? And compassion. Being able to put ourselves in others’ shoes—another distinctly human ability. Researcher Jesse Bering suspects that empathy helped our early ancestors thrive, because they were able to build stronger communities, which meant better protection and support.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? But is it the reality in our own communities, our own lives? Are we crying and caring and responding together? Or are we mostly being “strong,” communicating how capable we are, and apologizing when small bits of vulnerable emotion escape?

We seem to all be biologically wired for tears and empathy, but I worry that the same societal pressures that urge us to suppress our tears are also repressing our compassionate responses.

Our world seems much more focused on “survival of the fittest” than I’d like, but maybe the real problem is that we have a false sense of what the “fittest” looks like. Maybe it’s not all about muscle and toughness, willpower and might. Maybe it also has something to do with being able to express and share our most vulnerable emotions.

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  • Deb

    I’m always surprised by a community (a church, say) that says they want to show compassion, or be shown compassion, that it’s a place where tears are welcome or all feelings and human conditions can find a place to be …
    … And then said community grumbles about people who show human emotion or normal human conditions: physical challenges or tears of joy or sorrow.
    Pretty sure there is a cultural lie we all have come to believe about “being strong” and not showing weakness. It takes courage to act against this lie and be honest about our very human life full of sorrow and gladness both.

  • Kirstin

    “Sometimes I just need to cry for all of the little things I haven’t cried about yet.” That is just beautiful.

  • Becky Ramsey

    I heard the story too and found it fascinating.
    Sometimes I hate it that tears come easily to me. When my little brother got married, I couldn’t hold them back. I wept all through the service–such a lovely bridesmaid.
    Another time I was surprised by tears during church. I was speaking at the pulpit about how meaningful a mission trip had been for me, and before I knew it, I was sobbing and talking at the same time. My church seems to pride itself on not getting emotional, and I could tell that everyone in the pews was DYING of discomfort.
    So why do the tears bubble up, even when I really don’t want them to? Maybe the feelings are too big for words and just come out involuntarily. Whatever the reason, I wish I could control it a little better. And I wish tears really would help build a stronger community. In my case, the tears just seem to freak out my fellow community members!

  • Sharon

    My biggest fear about crying is that the tears will be considered a female manipulation tactic! My second biggest fear is that someone will say “are you OK?” which is certainly not what they would say if something makes me laugh. Why the distinction of tears are bad and laughter is good? Perhaps, why the judgment at all?

    Kristin, thank you for writing this and also thank you, Deb and Becky.

  • Kristin T.

    Deb, your example doesn’t sound so hypothetical! :) And I’m sure it isn’t—sadly, I know many churches truly want to embrace all of humanity and all of life, but then start feeling mighty uncomfortable when that humanity gets messy (or snotty!). Does it have something to do with “trusting in God for your joy and strength”—that a church of joyful, strong Christians is great marketing for God? I don’t know, but I think it’s one of those facades we have to break down. I love how you put this: “It takes courage to act against this lie and be honest about our very human life full of sorrow and gladness both.”

    Kirstin, the girl definitely has a way with words—specifically a way of translating emotion into words. She really makes me think, and see things differently. Isn’t being a mom great?

    Becky, I can definitely relate to tears that “come easily.” What I really hate is when the tears result in self-ridicule and frustration, which results in more tears. It’s a miserable cycle of beating up on myself until I’m conjuring more tears than the original sadness or frustration! Anyway, I’m so sorry your church isn’t a place where you can let your emotions roam free. But I think you took a hit for the team, so to speak—you were feeling super uncomfortable, but it was probably good for them. :) Little by little, maybe your vulnerability is strengthening your community more than you suspect.

    Sharon, yes! Gender is an important point that I didn’t really begin to even touch on. I’m so glad you brought it up. And the whole “Are you OK?” question is fascinating, too. Sometimes it feels like a true kindness to be asked, sometimes it’s the last thing you want, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary (like if you’re crying at home—it would be terrible if your family members just walked by as if nothing was wrong). I wonder how much of this has to do with what we really need when we’re crying (help, empathy), and how much of it is based simply on societal norms and expectations (we don’t often see adults crying in public, so it feels more alarming than it needs to).

  • Kirstin

    I’m loving this conversation. I really felt for Becky Ramsey’s dismay at her congregation’s reaction to her tears. I cry really easily myself, and reading these responses, I realize I’m really grateful to friends and interlocutors who don’t leap to react when I burst into tears, but just wait and pay attention to see what the tears might mean. Sometimes I just need to collect myself, which is a lot easier to do if the person I’m talking to isn’t pressing me to explain my emotions. The WORST is knowing that the person I’m talking to is embarrassed and embarrassed for me.

    The original post about the NPR piece (which I unfortunately missed) suggests a reason for our discomfort with tears: perhaps they imply (to some people) an uncomfortable level of intimacy and connection. Perhaps being there when someone cries feels, to some, like getting a hug from someone you don’t know very well or being asked a personal question by an acquaintance. When stressed-out students look to be on the verge of tears in my office, I think it’s my duty to kindly return them to an emotional place where we can continue the teacher-student interaction, not to probe further into whatever has caused them (though in some situations, I do make sure that they’re aware of mental-health resources on campus).. But some settings (church definitely comes to mind!) seem like places where the emotional intimacy of tears should be accepted and woven into the patter of connections that make it a meaingful community.

  • Meredith

    A couple of random thoughts: I loved your daughter’s quote: “Sometimes I just need to cry for all of the little things I haven’t cried about yet.” It’s so perfect and so true. It makes me feel better about getting teary over Hallmark commercials. I know I’m not close to crying because the commercial was so overwhelmingly powerful, but because it’s a trigger for all the things I haven’t let myself be sad about. Sometimes I think we’re so busy living and trying to keep everything together that we don’t remember to mourn or be sad about things. So when we do cry, it’s usually not just about one thing.

    The second errant thought was that this post triggered a memory in which I recalled watching clips of the various late-night comedy shows (Letterman and the Daily Show in particular) right after 9/11. As opposed to the tough stance shown by the politicians, here were these guys, paid to be funny, crying on TV because of this unimaginable tragedy. And I remembered how much more the crying affected me than the tough, take-no-prisoners attitude some others adopted. I needed someone else to show their vulnerability publicly to tell me that it was okay for me to feel vulnerable as well.

  • regina perata

    Yes! I love it! The “fittest” DO cry… that is in fact WHY they are fit. Pent up, old stale emotions stored in my bodies make us weary and unfit. Great piece you wrote. Thank you!

  • Kristin T.

    Kirstin, this is great wisdom: “wait and pay attention to see what the tears might mean.” And yes—crying is an intimate act, so when it happens in not-so-intimate settings around people we don’t know well, there’s a disconnect between what we’re experiencing together in the moment and what we have (or more specifically haven’t) shared together in the past. Thanks for pushing my thinking even further down the path!

    Meredith, I think when S has said that, it comes out of a realization that her crying is very complex—one thing may have triggered it, but ultimately she realizes that’s not what she’s crying about at all. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? It’s so true, as is your thought: “Sometimes I think we’re so busy living and trying to keep everything together that we don’t remember to mourn or be sad about things.” I can completely relate to this need, too: “I needed someone else to show their vulnerability publicly to tell me that it was okay for me to feel vulnerable as well.”

    regina, I love what you’re saying—it’s not that tears and being “fit” CAN go together, they inherently DO go together! When you think of all of the health issues and conditions that are either triggered by stress or aggravated by stress, it sure seems like a good cry from time to time might help. Feeling the freedom to cry with someone who cares about you is even more healing. Thanks for your comment!

  • Lesley


    The timing of this post is so interesting because I just watched a video yesterday that touches on some of these same ideas. If you’re interested, here’s a link It’s 11 minutes long, but it’s so captivating because of the way it’s presented. I’m curious to hear what you think.

    I love and appreciate women (and men) who can be vulnerable. To me, it’s the key to lasting and real friendships. Thanks for your thoughts.


  • Jeff

    David Michael Levin, in The Opening of Vision talks about how the way the things we see affect us. He talks about what it means that we watch television programs in which we watch suffering as a form of entertainment. He talks about real suffering. Then he says something that has stuck with me. We have to learn to see the world through our tears.

    Then there is a story that Joseph Campbell tells in the The Hero with a Thousand Faces about an image of a Peruvian deity. He is wrestling with the question of theodicy, why did God create a world in which bad things happen. This deity creates through water. Water brings life. Yet this Peruvian deity sees the suffering that accompanies life, yet rather than withhold life the deity gives life with full awareness of the suffering that accompanies it and so the waters of creation come as tears as the deity weeps. I have always found something similar between this and the cross.

    One more reference, this time from a Vietnam Veteran; “Don.” We can read his story in Daniel Hallock’s Hell, Healing and Resistance.
    “When I got back to Can Tho, I started to cry – and I couldn’t stop. For two days I wept continuously, never stopping. All I could think about were the people I had killed, about the good men I saw die about my buddy – and I kept crying until our company doctor sedated me. I was taken to 3rd Surg where I told a doctor everything I had seen and done in nineteen months. All he did was put me on 60 mg of valium a day and lock me in a room for two weeks.”

  • The Modern Gal

    Great post. You know, there is a special feeling that comes after a good cry (there’s a sign right there — I call cries ‘good’) … you’ve exhausted your tears and caught your breath, and you feel different. It’s almost like a post-workout feeling. It’s such a specific feeling, I use it to describe other things, like how I feel after I’ve used my Neti pot to clear my sinuses out.

    And like what Kirstin said: I feel like my own tears are intimate. Maybe it’s because we know we look and sound like a mess when we cry, and our society puts such an emphasis on keeping ourselves together. Whatever the case, because of that feeling of intimacy I generally only want to shed them around people I trust.

  • Rick

    Read your post, thought about it with an open mind, and here is my personal perspective. For me, tears arrive in only one of two ways. Absolute loss, like the death of my dog, or unmitigated compassion, like Sam Wainwright at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

    You can cry all you want… and now thanks to reading this, I won’t ask “what’s wrong” next time. For me, it doesn’t feel good to cry and never has (and that’s not because I was brought up playing football and getting punched by bullies, it’s who I am.)

  • ed cyzewski

    If I can cry, then I know I’m alive, I’m feeling something, and I’m engaged in what’s around me. Just last night I was rereading Traveling Mercies. I laughed out loud at Lamott’s reference to Cold Comfort Farm, one of my favorite books, and teared up at the conclusion of her conversion story when she tells Jesus, “Fuck it, you can come in.” The thought of Jesus’ tenacious persistence struck me, and as I felt those emotions, the tears came.

  • Kristin T.

    Lesley, I like what you said about “lasting and real friendships.” I think you’re on to something. It has to be two-sided, though, doesn’t it? Or at least the level of vulnerability is (ideally) fairly equal. Thanks for sharing the video link—I’m hoping to have time to watch it tomorrow and will let you know what I think!

    Jeff, wow, that is a powerful idea: “We have to learn to see the world through our tears.” Also, the realization that the beauty of this life inherently includes suffering, too—does that realization mark the moment when we truly “grow up?” Thanks for sharing such thought-provoking references.

    The Modern Gal, I feel different after a good cry, too. I love the neti pot comparison—so funny, but also so accurate. A whole lot of nasty stuff has just been stuck inside you, dormant, and the time has come to flush it out. As you said, it’s not just about feeling “better,” it’s about things being *different,* from the depths.

    Rick, I love “unmitigated compassion.” That makes a lot of sense. I don’t think I could boil down and articulate my crying moments in such a succinct way, but I bet a lot of people (dare I say mostly men?) could. So are you saying the need to cry—at least a certain amount—isn’t biologically universal? What I’m wondering is whether you can identify other “purging,” “cleansing” activities that DO make you feel better. Or do you have a way of just not letting things build up? (Clearly I need access to a “psychology of crying” expert!)

    ed, a book that makes you laugh and cry is the best sort of book, in my opinion. Anne Lamott is a master at engaging a spectrum of emotions with her stories. What’s so great about art—books, music, movies—is how rapidly you can be carried from one extreme to the other, and how each emotion can take you completely by surprise. (Life works that way sometimes, too, but tends not to be quite so condensed. The extremes usually strike in the course of days or weeks, not hours.)

  • Rick

    @Kristin – funny thing is, I didn’t “want” to be so succinct, but that’s what I’ve learned about myself after 30+ years of reflection. I took some time to think about how I “cleanse” myself of crud. For me it’s a combination of exercise, sleep and prayer. If I get enough of each, I’m OK. However, if I fail to meet my daily minimun requirement, I’m asking for trouble… and the trouble usually manifests itself in a bad attitude and pessimism with just a touch of paranoia. Here again, it’s taken me 30+ years to figure out the the elements and the minimum amount of each. And as I age, the combination seems to change (blog post idea), but at least I know how to cleanse myself.

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