We attempt to mitigate the stigma of crying by thinking of it as necessary, a bodily function akin to lacrimal peeing. That’s why we have the oft-used phrase “getting it all out,” which is pretty odd advice if you consider it for a moment. Buried within that sentiment is the notion that releasing tears is going to make it better. But Ad Vingerhoets, an expert on the psychology of tears, says it isn’t that easy.
In his view, we don’t cry for catharsis. We cry for help.
Responses to shitty situations, unfortunately, can’t be planned, but Vingerhoets doesn’t see why they should be. Tears, he told Inverse, are a signal to others that we’re in need, so holding them back, in theory, would only withhold aid. “The basis of crying is a call for help,” he says. “When we are infants, we cry for food, warmth, care — we cry when we are separated from our mothers. This is the basis of crying throughout life.”
That’s not to say tears are strictly Freudian artifacts. In adults, Vingerhoets says, crying becomes a sign of psychological, not physical, discomfort — and not necessarily our own. “We increasingly cry not for our own suffering but for others. Sometimes we cry for what’s going on in the world.” But whether we cry when work burns us out, during a traumatic breakup, or in response to insane political campaigns, one thing remains the same: We cry because we feel helpless and we want others to know.
That statement is hard to disagree with, but it doesn’t explain why crying — especially as a solo activity — feels so good. Nobody hears you wailing about your powerlessness when you’re alone in the shower, watching your tears swirl down the drain — right? Vingerhoets isn’t so sure. “Is that really crying alone?” he asks. Even when there’s nobody around, he explains, we’re usually crying with someone in mind, and it feels good only when it allows us to affect the hopeless situation at hand. “The question should not be does crying bring relief?” he says. “It’s more a question of for whom and in which conditions?” In his view, relief — or greater distress — depends on how or whether people react.
In essence, he’s suggesting that crying in the shower doesn’t help even if it seems like it might.
Crying feels best when it can elicit a response from people who can help. “We prefer to cry generally in the presence of our mother or our romantic partner, not in the presence of strangers,” says Vingerhoets. “Especially in people which we hope to find a listening ear and comfort.” He refers to studies showing that romantically involved students cry considerably more than singles and that lonely people actually cry less.
“It seems that you need someone to cry to,” he says.
He’s generally unconvinced that strategic crying could help avoid public displays of emotional lability. In fact, he’s not even sure the act of crying has a therapeutic effect at all, pointing to research showing that people who lose the ability to cry don’t experience any dip in psychological well being. “People refer to catharsis and recovery,” he says. “I cannot exclude that that’s the case, but whether it has a positive effect and that you can consider it a kind of therapy? No. I have my doubts.”
Vingerhoets’ theory isn’t incompatible with the idea that crying is cathartic. It’s just that he thinks that catharsis rests on the reactions of others and not simply on our own ability to cry on command. Unfortunately, this has the ironic effect of making us feel more, not less, powerless, but it gives credence to the old adage that people who need people have all the luck.