When I was a little boy I was in the back yard crying (for a forgotten reason) and my grandfather rushed up to tell me I mustn’t cry. It was a message he gave me often. Countless men and women have received a similar message: ‘Don’t cry; it shows weakness.’
There is a good chance you have received that advice.
Some parents tell their children to not cry because they want to them to be able to bluff the bullies, and show strength instead of weakness. That’s understandable. However, they’re confusing resilience with stoicism.
Stoicism is enduring something without showing pain or complaining. A child who refuses to cry is being stoic.
Resilience is the ability to recover from something. A child who cries but bounces back afterwards, as strong as ever, is resilient.
That’s what we want: resilience.
When a child is allowed to express their suffering by crying, with the safety and support of those around them, they come to realise that they can experience the suffering without being obliterated by it. By ‘coming out the other side’ they learn (at a subconscious level of course) that they can handle a situation. They feel resilient. And, because they realise the suffering passes, they tend to in future suffer less. The fear behind it, the turmoil, has gone. And because they tend to suffer less, they also become stoic.
When we cry it’s as though we dissemble, and when we assemble again we are a little more solid than we were before.
For any parents reading this, do you have children?
If your children are taught to inhibit their tears they might lose the chance to discover they can handle feeling awful. As a result, they might lose the chance to develop resilience. They may become stoic, but not resilient. That means, if they do experience anguish as adults they may be able to hide their distress, but may not know how to handle it.
Furthermore, if they become proficient in pushing down their emotions, after a while they won’t be aware of those emotions. Then how can they address them? So, their emotions could toss them about, and lead them to behave poorly.
Let’s allow children to cry. We can nurture them and use tricks to cheer them up, but let’s not encourage them to stop crying.
When we cheer them up they learn ways to cheer themselves up. That leads to resilience. But if we don’t allow them to cry in the first place, they don’t get to learn those skills. All they learn is how to hide their pain. And they don’t learn how to deal with it.
We can ask a crying child:
‘Do you feel frightened because the dog is barking? Is that possible?’
‘Do you feel sad because you are missing your sister? Is that possible?’
‘Do you feel angry because you believe we should give you the lolly? Is that possible?’
That way, the child learns to search for the emotion being experienced, and how to label it.
What about you?
If you feel like crying, and you’re on your own or with supportive people, do so. Don’t hold back. Allowing ourselves to cry is one way to deal with what we are feeling. It’s a release, and it’s a way to remind ourselves that we will get through this, that we are resilient. Reminding ourselves that we are resilient is a good way to add to our resilience.
If you can’t allow yourself to cry, at least make the choice to cry. Give yourself permission to cry. That’s a start.
If you cannot give yourself permission to cry, at least give yourself permission to suffer. Even that can provide relief.
‘It can be a great release to cry. If you stay quietly present, your tears will run their course. Do not fear. They never go on forever. Tears wash the soul. They cleanse the heart. Unshed tears can hurt.’
‘Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is get real, get ugly, express your emotions and bawl your eyes out.’
Q. ‘Why don’t adults cry often?’
Either because they have become experts in bottling distressing emotions, or because they have learned to handle their emotions effectively.
Some adults do cry easily. I know a woman who cries freely when she watches a movie or reads a book. She allows herself to fully feel. In life she is emotionally healthy, happy and resilient.
Q. ‘An adult I know cries regularly and isn’t resilient.’
You probably also know people who cry regularly but are resilient. Some people cry regularly because they are not coping; others cry regularly because they have good reason to cry, or because they like to fully experience the book or film they’re engaged with.
In some tribes in Papua New Guinea men cry freely, yet there is no suggestion they aren’t resilient.
Examples of resilience.
1. From: ‘National Geographic’ magazine, May 2011: Khalilullah is a char dweller, one of the hundreds of thousands of people who inhabit the constantly changing island, or chars, on the floodplains of Bangladesh’s three major rivers . . . These islands, many covering less than a square mile, appear and vanish constantly, rising and falling with the tide, the season, the phase of the moon, the rainfall, and the flow of rivers upstream. Char dwellers will set out by boat to visit friends on another char, only to find that it’s completely disappeared. Later they will hear through the grapevine that their friends moved to a new char that had popped up a few miles downstream, built their house in a day, and planted a garden by nightfall. Making a life on the chars – growing crops, building a home, raising a family – is like winning an Olympic medal in adaptation. Char dwellers may be the most resilient people on Earth.
There are tricks to living on a char, Khalilullah says. He builds his house in sections that can be dismantled, moved, and reassembled in a matter of a few hours. He always builds on a raised platform of earth at least six feet high. He keeps the family suitcases stacked neatly next to the bed in case they’re needed on short notice.
. . . His real secret, he says, is not to think too much. “We’re all under pressure, but there’s really no point to worry. This is our only option, to move from place to place to place. We farm this land for as long as we can, and then the river washes it away. No matter how much we worry, the ending is always the same.”
2. Howard Lutnick was well known in financial circles to be a tough and uncompromising business man, and was widely disliked because of it, yet when almost three quarters of his staff died in the September 11 attacks he wept openly and publicly on national television. Those tears did not indicate a weak or broken man, because Howard immediately continued to make business decisions which were believed to be hard-hearted (at the time). Those decisions saved his business, which now thrives, and he ensured that the victims’ families were fairly compensated.