Is crying cathartic for you?

I hate crying, and will go to great lengths to avoid letting anyone see me cry—a habit I acquired as a child, because I didn’t want to let my father “win” when he hurt me. I always feel worse, rather than better, if I do cry about anything, so I’ve never understood why anybody could talk about “having a good cry.” This piece from today’s today’s Delanceyplace mailing was informative.

Some researchers now say that the common psychological wisdom about crying—crying as a healthy catharsis—is incomplete and misleading. Having a “good cry” can and usually does allow people to recover some mental balance after a loss. But not always and not for everyone, argues a review article in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. …

In her book Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment, Judith Kay Nelson, a therapist and teacher living in Berkeley, Calif., argues that the experience of crying is rooted in early childhood and people’s relationship with their primary caregiver, usually a parent. Those whose parents were attentive, soothing their cries when needed, tend to find that crying also provides them solace as adults. Those whose parents held back, or became irritated or overly upset by the child’s crying, often have more difficulty soothing themselves as adults.

“Crying, for a child, is a way to beckon the caregiver, to maintain proximity and use the caregiver to regulate mood or negative arousal,” Dr. Nelson said in a phone interview. Those who grow up unsure of when or whether that soothing is available can, as adults, get stuck in what she calls protest crying—the child’s helpless squall for someone to fix the problem, undo the loss.

“You can’t work through grief if you’re stuck in protest crying, which is all about fixing it, fixing the loss,” Dr. Nelson said. “And in therapy—as in close relationships—protest crying is very hard to soothe, because you can’t do anything right, you can’t undo the loss. On the other hand, sad crying that is an appeal for comfort from a loved one is a path to closeness and healing.”

Tears can cleanse, all right. But like a flash flood, they may also leave a person feeling stranded, and soaked.


Benedict Carey, “The Muddled Tracks of All Those Tears,” The New York Times, Health Section, February 2, 2009

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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One thought on “Is crying cathartic for you?

  1. I like this conceptualization of whether crying is ultimately beneficial for people. It acknowledges that we are not one-size-fits-all, never-traumatized-growing-up people. I suspect many more than just you have the “what do you mean 'good cry'?” reaction.

    I'm somewhere off the center of the continuum presented here. When I cry it's like a pressure release valve so I can then process and deal with whatever intense emotions I was having. It doesn't make much of anything better; it just clears some workspace. If I am not alone or among (the few) people I trust, I suppress any welling up to the best of my ability. I consider public tears a failure on my part, but tend to give others the benefit of the doubt.

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