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 Katie's mom, Esther's Mémé, and a Support Engineer. She lives in the Atlanta area with her life partner, Rick, and their critters. She knits, does counted-thread needlework, reads, makes music, plays TTRPGs, and spends too much time online.
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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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