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 under­stand 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