The Many Different Reasons People Cry or Shed Tears
Every second of every day, somewhere in the world, under circumstances dire or mundane, someone is sobbing their heart out. People of all ages, nationalities, and genders cry for multiple reasons, some of which we can relate to, some of which seem utterly foreign.
Although some say that tears are primarily physical moisteners and cleansers for the eyes, we who cry know better. Tears also clean out the heart and the spirit. They can be used to manipulate or divert, and they link in some mysterious way to rivers, raindrops, and dew—the tears of the earth.
Where Tears Come From and What They're For
Our eyes are mucous membranes that have to be kept moist in order to move around to see. They are fitted with tear ducts in the inside corners that store tears and release tiny or large amounts of moisture as needed. We refill the ducts primarily by the water we drink.
Our eyes also need to be kept clean so the surface is not scratched. A scratched eyeball distracts sight in the same way that scratched eyeglasses do. Any irritant in the eye automatically triggers a release of tears to wash it out. This fluid is made up of water, antioxidants, and traces of lipids, antibodies, and other elements that keep eyes healthy.
Providing lubrication, nutrition, and a wash for irritants are three ways that tears serve us physically, but there are non-physical ways they serve us, too.
According to a German study on crying, women cry an average of 30-64 times a year, while men cry 6-17 times per year. Women cry twice as long as men, and their crying turns to sobbing in 65% of the cases. This difference starts after adolescence, after we've been trained to be "women" or "men." Before that, there's no difference between genders.
Crocodile Tears and Manipulation
The term "crocodile tears" comes from an ancient anecdote that crocodiles weep in order to lure their prey. Just so, children manipulate adults all the time with tears, and women manipulate men. My father once told me he could not resist a woman who cried in his arms. Women know this and often use it to soften a man up.
When a man is angry or abusive, many women cry as a form of apology. Sometimes it works and sometimes it increases the anger.
Some women cry to get men to buy them things.
Some women cry (or complain) to get attention or sympathy from friends. Occasionally men do too, but men normally manipulate with anger, not tears.
Some mothers cry to make their children feel guilty when they are ultra naughty.
Young children learn to cry to get stuff or to get out of doing something they don't want to do.
- Some kids go further, and throw tantrums to get what they want. If it works, they continue to do it as adults.
Crying to cleanse versus crying to manipulate are two different things, and normally both the manipulator and the receiver know it in the end. The one being manipulated resents it over time, which spoils the initial pleasure. The one manipulating feels guilty deep down, which also spoils the pleasure. Sometimes they harden themselves, and the manipulation or response to it becomes cold and calculated, which only makes it worse. Crying to cleanse the heart is a whole different thing.
Real Tears, Emotions, and the Heart
I looked just now at all of the things I've cried about during the last 50 years and they seem to fall into five major categories (one of which is the next section): Rejection or the fear of it, regret, frustration and anger, loss, and universal love. Of all of these, for me the biggest by far has been rejection or the fear of it.
Rejection - Being left out, left behind, or cast away all make us want to cry. Rejection is saying, "You're not good enough for me or this or us. I don't want you." It hurts in whatever form it comes, whether personal or impersonal - being mocked or being turned down for a job. Some people, rather than crying, turn cold and indifferent, but they're doing it in reaction to the same kind of hurt.
When I was in fourth grade, a popular girl took cuts in the recess line and gave everyone else cuts in front of her, until I was the only one left. Then she moved back up, leaving me at the end. I'd been in second place before. It hurt so much I couldn't play my violin after school, until I'd cried it out with my teacher.
My sister, when she was four years old, was accidentally left behind at the beach and she still carries that pain. When our family broke up and she didn't get to live with Dad, she felt rejected all over again.
Even as adults we fear rejection and sometimes cry at the thought of it - a partner kicking us out, someone chosen to perform over us, a child screaming at us in a fit of anger, loving someone whose friends don't want them to love you back, being told you're too controlling and no one wants to work with you. Crying always helps to relieve the pain and open the way for acceptance. After acceptance, action of some kind can follow.
Tears of a Clown - Loneliness
Regret—"I don't know what happened, but it didn't turn out the way I wanted." "Oh, God, it hurt her, why did I say that?" "I should have done this, but it's too late now." "Why can't I be the person I want to be?" All of these are questions and statements of regret, and each of them can trigger tears, especially if they happen over and over.
I know someone who just left a warm lover in another state. His lifestyle and hers didn't fit, and she couldn't find work there. She knew that he alone could not fulfill her, so she moved back here . . . and cried and cried afterwards. I'm sure he did, too. (Or maybe he drank—often a substitute for tears.)
Cry Me a River - Payback
Frustration—Frustration is usually accompanied by anger. It comes from trying and trying and having nothing work. It comes from knowing that something's going to happen and doing everything you can to stop it, but still it comes. A sense of failure often accompanies it, as does an attempt to place blame.
This is a situation where women usually cry more than men do. Women are not "supposed" to show anger, men are not "supposed" to cry. So women express their anger through tears, and men express their hurt by becoming angry.
I once had a job that I found out later was a scam offer. They had hired me, a stranger with a degree, in lieu of someone who'd been filling in, but whom they didn't want to promote. It was a challenging job and I was working hard at it and succeeding. Then she found a job in another district.
Shortly thereafter, my boss told me it wasn't working out after all, and he'd found me a transfer elsewhere (lower position, same pay). I was so angry I wanted to spit, but couldn't express it. I burst into tears instead.
Tears - Sadness
Loss—A state of emptiness follows the loss of a person or thing that was important to us. That emptiness we fill with tears. The tears contain love, nostalgia, fear of the future, sometimes inadequacy. We cry when our children leave home, when a parent dies, or a good friend moves away. We cry for the pets we lose, and for the homes we've left, and sometimes for a job we liked. We cry for neighbors killed by bombs and for village babies dying of starvation.
We all have stories of loss. This is the easiest, most common state of tears to identify with. This is the one that is glorified by movies, books, and songs. You can hear Loretta Lynn starting to cry at the end of her song, "The Telephone," when Conway Twitty tells her he's leaving. Novels and movies depict tears followed sometimes by suicide, sometimes by a new love after a loss. Numerous heroines collapse to the ground, sobbing, when the hero of the opera sings his dramatic goodbye.
Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head - Optimism
Tears for Others, the Earth, and the Soul
When I was young I had lots of operations. I was also the oldest child of eight, so my father encouraged me repeatedly to be a good example for the younger children. I learned not to cry for myself and was proud of it. I cried for others, instead. I read a lot, watched movies, and cried my heart out whenever I found something sad in them.
Even as a young adult other people's pains would trigger me to easy tears, where mine would leave me tall and proud . . . and dry. Until I went into therapy, I didn't know how to describe how I was feeling. But once there I found my tears and learned to shed them. Now I see tears as one of the greatest gifts we have.
I've also discovered that nature can help us cry. She has thousands of little nooks and crannies and trees and caves where we can be alone to cry. She has animals and birds that we can cry with. She has trees we can hug. She has flowing and still waters and raindrops that can match the tears we shed.
Knowing also that our tears and even negative feelings are vitally nurturing for nature, providing raw materials to grow by, helps me feel good about dumping them out. There's this soothing energy she flows through us that calms us afterward and makes us feel loved.
Even if we don't cry with nature in this way, there's the power of universal beauty to bring tears forth. From the beauty of our immediate surroundings or of the mountains in the distance, to the beauty of wild animals, babies, and humanity itself, our hearts swell and push out whatever unshed tears dwell therein.
That's why photography is so popular these days. It serves to remind us of all the beauty that surrounds us in all of its different forms, and any of it can make us cry at any time. Whatever makes us cry in this way we want to share. So almost all of my friends' entries on Facebook these days have photos or posters made from photos.
Are tears worth it? You bet. With all of the reasons we cry, whether alone or with others, one thing stands out in the end: We always feel better afterwards. Our eyes feel better for washing out the irritant, our relationships are temporarily warmer for the manipulation, our hearts feel cleaner and more open after a good solitary or group cry, and we open up to the warmth of compassion when we cry for others and for the earth. In all of these ways, tears help open us up and make us strong.
Adiemus - Cantus Song of Tears - Pure Beauty
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before--more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.