Close up of a person's eyes with tears

The Psychology of Crying: Why Some Find it Hard to Cry

On a phone call with a dear friend last night, the topic turns to a trip we shared in Japan several years ago. It takes me a moment to comprehend she is crying on the other end of the line. Sorry, she laughs through her sobs, it’s one of those weeks, everything is getting me. I laugh and briefly recall her once crying over a new car ad because the mother and father were holding a brand-new baby. This earnestness is something I adore about my friend. After we say our goodbyes, I fall back on the couch to think about the last time I cried. Though no matter how long I sit or how hard I think, I am unable to recall the occurrence. I think of the unused tissue box suspended on the table between me and my psychologist. I try and conjure sad things I have experienced in my time; I even play a sad song I exhausted during a breakup as well as my late grandmother’s all-time favourite. Nothing becomes of this. How bizarre, I think as I contemplate, is there something wrong with me? Could my tear ducts be broken?


Find it hard to cry?

You might be reading along and find yourself identifying with the above example, or perhaps you know someone just like this. Not unlikely, as it turns out we are not anomalies in society. This was made apparent during a BBC radio interview in 2014 when Michael Trimble, a crying expert, was asked why some people don’t cry at all. The person who asked this question gave an example of their colleague who does not cry, despite the two going to great lengths to expose him to profoundly sad productions, films, songs, and stories. Trimble fell silent. It seems his research, along with the existing research in the field, neglects the non-criers among us and solely focuses on those with wet, capable tear ducts. In the radio interview break, an email account was set up and listeners were asked to email in if they fell into this dry tear ducts category. Within hours, the inbox was full of hundreds upon hundreds of emails.


Crying is a mechanism unique to humans

There are a range of human processes and phenomena that research groups have spent decades trying to understand. Sound conclusions have been made regarding hunger, thirst, connection, sleep, attention, motivation, the list goes on. Though very little is known about the mechanism of crying. Still today, research into tears is preliminary, which is odd because we are the only animal species that has been shown to cry due to emotional disturbance.

Speculations have been made about the meaning and origin of tears for centuries. The Old Testament posits tears are a product of weakened heart material, which eventually turns into water and comes out of our eyes. Then in the 1600’s a popular theory suggested the power of love heats the heart so much that the body had to generate water vapour to cool itself down. It was believed this vapour would rise to the head and escape the body via our ducts – ultimately manifesting as tears. In 1662, Danish Scientist Niels Stensen located the source of tears in the lacrimal gland and unromantically professed their purpose was purely practical: to keep the eyes lubricated. Since this discovery, several evolutionary perspectives support Stensen’s practical theory but believe there are additional, more profound, reasons as to why our species has a unique capacity to cry.


Social Tears: Heartbreak tears are different from onion-chopping tears

Researchers have spent years weighing up the ways we differ developmentally from other animals in pursuit of understanding the meaning of tears. Unlike most animals who are born almost fully formed, humans start out vulnerable. While we slowly develop and eventually mature into competent individuals, we are still confronted with moments where we feel overwhelmed, helpless, and hopeless.

Humans use crying to communicate they feel out of their depths, from infancy through to adulthood. Crying is a means of communicating we need to stop, and that we need assistance. Evidence supporting this lies in the chemical difference between emotional tears and physiological tears (that is, onion-chopping tears or bug-in-the-eye tears). Emotional tears possess more protein which makes them more viscous, so they stick to the skin and remain on the face, thus making them more visible to others of our kind. Research shows that when we observe another person cry, we comprehend the seriousness of the situation and access empathy much faster than the exchange of words ever could. What ensues is feelings of sympathy as well as acts of service and social support, both of which support our species to cope better with the world around us.


Emotional Tears: Dry eyes could be a learned phenomenon

Tears are infamously associated with large emotional experiences like weddings, births, relationship breakdowns, or loss. Researchers agree that tears form when words cannot, when mixtures of emotions rush to the top and overwhelm you all at once. While crying has always been labelled as ‘cathartic’ and ‘good for you’, there is no solid research supporting this. Studies show people often feel worse after crying. However, the valuable takeaway from a good cry is that you are being vulnerable either with yourself or with another person. It is important to allow emotions to be expressed, to consciously push them back down is damaging in the long term. In this way, crying isn’t about immediate gratification or catharsis but long-term emotional awareness and intelligence.

I recall something my cousin confided in me about her aunt on the other side of the family. It was when the two of them were walking down the aisle at her grandfather’s funeral. My cousin was 13 at the time and, feeling very emotional about the death, she began to cry upon seeing the casket. She remembers distinctly the way her aunty shoved a finger into her back and instructed her not to cry, not to show any emotion. My cousin is an adult now and, like me, seldom cries and has difficulty identifying what she is feeling. We cannot help but wonder if this kind of stoicism displayed by our elders is intergenerationally reckless. This is to say, the emotional, cultural, and developmental relevance of tears should not be underestimated in the way past generations might have.


Pragmatic Tears: Crying is useful for the way it neutralises anger in a situation

This is a new theory, albeit much less touching, but it explains the usefulness of crying to our species. Many of us have been at one end of this kind of exchange at some point and if not, look out for it the next time it comes up. That is, pay attention to how conflict shifts once someone cries. A person doesn’t even have to break down in hysteria, maybe they only shed a few tears, but the sight of someone crying in a moment of conflict has been shown to immediately alleviate the tension. Crying works to neutralise anger in the atmosphere for the reasons I mentioned earlier: the sight of another person crying strokes our empathy vein. This is why researchers believe tears are important in relationship disputes, especially when one person is experiencing guilt and desires forgiveness. So, next time you find yourself in a situation where the other person is in the wrong, stick to the facts and beware of tears (and flowers!). You’re predisposed to respond more kindly.


Dry eyes are likely linked to not understanding your emotions

As for the non-criers out there… I realise I may not have shed much light on our situation. This is because contemporary crying research is in very early stages. It seems researchers are only just now realising the importance of this unique mechanism and they can’t yet agree on the reasons why. Work is being done in this field; in fact, the informal email experiment I mentioned earlier was developed into the first legitimate experiment investigating non-crying humans. The results show strong associations with themes consistent with Alexithymia, which describes an inability or difficulty in identifying, describing, and expressing emotions. While this isn’t a recognised disorder, it is a risk factor for other psychological difficulties and therefore it should be addressed. So, I urge all the non-criers out there; don’t be alarmed, but perhaps if your ducts have been dry for a long time, it might be worth checking in with a health professional who can help you access this important human mechanism.


If you want to know more about Why Humans Weep, watch Ad Vingerhoet’s Ted Talk. Read on here if you want to try to understand a bit deeper why you might struggle to cry.