Why We Cry


A Clinician’s Guide

May/June 2012


At the site of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster, the son of miner Florencio Avalos burst into tears when his father was brought safely to the surface. Later that month, Caylee Anthony’s grandmother was shown weeping over her granddaughter’s death. How can two such totally different events—one joyful, one tragic—both elicit tears?

This question puzzles many clinicians, including some who are considered experts in the field of emotional expression. The problem is that few of us have received explicit training in theories of emotion. Therefore, our notions about tears and other forms of emotional release are still partly based on “steam-kettle thinking”—the culturally pervasive but biologically absurd notion that emotions are stored quantities of energy, which, like steam, wreak havoc when bottled up too long or released too abruptly. Our everyday language is rife with steam-kettle metaphors. We talk about “blowing off steam,” being “flooded with emotion,” “boiling over” with rage, and “feeling drained” after a good cry. The Freudian theory of catharsis is basically a steam-kettle model, and so are various expressive therapies, such as psychodrama, primal scream, reevaluation counseling, and Gestalt therapy. Similarly, remnants of steam-kettle theory can be found in current approaches toward regulation, stress reduction, and anger management.

The history of the field’s views on emotional release harks back to the days when skulls were trephined to release evil…

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6 Comments

Sunday, June 10, 2012 11:17:51 AM | posted by Kathy
I needed to hear this. I am in the process of ending a marriage of almost 37 years. Through the years there were many things that brought the marriage to the brink, but my husband's anger outbursts took it over the edge. Listening to your show I realized that he never cried...even when his mother died, a woman he loved and was close to, I only saw him cry for about a minute. When my mother died, I cried buckets for months, but if I dared to cry in front of him, he would shout at me "Shut up! Stop crying!" (I was in my twenties when I lost her, he lost his mother in 2004.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 7:14:15 PM | posted by Neo
Wonderful article! I wish you'd say more about your definition of emotion as "the body postures and hormonal settings that form the necessary support system for our actions," or give a list of examples or descriptions of them. I don't understand what you mean very well. Or have you published about that elsewhere?

Monday, July 9, 2012 6:59:45 PM | posted by ishita Sangra
Enjoyed reading this article a lot.. something very gripping about it.... on the other hand, very informative..

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 8:30:10 PM | posted by Laura Havstad
I am wondering about tears of frustration? they seem on the face of it to be more related to sympathetic nervous system processes. What is the understanding of this kind of crying and tears. There are many women who cry when they are angry as well. Are these exceptions to the two stage theory of tears?

Friday, July 20, 2012 5:01:59 PM | posted by Tom Linde, MSW
I'm sorry, but I must go on. The idea that emotion stems from cognition is the basis for cognitive therapy, first developed by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, no?

And the concept of positive connotation comes from the work of Milton Erickson. It was articulated by Palazzoli and her Milan colleagues in their book Paradox and Counter-Paradox.

Harvey Jackins on the other hand, was thought by many to be a quack, a paranoid and a cult leader. He is never cited in reputable literature that I know of. It puzzles me that you would credit him for positive connotation and the cognitive theory of emotion.

Friday, July 27, 2012 10:51:16 PM | posted by Tom Linde
This article brings up more questions than answers. First, the idea that emotion stems from cognition is the basis for cognitive therapy, first developed by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, no?

And the concept of positive connotation comes from the work of Milton Erickson. It was articulated in the wonderful chapter, Positive Connotation by Palazzoli and her Milan colleagues in their book Paradox and Counter-Paradox.

Harvey Jackins on the other hand, was thought by many to be a quack, a paranoid and a cult leader. He is never cited in reputable literature that I know of. It puzzles me that you would credit him for positive connotation and the cognitive theory of emotion.

And there are other puzzles. In the case of Cindy Anthony, you refer to a moment in which she is in the midst of talking to the press about a wrenching tragedy. How could she have been recovering from an arousal state at a time like this?

What about the child who cries while still separated from the parent, and who then rather quickly stops crying once found? What about gasping, uncontrolled crying that comes with a panic attack, quite separate from any recovery? Why would recovery sometimes manifest in crying and sometimes not?

Is crying not cathartic sometimes? And don't we often encounter sustained crying without self-castigation? In bereavement, for example.

I'm finding that the gaps in logic and the lack of substantiation here almost bring a tear to my eye.

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