As a psychotherapist, my work frequently involves watching people cry.
I probably spend as much on Kleenex every year as other professionals spend on printer paper.
Far from being fazed by tears, I welcome them because I know how healing they can be.
But that hasn’t always been the case…
A Short History of My Awkward Cluelessness
I entered adulthood as the original Uncomfortable Witness. Since we didn’t cry in my home when I was growing up, I literally had no idea how to respond to tears.
As a result I was not only uncomfortable but flummoxed when people cried.
A dear friend of mine recalls an exchange between us when we were teenagers. She’d been physically hurt somehow, and as we walked back to her home, she was fighting back tears. I responded with impatience.
“Do you know who cries?,” I reportedly said. “Babies! That’s who cries.”
While I don’t remember the exchange, I’m sure my friend’s account is accurate. It’s a precious miracle I still have her in my life today.
Another time, in college, a female acquaintance unexpectedly dissolved in tears while telling a sad story. The only other person in the room was a male student, and he went over and put his arm around her.
Taking my cue from him, I went nearer and held out a box of tissues.
If that other student hadn’t been there, I would have been bothered and stumped instead of just bothered.
If I Can Do This, Anyone Can
Cut to today: A client is crying in my office and I lean in, sharing the moment and feeling as comfortable as if I were on my couch at home, curled up with a good book.
I feel calm, even content. I don’t have to guess what’s going on with her; it’s right there on her face. It’s a cue that I can relax, because in this moment I know what’s happening and what’s required of me, more or less.
♦ ♦ ♦
If you feel awkward when people cry, take it from someone who’s been there: It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be someone it feels good to cry with, and that is a wonderful thing.
The following are some ideas about what to do when someone cries. Feel free to add your own in the Comments section below.
1) Squelch the urge to tell them to look on the bright side.
I know you’re just trying to help, but it’s incredibly invalidating and not at all helpful when someone’s feeling sad about something, to explain to them why they shouldn’t feel sad (or mad, or regretful, or envious, etc.).
If they could choose to feel better in this moment, they would. But they can’t, so be with them where they are.
2) Look but don’t necessarily touch.
Someone who wants you to hold them will probably come closer and/or ask to be held. If they don’t do that, stay mentally present and let the crying person know you’re with them just by using good eye contact. You can lean forward slightly to communicate interest, engagement and acceptance.
If you’re not a toucher, that’s perfectly okay. You’re more likely to make a mistake by touching than by keeping your distance anyway. Just be generous with eye contact, compassionate attention and sympathy. But if they ask for a hug, do your best.
If your relationship calls for it, you can check in later when the tears are dry and ask how you did. Did you miss a cue about what they needed? Any tips for next time?
3) If you feel like you must say something, make sympathetic sounds or statements of agreement.
- That sounds terrible
- No wonder you’re hurt
- I’m so sorry that happened to you
These are validating. Don’t think they’re being reasonable? Save that debate for later. See my article on how to validate someone for ideas on what to do (and what not to do) to be supportive.
4) Let go of the need to “fix it.”
It can be hard at first to feel like you’re just standing there like a coat rack. Feeling useless, awkward or frustrated is something you’ll get past with practice.
The truth is, you’re being helpful and supportive just by being there.
5) Get comfortable with your own tears.
If you haven’t cried in a long time, you could find it almost intolerable to be around someone who’s crying. Their tears will seem to pull on something in your soul, and you might find yourself having an emotional reaction.
If someone else’s crying makes you cry, too, that’s perfectly fine. Better out than in, I always say.
Tears are just liquid emotion that spills out when there’s an excess. Nothing will be fixed by shutting down the weeping reflex. Besides, tears of emotion literally help us feel better.
If you feel angry or impatient with a crying person, I’ll bet you ten bucks there’s something softer under that irritation.
The take-home point is this: There’s nothing special you need to do when someone cries, except BE PRESENT.
If you focus on that, rather than trying to say or do the right thing, then all will be well … for both of you.