When someone cries
You’re with a friend, having a chat. Suddenly, your companion’s eyes fill with tears. They begin to weep. What do you do.
It will depend partly, of course, on how well you know the person and the source of their sadness; on how close you are. But your reaction is likely also to be dictated by your own beliefs about crying and your attitude to your own tears, when they come.
Some people long to embrace a crying person; to comfort them and tell them not to cry. Others stiffen, panicking and horrified by such a display. A few will even leave the room altogether. Others will begin crying, too. And there are some who will simply sit quietly, witnessing the tears. At most, they will lay a hand on their friend’s arm, reassuring them of their continued presence.
For me, these vastly different responses tell us a lot about the person witnessing their friend’s distress. The one who seeks to comfort may genuinely wish to nurture but are they also demonstrating their own unconscious desire to be physically close and to have their own inner pain soothed away? Do they tell the other not to cry to prevent their own pain being awoken? Furthermore, being told not to cry might seem like a comfort but it also denies a person the validity of their own feelings; it can easily shut them down as the message they hear is that crying isn’t OK.
People horrified by emotional release probably aren’t heartless but they do seem alienated from all feelings, their own included. What is it in their history that created feelings so unbearable that they were forced to hide them away and made them unable to tolerate the feelings of others?
And if the companion cries alongside their distressed friend? It could simply be deep empathy or it could be that their own personal unhappiness is so close to the surface that it takes only a small trigger for that pain to be expressed.
The quiet witness might seem rather distant or even voyeuristic but you’ll have guessed that this is how a therapist will sit with distressed people. We do this because we believe that unhappiness needs to be expressed unhindered. We witness and take seriously a person's grief and sadness and we don’t attempt to stem their emotional outpouring either with words or with physical contact. It’s important that the people we see know that we don’t need protecting from the emotions that overwhelm them. This may be the first time that a client has experienced this kind of gentle strength and the freedom it can bring.
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