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Someone once told me, “If I needed to have a hard conversation with you I would do it in public so you couldn’t get too upset.” We then proceeded to have a hard conversation. I shed some subtle tears, swallowing most of my feelings, composing myself at each sentence. The reality is that it doesn’t matter if I am in public or at home, I can’t always control if I am going to get upset.
One of the reasons I find crying in public alarming is that I become hyper-aware of how my body is occupying the space it is in. Like stepping into a bath and feeling the water shift. It’s always easier to keep my emotions at home where they are safe and I am safe. When I am crying alone I can forget about my body and burrow inward. It’s harder to forget about your physicality and retreat into your head when you are out in the open, because you are sharing space with strangers.
As a kid I found it easier to cry in public. My sadness didn’t really belong to me then; it belonged to my caregivers, they were the ones who had to take responsibility for it. My caregivers’ reaction to my sadness would indicate if I was okay. If I fell over and they laughed, I would laugh; if I grazed my knee and they fussed, I would cry; if they told me how brave I was being, I would be brave. I hadn’t yet learnt how to manage my own emotions.
I was about six years old the first time I became acutely aware of myself crying. I thought I was alone; I was deep in my head and mumbling melodramatic statements to myself. I vividly remember exclaiming, “Nobody loves me!” My mum happened to be around the corner, her totally reasonable response was to utter, “Oh shut up,” which brought me forcefully back to earth and back into my body. I froze up, embarrassed, aware of my mum’s presence, totally aware of my physicality.
The second time I remember being aware of my own body in this way was when my Poppa died. I felt uncomfortable in my skin at the hospital as I cried, exceedingly aware of each movement I made, wanting to go and stand by my mum, but not knowing how to move my body in a way that felt natural to get over to her. When I got home I sat on the couch and cried while cuddling my cat, until he uncooperatively peed on me. I wanted to settle in a nest inside my head and ignore my body, but I couldn’t because I needed to change my cat pee pants.
I have become more and more aware of my body as I have grown. I find it hard to be vulnerable in public spaces, but sometimes I can’t make it home to cry. Sometimes I have put on a brave face and go out even though I am feeling heavy. But sometimes the heaviness hits me halfway through the day and I realise I have five hours until I can go home to do those shuddery breaths in my bed. So I just have to cry out in the open, and it doesn’t actually matter. Most people don’t care that you are crying. Realising this was heartbreaking, grounding, and liberating.
Here are some things I have learnt from crying in public, and listening to stories of others’ experiences. This will hopefully be a helpful guide if you ever find yourself about to do the same.
Physically you will be squeezing your body really tight. You start to sweat and hold your breath and clench your teeth. This will give you a headache. When you try to stop yourself from crying you often start thinking about how you are being so brave and so strong holding it together, and how you are really just so sad right now, and you feel even sadder for trying to bury those feelings. You want to be in control of your body, but your eyes will well up, and you can’t push the tears back down.
If you do really need to postpone the cry, here are some ways that, with extreme willpower, may help you to rein yourself in. You can try looking up, using cold sensations, and pinching yourself softly to try to stop crying. Shaking out your hands and focusing on your breathing and occupying your brain with a physical task are ways to try and gain control. If you feel it coming anyway, try and find a comfortable space to be in. Being by nature is nice; you can romanticise your problem by looking at the ocean or a lovely big tree, but then feel small again by thinking about nature and the size of the world or universe. Toilets are also great because as soon as you get that latch closed you can be alone; the access to tissues is also a benefit. Walking around is helpful if you are worried someone will try to talk to you. If you can’t find a space, or are stuck in one area, then choose a spot to look at, and keep your eyes on it, study that space and let it feel safe.
You can spill over.
It’s probably going to last longer than you think and definitely longer than you want.
People will probably ignore you, not notice, or give you a sympathetic smile. If they do talk to you, they might say something like “don’t cry” or “why are you crying?” or “are you alright?” These questions are equally comforting and frustrating — try not to worry too much about responding in the “right” way.
What is comforting to know is that people cry in public all the time, so here are some snippets of other people’s experiences, for solidarity:
I kinda just turned around and faced a bush, and just wanted to have a big cry but couldn’t so just had a little frustrated cry facing the bush. — Teresa Collins
I think I’d feel better if I didn’t get so sniffly, like if snot wasn’t involved at all, that’d be ideal. — Anon
Often I need to go to playground to swing on swings until I stop crying, this happened last week and took 1.5 hours… I don’t pretend I don’t cry. Crying is such a big part of my life that I find it part of my identity as an emo. — Alexa Casino
I went into the bathroom first and did the classic, looking at myself in the mirror, looking at how sad I looked and how my face was a true manifestation of my feeling, and obviously that was the worst way to try and compose myself. — Anon
I used to have the city clocked with where the nearest public toilet was because that was where I could cry. But now I’m just like, a tear is a tear is a tear… emotions happen whether John Smith finds it awkward or not. — Bianca Daniel
I definitely pretend it’s not happening! Like nothing to see here, just a gal on a bus! That way no one will be kind and embarrassing. — Anon
I didn’t want to be anywhere because that would mean I would just be crying somewhere else, so I just went where I would feel the least embarrassed. — Anon
You will look like you have been crying and you might start to think about whether it’s better to pretend you are high or have just had an allergy attack, rather than be honest about the fact that you have been crying.
If you feel like you need to carry on with your day, here are some tips to keep going:
- Get hydrated — you have just leaked a lot of fluid so put it back in your body.
- Physical contact with water can be grounding. It will make you feel clean and less salty, even if it doesn’t completely take away the puffiness. Press cold water to your eyes and face.
- Blow your nose, and stash some extra tissues in your bag or pocket.
- If you stand up straight and pull your shoulders back it can help you feel stronger.
- Telling jokes and using humour can be ways of gaining control over your body again. It can break the tension and it can be cathartic to laugh.
Let someone know you are having a hard time. The university has free counseling services if you have no one around you who you feel comfortable talking to. Crying in public is normal, your emotions are always valid, and being vulnerable in public does not make you weak.
A puffy face is still a brave face.