You Need Help: You Cry Much More Than You’d Like To and Feelings Are Really Hard

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Q: I cry much more than I’d like to and at very inauspicious times. I feel like sometimes the way I handle myself and my feelings (which I tend to not even understand) is a stress on my relationship(s). I don’t really want to go to therapy, but I’m sick of the state of my mind and thoughts and emotions. I often get the urge to shrivel up and die. I don’t know what my question is. Help?


A: Well buttercup it sounds like you are very overwhelmed! Feelings are overwhelming things. But it’s really great that you’re looking into how to deal, because some people go their whole lives without figuring out what to do with their feelings or how to keep their emotional landscape from negatively impacting their relationships, so give yourself a high five and make yourself a grilled cheese for that.

Your intuition about going to a therapist is a solid one — I’ve been lucky to be able to get therapy in the past and it’s been really helpful for me, and I do think that seeing a qualified professional if you’re not sure how to deal with feelings, especially negative ones, is a really really good idea. Even if you don’t really feel into therapy or think of yourself as the kind of person who sees a therapist, it can still be hugely beneficial, sort of like how going to the gym is still good for your health even on days when you don’t feel like going.

However! Therapy isn’t a viable option for a lot of us, for a lot of reasons, and I get that. And some of us just aren’t ready to go yet, or may never be, even if we know it might be helpful. So without knowing exactly what’s on your plate or what specific strategies or interventions might be helpful for you, we can talk about some basic emotional how-to and stuff you can do to make being a human being who experiences emotions less of an endless hellscape. Unfortunately it’s probably not possible to figure out how to effectively cope with emotional distress in the space of one advice article — if that was possible therapy would be a way easier and more fun gig — but this can be a place to start. I’m not a therapist or a doctor; my expertise (“expertise”) here comes just from being a person who was, historically, terrible at dealing with having emotions, and now being a person who is less terrible at having emotions. *Law and Order sound* Here is that story.

What Even Are Feelings

I think it’s very astute, buttercup, that you note that you tend to not even understand your feelings. I think a lot of us, actually, are in this position — I know I spent years of my life stumbling around realizing “oh, I guess I’m crying now,” or “it appears I have suddenly stormed out of that room full of my friends,” and truly just having no idea why. Please don’t beat yourself up about this, because I think for a lot of us this lack of awareness was a survival mechanism; maybe we grew up in situations where if we had had to be fully aware of how not-good we felt, we would have been totally incapacitated and paralyzed, or we had to focus so much on other people’s feelings in minute detail so we could react to them and keep ourselves safe that we never had time for our own. But times have changed and now not knowing what you’re feeling is hurting rather than helping, so let’s work on that.

This is from Hyperbole and a Half's comic about depression, which is not technically what is under discussion here, but I think about these panels a lot

This is from Hyperbole and a Half’s comic about depression

The best way I know of to check in with how you’re feeling is to literally make yourself check in with it, in a regular and concrete fashion. For at least one week, here’s what I want you to do: Pick a period of time that seems bearable, like two or three hours, and every X amount of time I want you to stop what you’re doing for a second and write down what’s going on and how you’re feeling. It’s not like a whole big diary entry, just sort of like this:

4 pm At work, about to go to meeting. Hungry, think I might be getting a headache. Feeling bored and irritated.

Literally that’s it! It doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve got to start somewhere; getting into the habit of regularly checking in with yourself and asking “how am I feeling right now?” a few times a day can only help. Or! Maybe it sounds like too much, and you’re like “I just SAID I don’t know how I’m feeling, how can I possibly do this.” If you have to write down “???” or “nothing,” then that’s not the end of the world. Have faith that if you keep asking yourself what feelings you’re feeling right now, you will eventually be able to come up with a stab at answer.

You can do this with a physical notebook or online or on a cave wall or whatever you wish, but it’s good to do this somewhere where you can refer back to what you’ve written later on. If you don’t trust yourself to do this on your own or using a notebook seems corny, great news, there’s an app for that. I like to use Pacifica, which asks you periodically to tell it how you’re feeling and also does other neat stuff, like track things that make you feel less shitty (sleep, exercise), give you meditations if you want them, and optional “challenges” aimed at making you feel better. If that doesn’t sound like something you’re into, there are a million other mood apps. In Flow, iMoodJournal, and MoodPanda are just a few.

Feeling Your Feelings

Okay! So at this point, after a week of writing down your feelings, you are hopefully feeling a little more comfortable with the knowledge that you have them, and a little more aware of what they are. Now it’s time to just DIVE IN THERE. Well okay we’re not diving. Think of it kind of like getting into a pool — it feels really cold at first so maybe you just dangle your feet in first, then walk in up to your knees, and so forth. The point is that you need to practice intentionally experiencing your emotions, even if it has to happen in little bits at first.

I feel like at this point everyone always recommends meditation. Which is a great recommendation! Probably there is no one on earth who could not benefit from meditation. The benefits of meditation — more self-awareness, less anxiety, stronger reserves of calm and self to call upon throughout the day — seem endless. It’s absolutely worth looking into! But not everyone can or wishes to meditate, so let’s also talk about what it feels like (to me) meditation is intended to accomplish for people in this specific position and other ways to do that as well.

On a very fundamental level, what we’re talking about here is hanging out with yourself. That’s what meditation could be. You know how when you’re hanging out with your best friend you can just tell when something’s wrong, because of the way she’s talking or not talking or her body language or how often she’s checking her phone? The aim here is to hang out with yourself in the same way, and pay loving attention to your own state of mind in the same way.

Speaking strictly for me, I know that when I felt/feel overwhelmed by having emotions I didn’t know how to deal with, I would often try to distract myself. Answer email, play a game on my phone, take care of a task for work, plan dinner for tomorrow, clean the apartment, sometimes do all of those things at once. What we’re aiming for here is the exact opposite of that. Whether you’re sitting on a pillow counting your breaths or not, the goal is to resist the impulse to dive in and engage (whatever that looks like) and instead just be there for a second.

Here’s what this often looks like for me, if that’s helpful: I’ll notice that I’m doing something which seems to indicate A Feeling — you mention crying at inauspicious times, which I sometimes do, but at other times it’s snapping angrily at someone for something that’s really not a big deal, or indulging in an anxious physical tic like picking at my face, or engaging in some extreme act of procrastination, like looking up every single thing Madchen Amick’s ever acted in because I don’t want to deal with something else. When I realize I’m doing something that means Something Is Going On, I can go into the bedroom with the lights off and sit or lie on the bed and be quiet and still and notice the feeling I’m having for at least five or ten minutes. I’m not allowed to do anything else. If I’m sad, it’s just sitting there feeling sad. If I’m anxious, it’s just sitting there being anxious. There isn’t a step two. I notice what it feels like — if I want to cry, if I’m running a single irrational thought into the ground, if I’m physically uncomfortable or exhausted. And most importantly, I notice that the world didn’t end; nothing bad happened. I didn’t distract myself by cleaning the pantry or deciding to start finding a bunch of new food blogs to read; I just felt sad, and nothing bad happened. I survived it.

For people who intuitively know how to deal with emotions, this probably sounds dumb and lame! It’s useful, though: the first step in getting through, as you call it, “the urge to shrivel up and die” is to accept that even though they are sometimes terrible feelings will not actually make you shrivel up and die. They just happen, and you keep on living, and they keep on happening, and you keep on living, and that’s the way it works.

There are more active ways of doing this, too, which may sound less woo-woo and/or stupid to you. The obvious one is, of course, journaling — I KNOW that everyone always tells you to journal, but they’re right! Again, there are a zillion ways to do this, from paper and pen to a secret gmail account to an old-school livejournal. I’ve been very into 750 Words for a while now; it’s good for situations like this where you know that journaling would be good for you but have trouble getting into the journaling as such. It gives you a benchmark to hit each day, which is helpful because I find the longer you “have to” type for the more into your own stuff you end up getting, and the more obvious patterns and trends you can see. (For instance, I’ve noticed that when I’m stressed out I often end up typing out endless to-do lists or lots of sentences that start with “I should…” or “I need to…”, which now functions as kind of a tell for me.) And it can also analyze your writing and provide you with stats about it, which is useful if you’re trying to figure out how feelings work.

What I was thinking about on August 3, apparently

What I was thinking about on August 3, apparently

It’s useful to just write something; there are things you’re thinking that you aren’t even aware of until you tell yourself that you have to write down what you’re thinking, and then you might be amazed at what comes out. The idea here is that once you are at least marginally aware of their existence, you need to treat your feelings like a randomly assigned roommate that you have to live with indefinitely: make a point of hanging out with them even if you don’t totally feel like it all the time, because they’re not going anywhere and it will be a lot easier if you can at least be amicable. And to do that, you have to show up, and keep showing up, in an intentional way. I know! It sounds awful. Life is a box of chocolates, I don’t know what to tell you.

The Ball’s In Your Court Now, Kiddo

This is where we must part ways, buttercup, because you have graduated basic feelings training and no one knows more about this next part than you do. If you continue to do this stuff fairly regularly, you will a) have at least a ballpark estimate of what your feelings are and b) be able to experience having those feelings at least long enough to understand what’s going on. That doesn’t answer the question, though, of what to do about them; that’s because that’s such a personal question no article on the internet could ever figure it out for you in one fell swoop.

It’s on you to look at yourself and the tapestry of your life and figure out where the fault lines are, where the patterns have revealed themselves, and to get to know yourself well enough to figure out what to do. For instance, do you find yourself feeling anxious and self-loathing immediately before/after meetings with your boss? Ok, then that’s something you need to dig into and figure out whether you need to change something about those interactions, or she does, or what. Do you feel really hopeless when you and your partner fight about X but not about Y? Then you have to figure out what’s going on with X, whether there’s a different way to have a discussion about it, etc. This is where all your work on this comes in handy — when you have notes and journal entries for weeks and months and years, it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s going on in your head and what to do about it than when you’re just by yourself in the moment feeling alone in your apartment and you’re out of Fritos. Sometimes it’s terrifyingly simple — sometimes as soon as you let yourself realize something like “I’m really angry,” the reasons why and what you have to do about it are suddenly obvious (which can be even scarier; sometimes we avoid recognizing our own feelings because we’re afraid of acting on them).

I know this all sounds like it will be a lot of uphill work, and in some ways it is. It’s also a much more helpful and affirming process than it sounds. Did you ever play a sport, querent person, or try to improve at one? If you did, then you know that the secret isn’t necessarily in exhaustive studying or figuring out any secret formula. The secret is mostly showing up every single day, even when you’re tired or sore or hungover, and throwing the ball and catching the ball and whatever else. And even if you can’t put your finger on when it happened or how, and even though you don’t suddenly have access to some secret vault of knowledge that you didn’t previously, you realize at some point down the line that things have changed radically, and that you’re now actually pretty fucking good at this sport. That’s all I’m asking you to do: just show up for yourself, and try to figure it out every day that you can, and I promise that this will get easier, and that being you will get easier. I don’t know that I was 100% sure what your question was either but maybe this helped.

If you really do feel like you want to die, though, you really do need to see a doctor, or at the very least, reach out to a close friend or family member (if possible) or call a hotline. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255; the LGBT-specific Trevor Project lifeline is 866-488-7386, and you can also text or chat with someone if you’d prefer not to use the phone. The trans-specific Trans Lifeline, staffed by all transgender people, is (877) 565-8860 in the US and (877) 330-6366 in Canada. If you’re not in the US or Canada, you may be able to find a lifeline for you here. I’m not a doctor but it is possible you are suffering from depression or perhaps another condition — and let me again stress that I AM NOT A DOCTOR, but if doing all of this doesn’t get you anywhere, or if you find that it gets you somewhere but you need to get farther, you probably should seek one out. There are a few different databases for finding an LGBT-friendly therapist; hopefully one will help you find a mental health care provider that you feel comfortable with.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1073 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Um, this is the most magnificent primer on feelings ever.

    Being able to ask yourself what you’re feeling at any given moment, and why you’re feeling that way, is def not some sort of magical skill bestowed by fairy grandmothers. It takes practice and time, partcicularly with difficult feelings.

    Also, those charts from 750 words look awesome; I may finally have to join

  2. “Please don’t beat yourself up about this, because I think for a lot of us this lack of awareness was a survival mechanism; maybe we grew up in situations where if we had had to be fully aware of how not-good we felt, we would have been totally incapacitated and paralyzed, or we had to focus so much on other people’s feelings in minute detail so we could react to them and keep ourselves safe that we never had time for our own. But times have changed and now not knowing what you’re feeling is hurting rather than helping, so let’s work on that.”

    OMG THIS. THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS OUT LOUD (/on the internet)!

  3. i tried to take up journaling because i couldn’t figure out how i would feel numb a good chunk of the time and then when i do have to talk about things, I’m tearing up and stuff. kudos indeed to the poster putting in the time to gain some emotional maturity and inner insight cause it isn’t easy, haven’t figured it out myself

  4. I love when I pull up Autostraddle and there’s an article that is exactly what I need to read that day. Thank you Rachel for a push to actually think seriously about therapy and also some tangible ways to work on recognizing and feeling my feelings.

  5. This is such good advice! I’ve recently been in the most crying-episode-full time of my life and it took me a while to figure out what was going on and what to do about it… discovering this checking in on yourself business was a major breakthrough. I’m still perfecting the art, but since then I have been so much calmer in general and any meltdowns have been much less frequent and intense, and what’s more, if I’m crying now I probably know why! which is reassuring.

    It seems like when it comes to The Feelings, fear of the thing is worse than the thing itself, and if you just let em happen, they will move right on by and you can get on with the rest of your life! Brill!

  6. This is actually really cool. I consider myself to be pretty solid on dealing with my feelings but the apps you’ve mentioned sound really good for helping me be more aware of the patterns I go through. And it was also neat to see that even though “meditation” seems weird to me, the way you described it as “hanging out with yourself” is something I kind of already do so thanks for that perspective!

  7. Pacifica is great! I was going to recommend it if you didn’t.

    I’ve also found some self-help books really helpful, particularly Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff and Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman.

    But really, getting a good therapist has helped me more than anything else. Of course, FINDING a good therapist is another story entirely. I wish I could clone mine and put copies of her all around the world because she is great.

    For journalling, I’ve found having a time of day when I always write in my journal is really helpful. For me, that time of day is right before bed. I write down 3 worries, 3 responses to those worries, a tough moment I had during the day and how I dealt with it, a thing that I learned, and the people who loved me. Having a structure is helpful for me, and it might be for you too!

  8. A few thoughts that might not be helpful to the question-asker at all but they’re what came up for me:

    -I think for some people, crying is the default for any strong emotion (definitely for me). Sad, angry, frustrated? Cry. Really happy / excited? Cry. Laugh too hard? Cry (like it evolves into full-on sobs, not just tears from laughing). Great sex? Cry. This can be fairly alarming for other people until you explain that it’s just how your face works.

    -Whenever I have felt really awful and I don’t know why, it has almost always come down to one of two things: a) there is something going on subconsciously that I’m not acknowledging consciously, due to something like repression, social expectation / pressure, etc.; or b) hormones. I know that’s not a popular thing to say and I don’t at all mean to trivialize anything by saying it – in my experience, emotional episodes caused by hormone surges can be fucking awful. Learning to recognize them for what they are has actually helped me a lot.

  9. This was great, Rachel, thank you!

    (I’ve started doing morning pages–the longhand 750 words–and they’ve been helping me dump out brain clutter and things that make me feel too much before I start my day.)

  10. I focused on the ‘crying too often / at inauspicious times’ aspect of this because that’s a problem I share. I have always cried a lot and the inability to control it is a problem for me; for example I have had to leave work on several occasions b/c I couldn’t stop crying.

    I think the advice shared by Rachel sounds great for the long-term improvement in relationship between a person and their feels.

    But what about short-term fix? How do you stop a cry from happening in the moment? This column got me thinking how the advice to avoid crying jags was very different from advice someone would get to avoid a panic attack, but maybe there are potentially useful similarities between these two losses of emotional control (see below), and the tips for handling a panic attack in the moment might be helpful for managing crying, too.

    I’ve collected a few thoughts and theories over my lifetime of trying to be able to control when I cry, and I’m also very interested in what skills other ppl have.

    I don’t yet have a way to stop crying or prevent myself from starting crying, but the following things helped me feel less ashamed about it, and help me understand why it happens.

    1) Feelings evolved to protect us in life-or-death situations. They are connected to the fight-or-flight part of your brain, and are biologically designed to OVER-RIDE your brain’s logic systems. So, the inability to not be overcome by feelings just means that your brain is working the way it has evolved to; there’s nothing wrong with you and you are not childish/unprofessional/a sissy. Your brain is designed so that you can’t ‘think’ your way out of a crying spell.
    Ref: Grandin T, “Animals Make Us Human.”

    2) People with Asperger’s have symptoms that include being more susceptible to emotions (feeling them more strongly), and also less ability to regulate response to emotions (being ‘overcome’), compared to people who are neurotypical. Although I have not been diagnosed with Asperger’s, it made me feel better to know that there is probably natural variation in the human population to things such as emotional intensity and regulation, just as some ppl feel the cold more and are less able to auto-regulate their temp. I could really relate to this state of being more susceptible to emotions and less able to control my response, and it helped me feel less like it was a personal shortcoming than just a normal biological variation like hair color.

    3) There are ways to practice and improve the ability to calm yourself down; it’s a skill that you can develop and strengthen. For example, the vagus nerve can be stimulated by deep diaphramatic breathing. This will switch your brain over from fight-or-flight to healing-and-recovery systems (sympathetic to parasympathetic) and your ability to make the switch can be practiced and controlled, such as during corpse pose in yoga. This info gave me hope that over time I might improve at my ability to regulate my response to emotions, if not to control them. If I can’t ‘think’ my way out of a crying spell, maybe I can breathe my way out of it.

    Ref: http://breakingmuscle.com/health-medicine/the-vagus-nerve-an-unexpected-key-to-better-performance

    One thing I want to try is if the ‘grounding’ process that ppl can use to avoid a panic attack might also work for avoiding crying. For example, along with breathing, focus on seeing three round things, feeling two touch sensations, hearing one sound, and then starting over, can mitigate PTSD ‘flashbacks’ by putting the person in the moment. The last time I cried when it was important not to cry, it was because I was reliving a painful memory I associated with the work activity, so maybe grounding myself next time would help. Only helpful if someone is not trying to talk to you during a crying spell, so you can focus on the grounding exercise. At least it might help delay or reduce crying.

    4) Hormones def make it worse. This doesn’t mean that my feelings are invalid, but rather hormones exacerbate sensitivity to and inability to regulate response to emotions. Knowing this helps me plan ahead.

    5) Regular exercise seems to help act as a buffer. I still have the same thoughts and feelings, but they do not affect me as much.

    6) If I know ahead of time that I will have to have a difficult conversation and I don’t want to start to cry, I can try to practice. It’s very important to practice out loud and in front of a mirror / video if possible. Our brains respond to feelings a lot more if we can hear vocal timbre and see facial expression. It may seem easy to get through a convo if you’re only thinking it through / writing it down, but actually speaking the words out loud can drive you over the edge, so practice that part to be able to get through it.

    7) Biting my cheeks has never worked hah but it can make it less obvious to others that I’m crying, or delay the inevitable until I can have privacy.

    Ok Straddlers what are your thoughts / tips? Thank you.

  11. Is there a place to talk to people when you’re feeling down and you’re not feeling suicidcal but depressive. I try not to bother my close friends with this because we all have our own problems but I need to talk to someone and am not always able to reach people. Which leads to me ignoring things and letting them pile on. Can I just say you’re opening sentence made me cry, it was very sincere.

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