The other night, I fell down the stairs. Not the whole flight, but the last four gray-slate stairs in the main lobby of the athletic club where I teach yoga. I was fully dressed and in view of at least three people when I tripped over my own boots, breaking my fall with my shins and hands. After the stars stopped swirling and the pain kicked in, I stood up, put on a brave smile and told the wincing front desk staff that I’d be okay. Then I limped out into the dark and, when it felt safe, I started to cry.
The whole experience was a bizarre emotional gauntlet. The fall was painful and humiliating, but the crying was perhaps the most foreign feeling. How long had it been since I had cried? I thought back to the difficult periods of the last several years: an emergency room visit, a random panic attack. There weren’t many instances, but the handful of cries I could recall struck, I realized, at moments when I felt a total loss of control. That is, extraordinary loss of control. No PMS cries, no marital fight cries, no professional frustration cries – I don’t even think I cried during my terribly botched natural childbirth. Clearly, I had rules for crying. Rules that speak volumes about my comfort level with my own image of wellness.
The (no) crying game
Despite the fact that crying is proven to relieve stress by releasing toxic hormonal buildup in the tear ducts, I had personal crying criteria. Crying in public was out of the question. Crying over misunderstandings with friends was a waste of time. Crying over family issues was a sign of giving up. Crying for no reason was just weird. My rules for crying had as much do to with a stiff-upper-lip attitude as it did with the confusion I felt post-cry.
I’m not the only one suffering from too-stringent rules for crying. For decades, men have been told by fathers and coaches never to cry in public. But now it seems more women have joined the ranks of the reluctant when it comes to crying, too. The stigma of crying in public carries with it weakness, or worse, incompetence. On some level, I, too, believe this. It’s okay to be vulnerable in private, but I should be able to restore my own sense of balance without embarrassment.
After I exited the athletic club and bawled my way to the parking garage, I sat alone in the car, utterly exhausted. Did crying change my situation? Did it make my bruised bones ache less? Soothe my ego? No, no and no. But after a moment, crying did introduce an odd calm. My breath deepened. My skin felt more sensitive to my clothes and the cool autumn air. I almost felt good.
The Buddhist philosopher Osho points out that the peace, silence and wellness associated with deep laughter are also secret benefits of crying, but are mostly unknown due to crying’s cultural repression. While crying didn’t necessarily inspire the calm of healing or resolution, I felt the calm of awareness – and acceptance – of my vulnerability. I was relieved to know I could get hurt and still be myself. I could let go and somehow feel more whole.