That awkward moment when you feel a lump bubble up in the back of your throat, but you couldn’t actually cry if someone paid you to. It makes no sense that you can be so good at crying sometimes (breakups, graduations, any episode of This Is Us) and totally dry at others. Staring at the box of tissues and asking, “Why can’t I cry?” Therapists tell Bustle that there are often complex reasons why you can't cry — and while they can be physical, they often have to do with one’s emotional state, beliefs about crying and vulnerability, or past traumas.
To answer the burning question we’ve all had at some point, it's not technically possible for humans to run out of tears, even after a lengthy crying jag. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, people produce around 15 to 30 gallons of tears per year, the majority of which are designed to lubricate our eyes or flush out harmful materials. The eye needs to remain constantly wet to work properly, so your tear-producing glands are on full alert at all times. That said, people produce fewer tears as you age, and there are various eye surgeries and medical conditions that can inhibit the tear ducts. Inflammation, certain medications like antidepressants and hormonal birth control, eyelid disorders, and diabetes have all been shown to impede tear production and produce dry eye.
But if there’s no medical condition on the books and you still can’t seem to raise a tear, experts tell Bustle there may be psychological reasons for your dry cheeks.
Why People Cry In The First Place
A 2015 overview of emotional crying — meaning, not the crying you do when you stub your toe — published in Emotional Review found that there are a lot of reasons for people to cry, and also a lot that make them hold back. Both positive and negative emotions can spark crying, but all criers are also not created equal. Your crying frequency — how often you tear up — may be higher if you’re really empathetic, and also, weirdly, if you’re dating somebody. The 2015 analysis notes that a bunch of studies have found people are more likely to cry if they’re in relationships, or just around other people. This is probably because crying is partly an evolutionary signal of distress, designed to make others help us. Crying alone is (obviously) a thing, but you might be more likely to bawl at a movie you’re watching with similarly weeping besties. Rewatching it later solo? Not so much.
While some people cry at the drop of a hat, others may not respond to emotional stimuli in the same way. Ad Vingerhoets, PhD, a professor at Tilburg University and a clinical psychologist who has researched crying extensively, noted that people may cry less than others for several emotional reasons. Infrequent criers may experience fewer intense emotional events in their lives, look at these emotional events differently, or are simply more able to control their tears. Infrequent crying doesn't mean that you're a monster; it means that your emotional register of crying-worthy events may differ from other people.
Why Can’t I Cry?
You're probably wondering why there are some times that you just can't cry even though you really want to. If physical issues with the tear glands aren't the issue, the source of crying difficulties likely lies somewhere else — and it's very common. "As a therapist, I have heard this statement many times from my patients over the years," psychotherapist Annie Wright, LMFT, tells Bustle. Depression can be a factor, as it can cause people to experience emotional changes. Clinical depression, Wright says, can come with "a flattened affect that doesn't allow people to physically feel their feelings (despite a mental conception that they should feel sad)". This challenges a myth about depression — that it just means feeling sad all the time — when, in reality, some people with depression don't connect with their emotions at all. A 2002 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that people who are depressed don’t actually cry more often than people who aren’t, but they might not get the same benefits from crying, like catharsis or feeling a sense of clarity after.
In some cases, even identifying the urge to cry can be a challenge. Psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, L.C.S.W, tells Bustle that emotional crying requires being in touch with your feelings, and people who repress or disconnect from their emotions may not recognize their internal triggers for tears. "We may not realize that we’re sad, because we are not attuned to our emotions," she says. "We may know that something uncomfortable is going on within, but not be able to label it as sadness."
The Psychological Reasons People Avoid Crying
Some people may struggle with crying because of internalized shame about tears. "If we believe crying is a healthy, useful, natural, appropriate relief of emotional tension, we might let the tears flow," Koenig tells Bustle. "If we believe people who cry are 'weak,' that it’s scary being vulnerable, and that it’s shameful to cry, we are likely to inhibit a crying response." People can absorb these notions about crying during childhood, from their parents and other adults around them. "Many trauma survivors have difficulty crying because they were shamed when they cried, so now they view it as maladaptive," Koenig tells Bustle. If you have a relative or role model who always held in their sadness and very rarely cried, or were always told off when you cried yourself, this may influence your crying behavior in adulthood.
Inhibitions about crying can also be influenced by cultural beliefs, Wright tells Bustle. If you come from a social background or culture where crying is not viewed as acceptable, you'll likely struggle to express yourself through crying when you’re feeling your feelings. Social taboos around men crying, for instance, can make men hesitant to express vulnerability or negative emotions via a good cry. Tears express vulnerability, so if we're in situations where we're afraid to be vulnerable, we may find ourselves scared to cry despite strong emotional reasons to do so.
What To Do If You Can’t Cry
Koenig and Wright advise going to a therapist if your inability to cry is stressing you out even more. "There are often complex reasons why someone might experience an inability to cry, and it behooves anyone who is experiencing this to first get an exam from their primary care physician to rule out any underlying physiological causes," Wright tells Bustle.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Annie Wright L.M.F.T., psychotherapist
Karen R. Koenig L.C.S.W, M.Ed, psychotherapist
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