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To cry or not to cry

Huzaima Bukhari

“We don’t train boys to have vocabulary around their emotions beyond anger”Fredric Rabinowitz

The last couple of centuries have witnessed a plethora of literature on feminism, gender specific roles, advantages and disadvantages of being a man or a woman, typical attributes of males and females, how they should behave, what activities are suitable to a particular gender, whether both should be viewed equally or must there be some form of discrimination and if there are biases these ought to be removed, concept of patriarchal and matriarchal societies etc. In recent times, inter-sexual and transgender population has also been recognized expanding the scope to go beyond just male and female debates. Acknowledging the significance of this topic, the academia too has introduced gender related departments in almost all the leading universities. Researchers continue to examine physiology, psychology and abilities of sexes so as to investigate pre-conceived notions passed on from generation to generation and in this process have busted many myths hovering around for ages that have ridiculously hidden the truth until now.

The reality is that end of the day, males, females and members of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (or Questioning) popularly known as LGBTQ are all human beings having both physical and emotional needs. They are all, in majority cases, instinctively inclined towards similar reactions when confronted with certain situations. For example, laughing at a joke, whimpering in pain, feeling anxious when in trouble, frowning or showing anger when things go against their wishes, being upset or sad on a tragic incident, so on and so forth. A casual observer can hardly find a remarkable difference in the way these expressions manifest themselves on human beings. This basically reinforces the idea that gender hardly has any impact on the way people react under various circumstances.

Another extremely delicate scenario is where emotions are pent up inside and keep building up until someone bursts out in frenzy and behaves in an unimaginable manner not befitting his/her stature. Just like the steam in a pressure cooker is gently released to prevent an explosion, likewise humans also need to vent themselves to avoid turning into monsters to hurt themselves and those around them. As Sigmund Freud says: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”. However, Bertrand Russell maintains a more balanced tone when he opines thus: “The degree of one’s emotions varies with one’s knowledge of the facts”. Again, the purpose of this discourse is that emotions play a pivotal role in the lives of people.

One of the characteristics associated with emotional display is the act of weeping, silently with just tears streaming out, bawling, wailing or sobbing. “Do not apologize for crying. Without this emotion we are only robots,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2006 memoir, “Eat, pray and love” proving the point that like ‘to err is human’, so is crying. Psychologists have listed many benefits of this function although some people, especially males, suppress tears considering them a sign of weakness and a feminine trait.

One can find in the list of advantages of crying, soothing and calming effects as a 2014 study explains how crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to relax; induces support from others; releases oxytocin and endorphins, chemicals that enable people feel good, relieves pain and lifts up the mood; contains hormones that discharge toxins that in turn reduce stress although this aspect requires further scientific investigation for confirming the idea; helps people, particularly babies, go to sleep; kills bacteria, cleansing the eyes as tears contain a fluid called lysozyme. Continuing with benefits of shedding tears one must understand that humans produce three types of tears which can be categorized as basal—protein-rich antibacterial liquid that keeps eyes moist on blinking whereas dryness in eyes can lead to blurry vision; reflex—triggered by irritants as wind, smoke etc. that protect the eyes; and emotional—as perceived by us all.

Crying, when juxtaposed to social norms, is essentially considered okay for females but discouraged in males across the world. Men who weep are mostly labeled as being sissy, having no control over their emotions. Parents usually teach their sons to avoid shedding tears, think like a ‘man’ and make arrangements for alternatives in case of crisis. In other words, they force the boys to develop enough physical and emotional strength to keep crying at bay. From a young age they are taught to curtail or even ignore their emotions in relationships. Elaborating on the subject, Andrew Reiner a teacher at Towson University and author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency explains how these teachings adversely affect men’s own well-being and relationships’ health.

He talks about the common myth that men are wired differently from women therefore their emotional needs are also separate which is nothing but fallacy. He mentions a study published in Nature saying that men’s and women’s emotions are, as one of the researchers put it, “clearly, consistently and unmistakably more similar than they are different.”

Fredric Rabinowitz, chair of the psychology department at the University of Redlands in California, whose research and private practice focus on men’s mental health thinks that because many boys are raised to believe that deeper emotions are separate to their being, it morphs into “unprocessed trauma” so when men lack emotional language, they cannot explain what they are feeling. The inability to translate emotions in words leads to broken relationships, and while some men find it convenient to escape leaving behind their responsibilities which of course is detrimental for families, others may react by taking to addiction or even suicide. The problem further deepens when they harbor the misconceived idea that a verbal expression may perhaps result in their losing a mate or spouse but then considering the nature of their indoctrination, this could be a justified thought. 

Research shows that restraining negative emotions can worsen mental health, increase anxiety that eventually causes decline in physiological health. This could also be the reason that compared to women, more men suffer from strokes and heart failure. Therefore the upshot of this entire exercise is that crying is not a female specific attribute but important for all genders.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)

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