Crying in public happens. For example, sometimes you are in a store, and the tears just start coming. A small child standing nearby says to her mom, “why is that lady crying?” which makes you cry harder. You then look at your full cart, assessing how quickly you can get out of the store. Thinking you can’t possibly face the checkout line, you abandon your cart and leave the store, worrying that you’re losing your mind.
And when I say “you,” I mean me.
“Sometimes” means just the other day.
And “store,” means the Target in Towson, Maryland. In the sock aisle, to be specific.
Let me explain.
One of my best friend’s moms was diagnosed with cancer this past summer. I grew up with this friend; we went to college together, she sang at my dad’s funeral, and I was a maid of honor at her wedding. We have one of those friendships that makes you realize the limitations of language: she’s a friend who’s essentially family, and clearly, there should be a word for that.
And as long as I’ve known this friend, I’ve known her mom. And she is the type of mom who everyone loved growing up. Her house was your house. When you wanted to spend the night, get pizza, or watch movies, the answer was always yes. You could always tell her the truth. She was always there, always supportive, like family.
And then she had cancer, just like that. Two months and it was too late. September brought hospice, and a week later, she died.
When she was first diagnosed, I took a care basket to the hospital filled with anything I could think of to make the hospital more comfortable – socks and magazines, chapstick, and a pillow. The care basket was July. The funeral was in September. And it was December when I walked into the same Target where I created that care basket.
It was the holidays, so I had a long list of things I needed, and I was in a hurry. One of the last things on my list was tights, so I walked into the sock aisle. I scanned the sock aisle, and I froze. I was staring at the same sock display I had stood in front of months before when picking out hospital care-package socks.
It was suddenly wholly surreal. All that had happened over the last few months hit me at once. First, there was cancer, but there was also hope. Next, there was surgery, but then no hope. Finally, there was hospice and the funeral. And now here we are again, in the sock aisle.
It felt impossible that so much had happened, a beautiful life had left this world, and yet, the same stupid, ugly neon socks were still sitting on the shelf. So despite my intense desire not to, I started to cry. In Target. In the sock aisle. During the holidays.
Crying in public–it happens!
Now, you may be thinking, isn’t this woman a mental health professional?!? And she is having meltdowns in public places? And she’s posting about it on the Internet? Is she nuts? Yes, yes, yes, and NO.
Crying in public does not make me unstable, and admitting to it, doesn’t make me nuts. I’m posting about this because this is an extremely common occurrence, and it doesn’t do any good to keep our mouths shut about it. Silence only contributes to the notion that people should hide their grief and reinforces a culture that causes people to feel embarrassed for shedding tears in front of others.
This, in turn, causes some people to believe they need to avoid certain places because they worry they will experience difficult emotions and possibly cry. And it exacerbates people’s feelings of shame and embarrassment about expressing their grief.
So, let’s get a few things straight:
- Crying is normal.
- Emotions are good (even the bad ones).
- Everybody cries sometimes.
- Most people have cried in public.
- Crying in public doesn’t mean you’re crazy.
- Sometimes crying in public, once you get over feeling mortified, can be liberating.
Don’t believe me on that last one? Check out Jillian Lauren’s great article on Huffington Post, Crying in Public: Is it Really a Problem? in which she embraces her own experiences with tears in cafés. Need more proof that people are crying in public left and right, and it isn’t all that bad? Check out the New York Times Opinionator post by Melissa Febos, Look At Me, I’m Crying.
The bottom line is that grief triggers can be anywhere when you’re grieving. You can’t always anticipate the things that will set off your emotions. It can be a song playing in the elevator, a family you see playing in the park, a comment from a co-worker, or the sock aisle at Target.
You can’t always plan for what will set off your emotions. It can be a song playing in the elevator, a family you see playing in the park, a comment from a co-worker, or the sock aisle at Target. Can it be embarrassing? Sure. It’s also a reminder that you aren’t always as in control as you may wish you were.
At WYG, we always support embracing emotions rather than suppressing them. So I would love to say that when these situations arise, you should take a time out from life, grab your journal or call a friend, and start sorting through some of those emotions. But we know you have busy lives, and you sometimes have to get through the grocery list without pausing to process your emotions. You need to get a handle on the situation in the short term. So how do you cope when a mini-meltdown catches you off guard?
Crying In Public Like a Rockstar: Tips and Tricks
1) Anticipate (if you can). This is a big if. As mentioned above, these triggers often catch us off guard. But if you know something may be a trigger for you and you don’t want to end up with mascara streaming down your face, make a plan to manage your environment. This may be an escape plan, or a friend you are going to lean on, or straight up avoidance. I lost my dad. Father-daughter dances at weddings are a sob-fest for me and I know it. So what do I do? Shamelessly head to the bathroom as soon as a father-daughter dance is about to start.
2) Don’t panic. Easier said than done, I know. When you can feel yourself starting to well-up in front of your co-workers or your child’s teacher it is hard not to panic. But panic can actually make the tears come faster and more forcefully. When you notice the feeling that you may cry try to slow things down. Notice the feeling, take a breath, and move on to some of the next steps. It is important to note that this is not about tensing up to avoid the tears, but noticing the feeling of tears coming, acknowledging and accepting it, and starting some relaxation techniques to calm down and slow the tears down.
3) Breathe. Seriously, we say it all the time because it is true. Well-timed deep breathing is a tried and true technique for controlling the tears until you get somewhere you feel more comfortable. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths through your nose and into your abdomen. Focus as intently as you can on the breaths and relaxing your face and shoulders. Reducing some of the physical tension you are feeling can help ease the tears. Focusing on your breathing and counting your breaths can also serve as a distraction.
4) Take a step back. Along with noticing your breath, notice what has triggered this emotion. This can be really hard to do in the moment, but very effective in the long-term. Identifying and considering the thoughts behind your emotions can help you better understand your grief and, in the future, anticipate the crying in public potential. My Target-sock-meltdown had nothing to do with socks. The social worker in me forced myself to breathe and reflect in that moment. It clearly wasn’t about the socks. It was about so many other things, things I had been avoiding because I had been too busy trying to support my friend.
5) Go somewhere private. If you are around friends, family, or colleagues, make up whatever excuse you need – you need to use the bathroom, make a phone call, throw up, whatever. Then book-it to a private spot. Let’s be honest, the bathroom is usually a surefire place to get some alone time. You will not be the first or last person to shed some tears in a bathroom stall. Your office, car, or any old empty room always works.
6) Go to your “happy place”. I know, I know, this sounds totally cliché. But when we are trying to calm down, visualization exercises can really help ease anxiety and shift our mood. How do you do it? Keep up those deep breaths. Concentrate on them and begin counting them. Imagine yourself somewhere calm and peaceful – a quiet beach, a stream in the woods, or even just a room that you feel at peace in. Imagine yourself in whatever your happy place may be. Focus on imagining the sights, sounds, and smells.
7) Smile. The clichés just keep coming, but this one is legit too! Smiling, even when you don’t mean it, has been linked to the release of endorphins and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that boosts our mood). Forcing yourself to smile can actually make you feel a little more like smiling (or, at the very least, a little less like crying). It has to be a big smile though, that shows your teeth and uses your cheeks. Check out more about smiling here if you’re interested.
8) Be honest. If you start to cry in front of friends, co-workers, or family they may want to support you (heck, sometimes strangers will even start offering support!). Don’t be afraid to tell them whether you’re open to support or if you need a little space. Because we all work so hard to avoid emotions we don’t always know how to support each other. So you need to tell people what you need. If someone says something really dumb when they are trying to help (which inevitably someone will) try not to hold it against them.
9) Don’t worry about what people think. If people see you cry, worrying about what they are thinking can just make you more upset. When you find yourself worrying about what other people think, use some good old-fashioned self-talk – everyone cries, everyone has gotten emotional in public, tears are normal and natural, those who care about me will understand and support me. If you are surrounded by strangers, even better! Remind yourself of all of the above, and then also add that you will never see these people again, so who cares what they think! In fact, seeing you cry in public may even make them feel a little more normal next time they get emotional in public. So think of it as your good deed for the day!
10) Play some happy music. We just posted on music as something that can have a real impact on your mood. Keep a playlist or CD of songs that cheer you up handy on your phone, computer, mp3 player, in your car, etc. Play to it when you need to cheer up and pull yourself together. Taking a break and listening to a happy song can sometimes be enough to regroup, wipe your tears, and go back to working, shopping, socializing, or whatever else you were doing. Check out our grief playlist post.
11) Make yourself pretty again. This is not about vanity. There is a practical purpose to wiping your tears. Once you have regrouped, someone asking you if you’re okay or what’s wrong can be a trigger to restart the waterworks. The less you look like you have been having a meltdown, the more confident you will feel and the less likely you are to have to field questions. If you are one of those people who looks perfect as you shed glistening tears, grab a tissue and get back to your day. If you are like me, getting your puffy eyes and blotchy face under control may take a little more work – cool water or a cool paper towel can help with the red puffiness, or a make-up touch-up and eyedrops if you are someone who carries items in your purse.
12) Make time to address the issue. When you are able to stop, control, suppress, or otherwise limit a cry-fest it can be tempting to avoid it forever. But spending some time in the privacy of home thinking about, talking about, journaling about, drawing about, photographing about, singing about, or otherwise exploring whatever led to your public tears is an important part of accepting, acknowledging, and coping with emotions. Make sure you take some time to reflect.
13) When all else fails, keep sunglasses on hand. Rockstars aren’t the only people who can wear sunglasses indoors.
Have a tip for coping with the dreaded public-meltdown? Please share! Leave a comment.