Sometimes you are in a store and you start to cry, uncontrollably. A small child standing nearby says to her mom “why is that lady crying”, which only makes you cry harder. You then look at your very full cart, assessing how quickly you can get out of the store. You realize you can’t possibly face the checkout line. You abandon your cart, leave the store, and feel like you’re losing your mind.
And when I say you I mean me. And when I say sometimes I mean this past December and when I say a store I mean the Target in Towson, Maryland . . .in the sock aisle. Let me explain . . .
In the middle of this past summer, my friend’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. Not just any friend, but one of my best friends. We grew up together. We went to college together. She sang at my dad’s funeral. I was maid of honor at her wedding. She is one of those friends that makes you realize the limitations of language – a friend who is like family, and clearly, there should be a word for that. Her mom was one of those moms everyone loved. Her house was your house. When you wanted to spend the night, the answer was always yes. When you wanted to get pizza and 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 her a care basket to the hospital filled with anything to make the hospital more comfortable – socks and magazines, chapstick, and a pillow. The care basket was July. The funeral was in September. It was December that I walked into the same Target where I created that care basket. I had a long list of things I needed. I was in a rush. It was the holidays. I was almost done shopping when I walked into the sock aisle because I needed tights. Gray tights. I scanned the sock aisle and I froze. I was staring at the same sock display I had stood in front of months before, trying to pick out hospital care-package socks. Same display, same socks. It was suddenly completely surreal. All that had happened since then hit me at once – there was cancer but there had been hope, the surgery and then no hope, then hospice and the funeral, then life again. It felt impossible that all that had happened and somehow those same stupid, ugly neon socks were still there. She was gone and the same socks were still on the shelf. So I did the only thing I could do. I started to cry. In Target. In the sock aisle. During the holidays.
Now, you may be thinking, isn’t this woman a mental health professional?!? She is having meltdowns in public places? And she is posting about it? On the internet? Is she nuts? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and NO. Crying in public does not make me nuts, or you nuts, or anybody else nuts. And neither does talking about it
Why am I posting about this? Because the best of us cry, and sometimes we do it in public. It doesn’t do any good to keep our big mouths shut about it, because that just creates the same culture of hiding our grief that has caused so many people to feel the need to stifle their emotions. It reinforces a culture that causes us to fear the possibility of shedding a tear in front of others. It breeds our need to avoid certain places that we worry will cause us to well up with tears, even when it is somewhere we may really want to go or need to go. It exacerbates our feelings of shame and embarrassment about expressing our grief. 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 when we are grieving tear triggers can be anywhere. We can’t always plan for what will set off our 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. It sucks, it can be embarrassing, and it reminds us that we aren’t always as in control as we wish we were. We could pretend like it is never an issue, but if we don’t face the reality that tears will sometimes show up without invitation we will only be more flustered and panicked when it happens.
At WYG, we always support embracing emotions rather than suppressing them. I would love to say when these situations arise take a time-out from life, grab your journal, and start sorting through some of those emotions. That being said, we have real jobs and real lives and know that you sometimes have to get through the work-day or the grocery list and tears aren’t an option. You need to get the crisis under control in the short-term. So how do you cope when you are caught off guard by a mini-meltdown?
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. 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!). If you want their support, tell them. If you just want to be alone, tell them. 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. If 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.
Worried that your crying is not normal and your grief may have crossed into the complicated realm? Check out our post on normal grief vs complicated grief. Just looking for some general tips on taking care of yourself when overwhelmed by the emotions of grief? We have a self-care post too.
Have some tips for coping with the dreaded public-meltdown? Please share! Leave a comment.
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