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What happened when I decided to let myself cry in public

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We need to stop being ashamed of showing our true feelings in public.

I was hanging out with my toddler at the playground when I noticed things were getting tense with the family on the other side of the swings. This first grader, who’d been having a great time, was not at all happy it was time to go. She sat herself down in the sand and started to cry. Her father tried a bribe or two, and finally said, “You want everyone to see you crying? Everyone can see you crying. You look like a baby!”

I flinched. Luckily, he didn’t see. I don’t want to come down too hard on that dad. Maybe he was just embarrassed and then regretted the response. But his point is dangerous and damaging — that crying shows weakness, that emotions ought to be hidden and we ought to be ashamed of them.

That’s because sadness, anger, and fear feel terrible. It’s not much of a leap to go from thinking, “I hate feeling sad” to “I shouldn’t feel sad. If I was stronger, I could turn this off.” What we’re left with, then, is a feeling of shame attached to our least favorite emotions. That’s when you start believing the sentiment that only babies cry, and adults who cry ought to at least hide it, if they can’t suppress it.

But the thing is, emotions are just part of how we react to the world. They’re not good or evil in and of themselves (whether or not we enjoy them). Their purpose is to give us information that we can take and use to make rational, informed choices.

If I discover that I’ve been lied to, I’ll feel angry — that’s part of how I understand I’ve been wronged. I can take that information and use it to forgive or lash out, but the anger in itself is just information. That girl who was disappointed because she didn’t want to leave the playground? Her sadness was just saying that she had been enjoying herself. Obviously, emotions aren’t a free pass to act however we want. We still need to use the information we get to help us react in a proportionate way, but the emotion itself isn’t to blame if we start attacking whoever angered us. That was a choice. The emotion itself was neutral, even if the expression of that emotion wasn’t.

Case in point: At church the other day, an older couple had had enough of our rambunctious toddler, and moved 10 pews up. It was so humiliating. I do cry in public fairly often — not by choice — but this time, I didn’t want to pile shame and self-reproach onto an already bad day. So I cried, but I didn’t duck down and hide my face like I usually do.

Let me tell you, it was a totally new experience. The biggest thing was how, when I wasn’t all caught up telling myself “I can’t believe you’re crying. You’re a grown woman! Grow up!” I was able to take the situation in much more calmly. I was able to say, “Yep, that made me feel judged, insecure, inadequate — and I hate that, but at least it’s no mystery why I feel this way. At the same time, can you really blame them if they just want to focus on the Mass with less commotion?”

I’d opened up all this mental space for myself — since I wasn’t expending all my energy trying and failing to turn the feeling off (and hating myself for failing), I had room to listen to what the emotion was saying.

I think I might stop trying so hard to hide my tears, for my own sake, and for society’s, too. You know how you’ll never teach body positivity to your kids if you’re constantly criticizing your own appearance? Same with the emotions. You can say, “It’s okay to show your feelings” till you’re blue in the face, but if you only ever show the happy, presentable side of your emotional spectrum to the outside world, that’s the message they’ll really be hearing.

I know I’m not the only one who’s regularly ashamed of normal human reactions. Maybe if enough of us find the courage to feel what we feel and not try to hide it, it will be easier for others to follow suit. Our emotions give us invaluable information, and the world might become a more rational place if we stop trying to drown them out and refuse to be ashamed of them.

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