Is crying truly cathartic?

Is crying truly cathartic?

We tend to think of crying as cathartic… yet that crying in public is a sign of weakness. But researchers have found that both of these beliefs are false.

When Theresa May announced in Downing Street that she would be standing down as British Prime Minister, it was her visible struggle to hold back tears that most captured the world’s headlines. Commentators were quick to observe that this emotional display had finally humanised a politician widely seen as remote and aloof. Others – even some of May’s critics – admitted to experiencing a jolt of sympathy.

It would appear that welling up in front of the cameras has had a largely positive impact on May’s reputation (though certainly not exclusively so). This response to such a public display of emotion may or may not come as a shock to you, depending on your own personal beliefs about crying – but, according to a group of psychologists at the University of Queensland, these beliefs may in turn shape your own crying tendencies and experiences.

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As Leah Sharman and her team write in their recent paper, “the frequency with which a person engages in crying, how they feel after crying, and whether crying helps them to cope with an emotional event” is “likely to be influenced by their beliefs and expectations about crying, the social context and past experience”.

Is crying truly cathartic?
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To begin exploring this possibility, Sharman and her team have devised the first ever standardised test of people’s crying beliefs. They first presented a small group of volunteers with open-ended questions like “what do you believe crying does for you when you are with others?”. From this they then created a pool of 40 potential questionnaire statements, ranging from “after crying, I feel an emotional release” to “crying around others makes me feel vulnerable”. Two groups of hundreds more online volunteers rated their agreement (or lack thereof) on a seven-point scale.

Sharman and her team deduced from the responses that there are three main types of beliefs about crying:

  • Crying in private is helpful: People whose beliefs fell into this category agreed with statements like “crying helps me when I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “in the long run, I know that I’ll feel better because I have cried”.
  • Crying in private is unhelpful: “Crying makes me feel worse when I’m alone”; “I feel worse immediately after I cry”.
  • Crying in public is unhelpful: “I feel ashamed when I cry around people who are not my friends or family members”; “I feel judged when I cry around co-workers”.

Sharman’s findings offer some of the first systematic evidence concerning people’s beliefs about crying (although worth noting that they are mostly the beliefs of white and Western people), as well as how these may vary according to factors such as an individual’s personality and gender.

Regarding whether crying privately is helpful, the study participants scored around the midway mark, on average, neither agreeing nor disagreeing strongly with this notion. Meanwhile, participants tended to disagree with the idea that crying in private is unhelpful (scoring around 2, on average, where 0 would be strong disagreement and 7 strong agreement). Putting the responses to these first two factors together, it would seem the participants’ belief in aggregate is that crying by yourself is unlikely to cause you much harm, and may even be helpful.

Is crying truly cathartic?
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Although a little lukewarm, this collective belief on having a weep in private mostly chimes with anecdotal accounts. For example, analysis by the US psychologist Randolph Cornelius of 72 popular media articles about crying, published over 140 years up to 1985, found that 94% presented crying as beneficial to wellbeing (his findings were presented to a conference in 1986, and have been cited many times since). Also, many famous scholars and physicians have made proclamations about the cathartic benefits of crying, such as Henry Maudsley (the British psychiatrist who lent his name to the South London hospital) who stated that “sorrows which find no vent in tears, may soon make other organs weep”.

But in their research, psychologists have largely found the opposite pattern – that far from being cathartic, crying often ends up making you feel worse.

Psychologists have largely found the that far from being cathartic, crying often ends up making you feel worse

For instance, a nightly diary study published in 2011 by Lauren Bylsma and colleagues found that people’s overall mood was worse than usual on days when they had cried, suggesting any cathartic effect was modest at best. It continued to be darkened for two days afterwards. Meanwhile crying while watching sad films has been associated with greater drops in mood. A more recent study of the “sad film” genre showed that while crying led to an initial deterioration of mood, it helped to improve mood 90 minute after a weep (a much longer delay than employed in earlier studies). But overall, the picture that emerges from most research is at odds with the popular belief that crying is cathartic.

Is crying truly cathartic?
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In terms of whether it is unhelpful to cry in public, Sharman’s survey found that participants’ averaged responses on the new scale again came in at around the mid-way mark. This ambivalence makes sense in light of research that’s shown the effects of crying in public can be complex – and differs according to gender. 

For instance, one 2016 study found that, overall, criers were judged as less competent than non-criers – and the loss of perceived competence was greater for men than women. (Participants were shown images of faces, not real people, to control for any real-life perceptions of character). But an attempt to replicate the findings in a second study by the same researchers failed to show conclusively that tearful individuals were perceived as less competent.

Other research has highlighted the importance of the social context too, with criers being judged more harshly when they break down at work, as well as when they are male instead of female. But the findings about gender are nuanced. Some research has suggested female employees who cry are especially likely to be perceived as being manipulative and soft, whereas other research has found the opposite – that it’s specifically tearful male workers who suffer negative consequences.

Is crying truly cathartic?
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It’s important to note, though, that women were seen as less competent than men no matter what they did. In the Tilburg University study and elsewhere, for example, women who didn’t cry were not only seen as being less competent than men who didn’t cry, but also less competent than men who did cry. 

Despite this, there is ample evidence to suggest that crying in public can have some benefits too. Crying can provoke emotional support from others – for instance, we’re quicker to deduce that crying faces are in need of support, and we’re more inclined to give support to criers. It seems in keeping with the largely sympathetic public response to Theresa May’s almost-tears.

Some intriguing differences between individuals also emerged from Sharman’s study. For example, people who were more in touch with their emotions, more emotionally expressive, and more reliant on others for emotional support were more inclined to believe that crying is beneficial in private and public. On the other hand, people who expressed beliefs that crying is unhelpful also tended to report being less in touch with their emotions and to struggle managing their emotions.

Is crying truly cathartic?
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Sharman and her colleagues argue there is an interplay between how we view crying and our behaviours. “It is possible that those who perceive crying to be unacceptable or believe that others expect them to feel positive, are more likely to suppress their emotions in an effort to reduce outward expression of that emotion,” they say. The new scale that they’ve created will make it easier in future to study whether this is really true.

People who see the value in darker moods appear to be less adversely affected by experiencing such moods

Quite likely there is a dynamic three-way interplay between our view of crying, our behaviour and our experiences. If you think crying in public is embarrassing, you’re likely to find it a painful experience to break down in public, for instance. If future research confirms this interplay, it would fit with the growing recognition in psychology that our attitudes to our emotions have consequences for how they affect us – for instance, people who see the value in darker moods appear to be less adversely affected by experiencing such moods.

One must always be cautious when attempting to read another’s mind, but perhaps Theresa May’s usual phlegmatic demeanour was rooted in her negative beliefs about crying and other emotional displays. Although it might be too late to benefit her political career, she may have learned from the many sympathetic reactions to her Downing Street almost-tears that emotional expressiveness can sometimes be advantageous.

“It may very well be,” write Sharman and her colleagues, “that beliefs about crying are updated through the lifespan as one experiences different social and interpersonal outcomes from crying. These updated beliefs then could influence future crying until a time when the beliefs are no longer functional and need to be updated again.”

Dr Christian Jarrett is a senior editor at Aeon magazine on their forthcoming Psyche website devoted to psychological wellbeing. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2020. 

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