“Stop Crying!”: On Having Emotions

I had a generally good babysitter who nonetheless, to my indignation, had a temper.  She once was mad at me (it had to do with clothes? I think I was five) and yelled at me. I burst into tears.  She got even madder at me for crying and told me to stop.

Watching parents at the bookstore where I work tells me that it says something about the kindness of my parents that this was not so frequent an occurrence as not to bear mentioning. Instead, it stands out as an uncommonly infuriating memory. I still remember thinking angrily, “…I’m crying because you’re mad at me. How is getting mad at me supposed to make me stop crying?”

I talked to my mom and she explained that sometimes kids faked crying or cried on purpose, and that probably the babysitter thought this was what I was doing. This was a revelation to me (and made me feel quite superior). As a child, I felt always that I cried far too easily, and I was humiliated when I did. I would have given rather a lot to be able to stop crying on command. I explained that when I was crying it wasn’t that you should take pity on me or give me what I wanted if that wasn’t the thing you actually thought you should do–I only thought that you should politely ignore the fact that I was crying instead of getting upset.

I wish more parents did this (and simply removed crying children from the busy environment they were disturbing, but that’s a different subject).  I hear many parents scolding their small children for crying, and only rarely does it even diminish the crying briefly. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it actually work. Maybe some of the kids are fake-crying, but even if they are, telling them angrily to stop is still ineffective. And if they’re not fake-crying, it’s borderline sadistic.

That is not to say I think the parents are being deliberately sadistic, of course. I think that tears, on a gut level, elicit two responses: pity or contemptuous anger (the latter of which is perhaps unconscious revenge for forcing the listener to experience what they perceive as unwanted, unpleasant, and unwarranted empathy). The neutrality I wanted out of my listeners is difficult for most people to achieve–or even fake. Tears are inherently stressful. I know that when I hear children crying it’s upsetting and jarring and part of me often wants to lash out, especially if it seems like the child is crying for a stupid reason.

I have the strong feeling that reacting angrily to crying children does not teach them to stop crying* or to take the thing they’re upset about less seriously. Rather, I think it teaches them that people will be angry with them not only for doing things that are inconvenient or problematic but also for having emotions that are inconvenient or problematic, even if those emotions are (as emotions tend to be) largely outside their control. This is not a thing we want to teach people, I think… Both because it’s ineffective** and cruel and because I really like the idea that the insides of our heads should be (if anywhere is) our own space.

Both my approach (which, I think, comes out to treating the crying as something neither parent nor child wants but is nonetheless happening) and the approach of the article in the footnotes (explicitly teaching skills) reflect what I think is in some ways a useful attitude: we, as people, have emotions–sometimes powerful and unruly ones–but we are still more than our emotions. We shouldn’t give or accept blame for emotions–but then, we should be careful about how we act on them, and it’s ok to give or accept blame for actions.

Still…this may be where I get a little controversial…but we need some way of dealing with people who find it harder to resist the temptation to act on their involuntary emotions other than flat condemnation or (as a society) rejection. We have this with children, on the whole. But I think that, for real, probably physiological reasons, some adults have almost as hard a time controlling their behavior as average five-year-olds, and despite the sarcasm that seems to hang about that sentence, I think this should be a cause for sympathy and help, not shame and blame.

Take, for instance, the inability to tolerate romantic rejection. We have the ideal, rational way of thinking of this (thoughtful, independent people make thoughtful, independent decisions as to whether they’re interested in each other and everyone respects an answer of “no”)…and then we have the real world, where agonizing amounts of heart and ego are tied up in these questions.  It’s easy for someone who feels very secure and has good emotional regulation and is also good at not acting on their emotions (and possibly also also is not deeply in love) just to say “I have been rejected, and that’s a shame, but this stuff happens. Now what?” It is also easy for that person–let’s call him Jude–to judge someone–let’s call her Stacy–who is like, “ACCCHHHHH YOU HAVE DESTROYED MY SOUL YOU HEARTLESS NASTY PERSON YOU LOOKED SO LOVABLE AND YOU DON’T ACTUALLY LOOOOVE ME ACCCHHHHH NOW I AM GOING TO CRAWL INTO A HOLE AND KILL MYSELF!”

So the person who rejected both of them–let’s call her Ella–strongly, strongly prefers the first response unless she is scarily manipulative and power-hungry. Let’s say she’s not. Ella might say that Stacy is abusive. Ella is right, I think. But, if so, we need a more nuanced way to think of abuse. It’s customary to say that abusers are manipulative no-good monsters, and just as it’s possible that the children are fake-crying in the bookstore, it is possible that Stacy wants to sleep with Ella and has very little emotional investment in the situation at all–it would certainly be easier on Ella to think this. But to me it seems at least as likely that Stacy is truly in agony and feels everything she is saying deeply and is not trying to elicit a particular response from Ella (or that the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes–I don’t think that “sincere/manipulative” is a neat binary by any means).

This doesn’t mean that what she’s doing isn’t abusive–Ella is probably in agony herself as a result of it, and Ella did precisely nothing wrong in rejecting Stacy. It doesn’t mean that Ella is under an obligation to do anything to make Stacy feel better–Ella feels like crap, and it’s Stacy’s fault. It would be nice if Ella could get Stacy on to a mental health professional, and express some empathy or understanding–if Ella has the emotional resources to do this without doing violence to herself. If she doesn’t, that’s totally fine. Just as Stacy has strong emotions, so does Ella, and Ella’s strong emotions may be some combination of “ACK ICK MANIPULATIVE DON’T MAKE ME FEEL BAD DON’T KILL YOURSELF ACCKCKKK.”

But let’s talk about Jude. Should Jude reject Stacy as a person because she was abusive to Ella? Does Ella have a right to ask Jude to do this?

One of my instincts is NO. Jude should not be saying, “Jeezus that lady is weird/abusive/ immature/ick. Let’s not hang out with her.” If he goes around saying this–seriously to anyone who gossips but especially to Stacy–it is a lot like parents yelling at their children for crying. Stacy might reasonably reply, “Um, I’m emotionally dysregulated and suicidal because I got rejected. How is rejecting me more supposed to make me less emotionally dysregulated and suicidal?”

Of course, the collective conscienceless consciousness of the social group has an answer to this that my babysitter probably didn’t: “It’s not. You’re just supposed to die go away in some way that doesn’t make us feel guilty.”

This is where what one person (Stacy) deserves (support, help, friends) comes into conflict with what other people deserve (a relatively drama and trauma-free existence). Other people in the social group are probably justifiably scared of Stacy now. What if she falls in love with them? What if they do date her–will there be suicide threats with every conflict? Maybe, after all, it is reasonable for them to distance themselves from her–but I at least want them to do it kindly and honestly, saying, “There but for the grace of my frontal lobe go I,” and also making it clear that the rejection does not come with condemnation of her entire personhood (as rejection tends to feel like it does). And I want there to be some non-stigmatized way for Stacy to get whatever help she needs to react to people in a less destructive way. I also dearly wish she could have friends even if she can’t figure out how to do that, because not having friends is miserable and depressing and awful and possibly for many people one of the worst fates they can suffer, but maybe that’s a utopian hope?

*This Slate article says this is more effectively done by offering comfort and then explicitly teaching skills like “take a few deep breaths ” and “distract yourself”

** The same article refers to a study in which children who were not comforted when they cried as children tend to have anger management problems as adults.

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