When it comes to crying, not all tears are the same.
Basal tears help protect your eyes and keep them lubricated. Reflex tears emerge to wash away smoke, dust, and anything else that might irritate your eyes.
Then there are emotional tears, commonly triggered by rage, joy, or sorrow.
Many people dread these tears and wish they could avoid them entirely. Others have trouble even producing something, even when they feel the need for a good sob.
But no matter how you feel about crying, the fact remains: It’s completely normal. And believe it or not, it serves a purpose beyond clogging your nose and embarrassing you in public.
Turns out, “a cry for help” is more than just a saying. Whether your tears stem from fury or grief, they let other people know you’re having a tough time.
If you feel unable to ask for help directly, your tears can convey this request without words. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you’re crying on purpose — they’re a bodily response that most people can’t easily control.
This idea is backed up by a small 2013 study. Participants looked at pictures of sad and neutral faces with and without tears. In both categories, they indicated that people with tears on their faces seemed to have a greater need for support than those without tears.
Think about it this way: How would you respond if you saw someone crying? You might ask, “What’s wrong?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?”
If you walk into an open cabinet door or stub your toe on a sharp corner, the sudden shock of intense pain might bring a few tears to your eyes.
You’re more likely to truly cry, however, when you experience significant pain for a long period of time, especially if you can’t do much to get relief.
This type of lingering pain might come from:
These natural chemical messengers help relieve emotional distress along with physical pain. In other words, crying is a self-soothing behavior.
Crying puts you in a vulnerable position. The emotions you’re experiencing might distract you, for one, but your eyes also blur with tears, making it hard to see.
From an evolutionary perspective, this would put you at a disadvantage in a fight-or-flight situation.
If you see tears as a sign of weakness, as many people do, you might dislike crying because you want to avoid giving an impression of helplessness. But everyone has some vulnerable points, and there’s nothing wrong with letting these show from time to time.
In fact, expressing your weaknesses could generate sympathy from others and promote social bonding.
Most people need at least some support and companionship from others, and these bonds become even more important in times of vulnerability.
When you allow others to see your weaknesses, they may respond with kindness, compassion, and other types of emotional support that contribute to meaningful human connection.
When feelings get so extreme you don’t know how to manage or cope with them, crying can be one way to express them and get relief.
It’s no secret that emotional pain can cause deep distress, so overwhelming feelings of sadness, guilt, or worry can certainly provoke tears.
But any emotions that feel overwhelming or difficult to control can also cause tears, even if they don’t feel particularly painful.
If you’ve ever been moved to tears, you’ll know even emotions typically considered positive, such as love, awe, joy, romantic longing, and gratitude, can make you cry.
Experts believe these happy tears may help you process and regulate intense emotions.
Sympathy crying is absolutely a thing.
Just as your tears might draw concern and support from others, you yourself might feel sympathy when you see another person’s tears or emotional distress. Witnessing their pain could make you cry, too.
It may not even matter whether that person is real or fictional, according to a small
Crying in response to someone else’s pain isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it suggests you can take other perspectives into account and imagine a situation from someone else’s point of view. In short, it means you’re an empathetic person.
Some people do cry on purpose in order to manipulate others, but this behavior doesn’t always have malicious intentions behind it.
Instead, people might “turn on the tears,” so to speak, when they don’t know a better way to get their needs met.
Emotional support is a key human need, but it’s not always easy to fulfill.
People who experience abuse, neglect, or other trauma may struggle to make sense of what happened and cope with the resulting emotional pain and turmoil. If they don’t know how to express these unwanted feelings or ask for help, they might use tears to convey their need for sympathy and support.
Learned helplessness — the belief that you can’t do anything to improve your situation — may also prompt the use of tears as a tool.
If you feel like you can’t create change on your own, you might try to earn sympathy from others who can offer assistance. These tears may not necessarily be forced, though, as feelings of frustration and helplessness can make most people cry.
If you find yourself regularly using tears in lieu of more productive approaches to communication and conflict resolution, a therapist can help you explore potential reasons behind this behavior and find healthier ways to express your needs and feelings.
It’s important to consider bigger-picture concepts like personality traits, cultural backgrounds, and biology when it comes to thinking about why humans cry.
Certain personality traits, for example, appear to have some association with crying.
You might cry more frequently if:
- you have a lot of empathy
- your attachment style is anxious, preoccupied, or secure (if it’s dismissive, you’ll probably cry less frequently)
- you score high on Big Five measures of neuroticism
- you have trouble regulating your emotions
Someone’s cultural background can also play a big role in the context of crying. Not surprisingly, people who live in societies where crying is more accepted may cry more frequently.
Men typically cry less than women, perhaps in part because many cultures tend to consider crying a sign of weakness and often discourage boys from crying.
There’s also a biological component: Women generally have more of a hormone called prolactin, which is thought to promote crying.
Men, on the other hand, have higher levels of testosterone, a hormone that could make it more difficult to cry.
Most people cry from time to time for a variety of reasons.
If you feel hesitant about crying around others, remember: Crying doesn’t indicate weakness.
Since tears can actually help people realize you’re experiencing pain and distress, you might benefit more from letting them fall than holding them back.
So go on, cry if you want to (even if it’s not your party).
Just watch out for excessive, uncontrollable tearfulness and crying, since these can sometimes suggest depression. If you find yourself crying more than usual, especially for what seems like no reason at all, it may help to talk to a therapist.