How to control (choose) when I cry and when I remain stoic.
October 30, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I want to be able to control when I become emotional and when I hold it together. Ever since meeting my first Russian orphans in 1999, my heart has grown progressively more tender and I "come to tears" very easily. In the Russian culture, a man crying is extremely rare and frankly not at all understood by the typical Russian young person. Once, during a tearful conversation with a precious girl I met in '99 and consider as a daughter, she actually asked my interpreter, "Is there something wrong with him? Maybe a neurological or psychiatric illness of some sort?" Can someone suggest how I can develop mastery over my emotional expression? A book? A therapist? Hypnosis?

I want to develop the ability to speak touching words without losing control and becoming a distraction to my message (like a minister would want to do when presiding over a funeral). This isn't about being embarrassed or concerned about what others will think of me. I want to be the master of my emotions when it matters. Thanks community:)
posted by papaheller to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There's one solid skill you can learn to get a start on this: detached self-observation. This takes a fair bit of work to build, but you will most likely find that doing so will pay off in all kinds of other ways as well, making the time spent on practice more than worth your while.
posted by flabdablet at 8:58 PM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I learned this to some degree while working on a suicide hotline, just all the practice of training plus the experience of working on the hotline helped me with this detachment.
posted by sweetkid at 9:06 PM on October 30, 2012

one thing you can do is to focus less on your feelings and more on the person who is speaking. ironically, having strong feelings is about us, even if it feels like they're about the person we're thinking of. if you pay very close attention to exactly what the person you're with is saying, and ask them questions when you don't understand, you will become engrossed in them rather than in your feelings.
posted by facetious at 9:47 PM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Practice and focus. Before you go into a stressful situation, play out possible scenarios in your head and think what you will say and do. "If she gets angry about X, I'll calmly bring up Y and agree to do Z". Rehearsing makes it easier because you're not reacting and you've already mostly decided what to do in a difficult situation.

Focus on very specific things nearby. I keep appropriate eye contact with whoever I'm speaking, but if it's stressful, I'll focus on little details like "Her hairstyle's great, I wonder if that would suit me" or "What a beautiful day it is, clear blue skies" - something distracting and pleasant to counter the highly emotional situation. If it gets really intense, I will bite the inside of my cheek or tap my hands on my knee, counting down from a hundred. Basically, just to stop yourself becoming overwhelmed completely and holding a little bit of you apart from the situation.

It's also good to be deeply interested in the person's story, to see them as someone interesting and dignified, to have the sort of mindset "This person is valuable and interesting and I want to understand what they're saying". Then you're not pitying them or turning it into something painful about you, but you focus on *them*.

Some crying emotional people in my experience have been really crying for themselves, because someone else's distress has triggered their own painful memory or, unfortunately, they are narcissistic and thrive on having the emotional focus being on them ("Look how empathic I am! I'm weeping for this sad child! I am so noble") - I am not at all saying you are, but that people who have known these people may assume you are and be understandably wary of you.

HALT has been helpful to me - ask yourself if you're Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired and try to fix that before you go into something stressful. Think of it as emotional stamina. You will need at least equal amounts of downtime after stressful situations to recover. You can't constantly deal with hard stuff without becoming emotionally fragile, even as a bystander.

I would pick a regular moderately stressful situation and try preparing for it with rest, mental rehearsal and then actively focusing on the people and surroundings during it with interest and compassion.

For example - I give public talks fairly often. Recently, I had to give a very short talk to a small friendly group, and I was flustered and red-faced. I hadn't mentally rehearsed the talk and I had a crabby sick kid waiting for me. Similar situation a month earlier, far higher stakes with an antagonistic audience. But I'd planned and rehearsed for a few weeks, and I used all my tricks above to stay focused and calm, and it worked.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:48 PM on October 30, 2012

Here is just a small personal observation. When I worked for a palliative care service I noticed from lunch table conversations that most of the nurses, psychologists and welfare workers had some stupid television show that would make them weep like babies. They were generally embarrassing choices of trash tv, nothing with serious emotional impact or particularly well made. We thought it was something to do with having a designated outlet for all the tears you'd usually cry when working with they horribly sad things one does in that industry.

They stayed collected when working with dying and grieving people because they had their outlet in front of Seventh Heaven or Coronation Street. Perhaps you can have some 'feelings time' absolutely guilt free with a made for tv movie or Charlene's I've Never Been to Me and have less emotion 'in the tank' when you're faced with the things that might usually set you off. Maybe even kowing you can let it out later will help.

All anecdata, but you have to let it out somewhere.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 10:09 PM on October 30, 2012 [11 favorites]

My sister once pointed out that breathing - deliberately and relatively deeply, because you tend to hold your breath when you are about to cry- helps contain it. I remain massively impressed by how effective this one little trick is.
posted by jojobobo at 10:29 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also try the beauty pageant contestant's trick of sucking your tongue tight against the roof of your mouth until you get control.
posted by Cranberry at 11:27 PM on October 30, 2012

THANK YOU EVERYONE for giving my question your time and attention. This is all very helpful. To hone my question for more target responses, I'd like to add the following...
* It's when I'M speaking or reading that I need to be able to control my tears. That means some of the physiological tricks (tongue to roof of mouth, slow deep breathing, and the like) will just be trading one distraction for another. Also, my voice needs to remain steady. "Quavering voice" is a dead giveaway.
* I'm not crying due to sadness or another personal reason (I don't think). It's more akin to welling up with pride when your 4 year old is singing in the Angel Choir, or when, at Superbowl XXV, near the start of the Persian Gulf War, Whitney Houston reached the crescendo of the Star Spangled Banner and the F-16 fighter jets flew overhead with an explosive sound and everyone's hearts welled up with patriotic pride!
* I actually enjoy the fact that I'm able to express emotion so readily. If anything, I feel as though I'm indulging myself instead of performing the task at hand. (Imagine how the impact would have been diminished if Whitney had gotten choked up at the sound of her own amazing voice.)

I suspect that the "detached self-observation" suggestion by flabdablet (first answer) is the right direction for this. I will need to develop myself in some way in order to become master of emotional self-control.

Again... Thank You All.
posted by papaheller at 8:00 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, this is a very chemical thing. This used to be a big problem for me. Then, I started taking a small dose of an antidepressant (first sertraline, then duloxetine -- both had this effect) to help with pain and insomnia. Magic -- no more inappropriate tearing up. I still felt the same emotions, but they did not trigger the immediate physical response of tearfulness. When I stopped the medication, the tears started coming around again. Might be worth a try if this an important issue for you.
posted by Corvid at 2:43 PM on October 31, 2012

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