Why do my eyes well up with tears when I hear something moving?
June 4, 2008 2:01 PM   Subscribe

Why do my eyes well up with tears when I hear something particularly moving? How can I stop it from happening?

I didn't used to be like this and then, suddenly, if I heard a story I thought was very sweet or heroic or even totally unfair/frustrating, my eyes just fill up with tears. It could even be one of those very special episodes of Fresh Prince, which I know are totally corny, but somehow, it just does something to me that makes my eyes just well up with tears. I've had depression but I've been successfully treated for it.

This started when I was 20, about 7 years ago, and each year, as I get closer to 30, it is getting worse. I just can't figure out why I suddenly became so sensitive. In normal, everyday life, if I listen to a sad radio story (courtesy of This American Life) or read a touching article, my eyes well up and, sometimes, I actually shed tears.

Why did I get so sensitive at 20? Is it normal for women to become more sensitive in their twenties? Will it get worse? Is it just me? How can I stop this hypersensitivity?
posted by onepapertiger to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Why would you want to stop it? It means you're human, and feeling human emotion.
posted by Class Goat at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Same thing happened to me! I turned 20, and BOOM I had a soul. WTF?

I've just assumed it has something to do with the whole biological clock/hormones thing. I hope it doesn't get worse.
posted by phunniemee at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2008

Yeah, this happens to me, and I presume everyone. If you're getting it half a dozen times a day I'd say you might want to be tougher. I get it a couple of times a week, maybe, and I'm glad of it.
posted by cincinnatus c at 2:15 PM on June 4, 2008

It's those Story Corps things that always get me.
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 2:19 PM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

While they don't exactly address your specific problem directly (the second gets close), you may find one or more of these previous threads helpful to some degree or another.
posted by Partial Law at 2:20 PM on June 4, 2008

It sounds like it's been ongoing, so this might be a stretch, but a good friend of mine once started unexpectedly experiencing a similar thing, and it turned out she had a B-vitamin deficiency.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:20 PM on June 4, 2008

It started happening to me in my mid 20s. I'm a man.

I think it's because having experienced more sadness in my own life, I now identify more with sadness in others. This is called "growing up."

Example: if you show video of a man being kicked in the nuts, most of the men watching will actually feeling a little tightening sensation out of pure empathy, while the women will be largely unaffected. This is because every man has personally experienced the sick pain of having their nuts squished.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:21 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read a piece a while ago that said that we cry at "happy endings" because we regret our own unrequited happiness. We can't have that experience unless we've actually been unhappy ourselves... I know that's only part of what you cry at, but the point is that the reason why children only cry when (for example) Bambi's mom dies or ET departs is that kids only respond to "pure" sadness and lack the biography to respond to things filmic (or whatever) that aren't specifically sad. I didn't start bawling at commercials or seeing an old episode of some cherished TV show or whatever until I was in my 20s too.

Like other posters are saying, you're human. And it gets worse, if that's a bad thing for you. You will not be able to stop it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:34 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are experiencing empathy. It's normal.

When I was a kid (like, 10, 11 years old) I'd see my mom cry at stuff and while that thing might've made me intellectually sad - I understood that a story about war (for instance) could be sad - I didn't understand why it made her cry. I understand much better now.

Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment might give you more insight.*

*It's written by someone I know, but honest, it's good!

Also: Rosy Greer singing "It's Alright to Cry" is fantastic. It's a good lesson even for those of us who aren't seven years old anymore.
posted by rtha at 2:35 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh my god. Yes. It should be illegal to run Story Corps on the radio during drive time; tear-blurred eyes do not make for good driving.

I've found this happening to me more too as I get older. The dancing dogs on YouTube (I am NOT going to look for it lest I start crying) do it every damn time.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:44 PM on June 4, 2008

Same exact thing happened to me, and I was astounded. I was the type of person who *never* cried. And then, presto, as I got closer to 30, suddenly I was welling up to everything you said, including sports stories.

I asked my mama if she experienced the same thing, and she said, yes, it's quite natural. It's called maturity. As you get older, you begin to be moved more by the beautiful, the poetic, the overwhelming odds, love, anything that overcomes your sense of cynicism about the human condition. You begin to understand loss. You begin to realize that life isn't going to last forever, that people do die, that most people out there have loved ones and love in return. You realize how awful it is when people don't have loved ones. You begin to grasp what your parents - and other parents - have gone through with their children, and you grasp the horribleness when people haven't experienced that with their own children or have it cruelly yanked away. You understand you aren't immortal, and even more excruciatingly, the people you love aren't either. You understand that there is famine and war, and the consequences of each. You become more moved when someone demonstrates those traits of the human condition you so desperately want to believe in.

In short, you start to understand how hard life is, and how hard it is to be human, and you are moved when someone overcomes it, and you are moved when someone doesn't. In short, you come out of that time of life called your teens and early twenties, and understand that the world isn't about you.

Anyway, that's what my Mama said. God, I love her.
posted by barchan at 2:47 PM on June 4, 2008 [36 favorites]

The same thing started happening to me after about 25, though it's not an everyday occurrence. I don't know if it's related, but around the same time I developed a stronger reaction to gross stuff: roadkill nearly makes me urp, but it didn't when I was younger. I'd always felt moved by certain stories, or grossed out by carnage, but I seem to react to them more nowadays.

I've had depression off and on, too, but the depression crying and the "oh, that poor Weighted Companion Cube!" crying are pretty different.

It might be hormones - a friend of mine went on the pill and started crying at sappy TV commercials where she hadn't before; when she went off, the crying stopped. But I'm not sure.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:47 PM on June 4, 2008

I have to add that reading this thread is making me cry. I'm not kidding.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:58 PM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I clearly remember when this began for me; it was the first time I saw "The Lion King" -- the **trailer**, not even the actual movie. That song, oh god that song. With those (admittedly cartoon) images.

I just checked IMDB; I'd have been in my mid-twenties when the film came out.

The effect has only increased with the passing years.

Fortunately, my S.O. thinks it's charming, if sometimes a bit alarming, when I sob during movie previews. Generally it's during previews, not the actual films. I tend to do this whenever I see something that shows great care in its making, something really good.
posted by amtho at 2:59 PM on June 4, 2008

Nthing. This also happens to people watching movies on planes, for some reason - people will tear up at a "moving" scene in, I dunno, the Chipmunks Movie, when they're on a plane - when they would otherwise have thrown hammers at the screen. Mysterious.

But an insider told me something that I'll believe until someone tells me different: the techniques used in background music and musical cues have become much more sophisticated. Music will affect people on a subconscious level and do and end-run around their judgement; this is one of the reasons you'll hear the theme music for one film played behind the trailer for another - they're hoping that you make the association, in a "if you liked that, you should watch this" way.
(I found this out several years ago when I realized that they were playing theme music from Requiem for a Dream during the trailer for LOTR - that one still doesn't make sense.)
Once that association is made, then they can play that music and make you feel the associated emotion (think "Jaws theme").

Also, the science of musical cues has improved ("okay, this is the big moving scene; change the incidental music to a D-minor key, lots of violins, and then slowly build to a swell....and...crescendo Now, just as they shoot bambi's mother") to also pull your strings subconsciously. I'm told that this is because the psychology and science of music is better understood, but that it's also a crutch to get over the obstacles of bad writing and acting - they can just use the music to push your buttons. Vince Vaughan is never going to inspire you or make you cry on his own; but play the right music in the background while his coach character delivers the inspirational speech to the team, and suddenly he's a moving speaker and you want to call your Dad.
When they can do this with smells, we'll be in trouble.
posted by bartleby at 3:01 PM on June 4, 2008

Metroid Baby brought up a good point...now that I think about it, this happened to me shortly after I went on the pill.
posted by phunniemee at 3:08 PM on June 4, 2008

I agree, this is just part of growing up. It'll get worse, but I'm not sure how much worse. It'll plateau, I think.

I also think I know how to turn off the waterworks, but it would involve ignoring/removing a piece of my humanity that I just don't want to get rid of; actually, that I don't want anybody to ignore/remove, so I won't recommend it.

Oddly, I feel a little misty-eyed reading this thread, for some reason.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:09 PM on June 4, 2008

Whenever I hear bagpipes played live (say during St. Pats) tears well into my eyes uncontrollably--and not because I've been drinking. It might have something to do with my attachment to that instrument and the memories that instantly inundate my stream of consciousness.

It may be that sad stories or whatnot trigger a similar reflex arc in yourself.
posted by OLechat at 3:10 PM on June 4, 2008

I have no different answers than everyone above, but when I turned twenty the exact same thing happened.

While it is in most ways a good thing, I can understand why you might want to have better control over it. For example, around that same time I worked on a inspirational politician's local campaign. He was always concerned that his interns were having a valuable experience working on his campaign, and he was always talking to us to make sure that was the case. Sometimes he would just come out and talk to us for five minutes or so before he had to get back to work, but he was so sincere and such a kind person that everything he said would make me tear up. Somehow I managed to not actually cry, and I still treasure that feeling, but I would have been mortified if I had cried. I guess I didn't want to be the girl that started crying every time he came and talked to us while he grabbed lunch. I think he would have been touched by it, but most of my peers were high school students and fellow college students who might have found it strange. I know, I know; their loss if they can't be moved by simple things. It's not so easy to dismiss in practice, though. I just get the desire to be able to turn it off sometimes.
posted by Nattie at 3:12 PM on June 4, 2008

I. Cried. In. The. SIMPSONS. Movie.

ugh, and Cristina Aguilera's behind the music, etc. etc. The only thing I know of that works is to talk yourself down. What I do, although it's probably more embarrassing than just wiping your eyes, is to say, loudly, "HAHAH THATS STUPID LOL!!!" and then I'm kinda laughing at myself over the whole thing.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:17 PM on June 4, 2008

Oh, but here's a piece of advice: if you don't laugh easily too, make a point of learning that. It's a skill I'm always working on, and very rewarding! Don't let a few tears snowball into actual sorrow or uncertain introspection. It's helpful to always know that while you may feel sadness some others avoid, you merely feel all things deeply and are ALIVE!!! with emotion, and that laughter and delight are right around the corner. I'm sure it's good for your health to be this way, within reason, and I would throw in that it makes you beautiful!!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 3:24 PM on June 4, 2008

This sort of thing started happening to me when I hit my 30s as well. For me it's usually some kind of loyalty inspiring moment:

Like the scene in the pilot of Firefly:

"You're on my crew." When pressed again, with Simon citing the ease with which they could have simply been abandoned and the problems caused by their presence, Mal reiterated, "You're on my crew. Why we still talking about this?"

I have no idea why this is. I've never cared much one way or another about this sort of thing, but in the last 10 years or so I've found myself reacting to examples like this more and more.
posted by quin at 3:51 PM on June 4, 2008

Are you sure it is "normal, every day life" you are sensitive to? You mention that you are usually following some kind of narrative when it happens. Jung's answer has always done it for me, though it may seem like a bit of a stretch calling a Fresh Prince episode archetypal.

"The moment when this mythological situation reappears is always characterized by a peculiar emotional intensity; it is as though chords in us were struck that had never resounded before, or as though forces whose existence we never suspected were unloosed. What makes the struggle for adaptation so labo-rious is the fact that we have constantly to be dealing with indi-vidual and atypical situations. So it is not surprising that when an archetypal situation occurs we suddenly feel an extraordinary sense of release, as though transported, or caught up by an overwhelming power."

Jung's On The Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
posted by paradoxflow at 3:53 PM on June 4, 2008

How can I stop this hypersensitivity?

By dumbing down your emotions. If you have an emotional response to something, your body will react accordingly. So, to stop it reacting, stop feeling the emotions.

If you're crying for no obvious reason at all, then that's a whole nother problem. I mean, there must be a some reason it's happening, but if it's not obvious what it is, you might want to consider talking to a professional.
posted by Solomon at 3:55 PM on June 4, 2008

I treat trying not to cry in public in what I assume is kind of the same way guys treat trying not to get a boner - mainly by thinking about something, anything else. I also avoid looking directly at the screen/close my eyes during sad parts of movies.

Other things: taking a few deep breaths sometimes helps, and pasting on a big fake smile really helps because it sort of triggers my body into non-cry mode.
posted by vodkaboots at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks vodkaboots. I get all teary at stupid emotional stuff, and I need coping strategies. Thinking about it like a guy and a boner might just help. Also the smile thing. Probably more the smile thing.
It might be normal and empathy and all that, but I just want it to stop.
posted by sandraregina at 4:16 PM on June 4, 2008

Ah Pinocchio, you are finally a real boy!
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 4:48 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hormones (not adulthood) gave me this 'gift' with puberty. I can't stop the reaction, but I blink rapidly and clench my jaw to reset things, and that helps, even if I bet it looks pretty silly.

I want to pummel the person who makes 'children's wish foundation' ads. >:(
posted by Phalene at 5:32 PM on June 4, 2008

If you're talking about the Fresh Prince episode where his father (Ben Vereen) shows up and then leaves at the end of the episode, hey, I'm totally with you there, OP. Major sniffles.
posted by WCityMike at 6:13 PM on June 4, 2008

Definitely go see a doctor.
posted by tastybrains at 6:45 PM on June 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do the same thing. If it is in public I will pretend to yawn since sometimes watery eyes accompany yawning. No one is the wiser...
posted by MayNicholas at 6:49 PM on June 4, 2008

I don't want to get all Aspergery, but it occurs to me that it's an interesting philosphical question in itself:

>Why do my eyes well up with tears when I hear something particularly moving?

In a sense, everyone's eyes well up with tears when they hear something "particularly moving"; that's a definition of "particularly moving". The question almost boils down to "why am I moved when I'm moved?".

What's really happened is that your definition of "particularly moving" has altered significantly.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:09 PM on June 4, 2008

It's empathy.

It will occur more frequently as you age... How many children and teenagers have you known that had true empathy?

As you age, face mortality and have children of your own, it becomes ever easier to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Personally this didn't happen until I was about 34...

Now, I'm not ashamed to admit it, it happens fairly frequently... Even as someone else pointed out, on planes... for sappy/crappy movies... (The Bucket List just two weeks ago...)

Life is precious - cry... but laugh too... as another poster mentioned.

And, as yet another poster mentioned... I teared up in this damn thread myself....
posted by jkaczor at 7:24 PM on June 4, 2008

I have to add that reading this thread is making me cry. I'm not kidding.

Yup, me too.

It does get more acute with age (notice I didn't say "worse," because it's not). I'm such a damn softy now that I tear up from my own thoughts. As long as you aren't blubbering like a baby, it's more endearing than anything else - at least that's my sincere hope.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:09 PM on June 4, 2008

Oh, my. I need some tips on coping with tears, too. I weep at the drop of a hat and I'm 61, past menopause, not taking HRT, so it ain't the hormones. I wept when Flower died on "Meerkat Manor," cried when I read about recent tornado victims, cried last week at a friend's son's graduation, always cry when I see military funerals, etc.

Recently, my emotions have gone ballistic because a friend, a 30-something and mother of three, is battling cancer for the second time in a year. Each time someone just mentions her name, I go to pieces.

I struggle with how to rein in my emotions in these situations. Any ideas, other than heavy sedation or therapy?
posted by Smalltown Girl at 8:28 PM on June 4, 2008

posted by polyglot at 11:15 PM on June 4, 2008

Look away, pretend to have a cold or sinus or something, go to the toilet, escape escape! I don't mind tearing up at crappy stories on terrible 'current affairs' shows as much as I do bursting into tears when I'm really angry about something (guaranteed to stop people from taking you anything closely approximating seriously). I wish I could give you an answer to stop your tears from forming. I wish I could stop it myself. I go for subterfuge, every time.
posted by h00py at 5:46 AM on June 5, 2008

Um, I should have read the question, I guess. I think you do it because you take it all very personally. Empathy is not to be sniffed at, although it can make you appear to be a terrible whuss. In which case, ^^ read above entry.
posted by h00py at 5:48 AM on June 5, 2008

I do the yawn trick too. That way you can even wipe your eyes and no one will be none the wiser.

I start crying EVERY TIME I describe the last scene of the final episode of Sex in the City (but not when I watch it, for some reason). You know, where the girls are all sitting around having brunch, and suddenly Carrie walks in and they all scream because they're so happy to have her back? God, my eyes are getting watery just writing about it! (My mid-twenties to early-thirties girlfriends all have similar triggers, so I've got to assume it's natural.)
posted by jrichards at 6:42 AM on June 5, 2008

This happened to me, too around the age of 22.
I used to be the picture of composure while my mom and my little sister weeped at AT&T commercials. I thought they were weak. They called me Hard-Hearted Hannah.

Then, something happened, and now pictures of dogs in casts and misspelled Mother's Day cards from kindergartners that I see on the internet unleash the waterworks.

I buy the maturity and life experience thing, but I really think there must be a chemical or hormonal reason for this, too. And whatever it is, I believe it is linked to why I all of a sudden got scared to fly when I never have been before. Of course, I have no science to back this up, but I am firmly convinced that I am right :)
Science! will prove it soon.
posted by rmless at 9:28 AM on June 5, 2008

This recently happened to me and I'm 21. I don't mind it nor do I think it's a problem.
posted by Korou at 6:13 PM on June 5, 2008

Ok I agree with all of the posts above about empathy blah blah blah, I am pretty emotional and my eyes well up pretty easily.

But what if in your job you just don't really have that option. I need to be incredibly tough in my job and mostly dealing with men, have been trying to not have it happen at all.
posted by hazyspring at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2008

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