Thursday, March 1, 2012

Unified Theory of Crying

Okay everyone. It’s time to start conceptualizing crying differently.

First, keep in mind that although I’m talking about “crying,” different people handle stress in different ways. I often cry when life seems just a little too hard to deal with, but others go on a swearing binge, get angry, or withdraw. Crying is also the example I use because it’s easy to point to the distinction between someone who is not crying and someone who is. If I were using anger, for example, it would be hard to say when the frustration breaks into anger and the change might be more in degree rather than a clear on/off distinction. Now on to the reconceptualization!

There are two errors men and women (but mostly men) make when trying to figure out why someone is crying. The Type 1 error is when they think whatever they just did is the entire reason for the tears. I’m sick of explaining to people (read: male friends or boyfriends) that just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I’m too fragile to handle the insensitive comment they just made, I’m distraught by their decision not to have lunch with me, or I’ll fall apart if they don’t respond to my text. If I cried every time they did those things, they would (correctly) brand me a needy, psychologically ill person whom they should tell to get help rather than continue to spend time with me.

Type 1 errors are problematic because it ignores the reality: no unanswered text is worth crying over by itself. If you think that's the only reason I'm crying, you've missed something fundamental about both my personality and understanding of the world. Type 1 errors also have the nasty side effect of causing people to conclude that you’re crazy because rational human beings don’t get upset over those things. However, the most dangerous result of this error is that we’ll think that if the immediate problem is solved, the person we’re dealing with will stop being upset. Usually, the anger or crying just happens all over again when a new problem arises.  I don’t really care that much that you never returned my text and all the apologizing and subsequent texting isn’t going to make me feel much better (though, frankly, it couldn’t hurt).

Type 2 errors are, if anything more dangerous (and not only to your health, men). Ever see a man make the critical mistake of asking a crying woman if she’s on her period? Yes. This is that error. Just because other stuff might be going on in the background doesn’t mean what you did wasn’t tear-worthy, it just means that it might not be the only thing bothering that person. The danger of this error should be obvious: you risk making the person even angrier if you ignore the triggering event in favor of blaming their emotions on things that have nothing to do with you.

Something else to consider about Type 2 errors is that you might be responsible for a lot of the background stress as well. For example, if you’ve been too busy to talk for weeks and then forget an anniversary, yes, the anniversary might not be the entire reason she’s reached a breaking point, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t your fault. The solution is not to assume she’s not really upset with you, but to make the conversation broader than, “I just don’t think anniversaries are that important, and if you were a rational human being, you’d agree with me.”

Here’s the way I’ve successfully explained this phenomenon to my most emotionally-incompetent male friend: picture a point scale with a set crying threshold. This crying threshold varies from person-to-person, but I’ve set mine at 100 points. This means that I cry whenever I hit or go over 100 points. Now, assign each stressor in a person’s life a certain point value. The points assigned to a particular stressor might go up or down based on the situation (for example, the stress points go up for a report as a deadline approaches or down as you get more of it finished to your satisfaction), but at any given time, those stress points add up to a number. The closer that number is to 100, the less serious a new problem or slight needs to be to cause someone's eyes to start tearing. I call the event that causes me to go over 100 points the “triggering event.” That triggering event is the easiest thing to point to as the reason I’m crying, but probably isn’t the whole reason. For example, there have been times where I’ve been hanging out at 99 points and I’ll start crying just because I didn’t get a chance to kiss by boyfriend goodbye or I forgot my book at home.

What really brought this idea home to me was dealing with my much younger sister. She’s currently 13 and has always been somewhat prone to tantrums. When she’s beginning to have a breakdown (my word for when she cries, screams, and loses the ability to be dealt with on a rational level) I do a quick assessment: is she tired, hungry, or worried about something else? If these factors are there, I know that though she deserves to have me address the triggering issue at some point, I should also attempt to deal with the underlying problems, which are usually easier. It’s surprising to me how often, after fixing or at least talking about the background stressors, the triggering event can be amicably disposed of with a two-minute conversation; a conversation that would have been impossible while she was in the throes of a breakdown. This isn’t just good advice for dealing with children or teenagers. There are some things that we never grow out of and, often, it’s the same process but with more complex background stress and triggers. That being said, I’d still give at least 30 stress points to anyone you know is sleep-deprived. Also, I’m a big fan of sleeping on it and eating before confronting someone about something they did that hurt or bothered me.

A couple words of caution. First, human beings don’t always know all the reasons they’re upset. Whether you believe in a subconscious or not, most can agree that little stressors add up. When we reach a breaking point or crying threshold, it doesn’t occur to us to think back to the fact that we were running late for work or felt ignored last night; we focus on what’s immediate. Searching for those background stressors in another person may not yield anything all that concrete and might upset the person because you aren’t taking their immediate problem seriously.

Second, although I like my 100 point metaphor, the map is not the territory. This works well for illustration purposes, but stressors often don’t add up in a rational or linear fashion. Point additions might go exponential just because there are over three stressors working at the same time. Some situations tend to cut that threshold rather than adding points. This also doesn’t take into account how something good in our lives can immunize us against a lot of the effect of stressors.

Despite these limitations I still find it useful sometimes to tell someone, “Yes, I’m upset about you not returning my call, but only for 7 points.” It helps me to be aware of what’s going on in my life that's caused me stress and helps other people understand what’s really on my mind. When it comes right down to it, usually all I want is a little understanding anyway.


  1. Good post. I like your thoughts about the cumulative effect of factors. There are a lot of days when it feels like I'm at 90 and just one more thing is going to tip the scales.... One thing you didn't address was whether you felt like crying was a healthy personal outlet, a means of communication, or an admission of defeat. Perhaps any or all depending on the circumstances.

    1. Ah the ultimate meaning or value of crying...I'm not quite sure. Almost feels like it deserves its own post at some point. For current purposes I'm just using it as short-hand for a physical manifestation of a reaching a breaking/stopping point in the level of stress we can handle. If nothing else, crying or knowing we're about to often makes us remove ourselves from the situation or forces one of the issues. Whether it's healthy or not, it is and it's useful to not misattribute it when we see it in ourselves or others.