By Dr Marianne Trent of Good Thinking Psychological Services
Working with people therapeutically I often hear them excuse or discount their behaviour, thoughts or feelings by referring to themselves as ‘hormonal,’ ‘soft’ or ‘too emotional.’ This is especially apparent when people are pregnant, peri-menopausal, pre-menstrual or menopausal or when men, women or children have been through developmental trauma. It also seems to be widely accepted as an appropriate thing to say to someone or to think about them. The really worrying bit for me as a Clinical Psychologist though is that people seem content to think that about themselves too. Clinically, my concern is that this is potentially massively invalidating for the person at the centre of these ‘hormones.’
When we unpick stories in more detail there are always more factors which weren’t initially mentioned. The biggest factor to consider is what the trigger was. Triggers can be a multitude of things but are often people based; something that someone has said or done. Humans, by our very nature will react to the situations we find ourselves in. These reactions may be thoughts, feelings or actions. These reactions serve a function to keep us safe and also keep us social. When we look at mammals, we can perhaps imagine the distress call of a monkey or a bird that spots a potential predator in the undergrowth below. Those distress calls or ‘cries’ are a first response system to say ‘everything is not okay!’ However, have you ever considered what our own ‘first response’ systems are? Perhaps not! The answer is emotions and crying. Humans are the only primates who cry but certainly not the only primates to get distressed. Our emotions are there to alert us to the fact that things are not okay, or that things are good and pleasing and so we can then relax! How can we signal our distress to others that we are not okay and need help to feel better? Why we can cry of course! Crying has a function of initiating caregiving or solace. I personally and professionally love to see that someone has the ability to cry in sessions because it tells me that they’d like some help to feel better. It’s a rare person who can pass a crying stranger in the street and not stop to ask if that person is okay or if they need help. Crying taps into our emotional threat and alarm systems as mammals and humans. It taps into our mammalian brain systems which mean we want our ‘tribe’ to be okay and to survive. Responding appropriately to crying, means that we stop, listen, act, support and validate. If the monkeys at the other end of the initial distress calls didn’t act in this way it could have deathly consequences for the group. However, these days, aside from war, terrorism and global pandemics there are not usually so many pressing concerns in human tribes. This can lead to some variety in how people respond to crying. How people respond to others who cry can also be a key indicator for the emotional health of that person too. For example, if someone reacts angrily or without sympathy to a crying person it can indicate that they are not comfortable with showing vulnerability themselves.
Often, in clinical practice we find that when someone has an excess of anger that it is actually some form of underlying anxiety causing the problem. That doesn’t mean that the person who is crying shouldn’t be crying though, it means that the person responding aggressively is not responding with the appropriate mammalian reaction. It can also mean that the person responding aggressively has caused the distress initially by kick starting the individual’s threat system. See crying, think threat brain! People in threat brain need to be able to tap into their soothing system. They need to feel safe and calm and to know that they are supported and validated.
However, sometimes we become misty eyed, or maybe even completely wet-cheeked from good or uplifting things we are exposed to and we are not in threat brain! For example, watching a ‘golden buzzer moment’ on Britain’s Got Talent! My children and I often watch BGT on catch up and my eldest has learned to look at me when there’s a golden buzzer moment because he knows Mummy will be crying even if she didn’t particularly like the act! So, what’s going on there?! It doesn’t seem to make sense to be happy and crying, does it? I’m concerned that even that statement is potentially invalidating; let me explain why. It’s still about the emotions behind the actions. When we see those golden buzzer moment we see and understand that in that moment that person on stage is receiving a massive injection of validation. We have just borne witness to the very moment that someone’s life had the potential to be changed. These people, as humans, as our tribe are thriving and that is going to move us and may even lead to us feeling choked up and overwhelmed. When we cry or feel like crying or see others crying, please stop and think. Please try to think about it as an important communication. It is a reaction to a trigger. Please don’t invalidate or belittle yourself or others by referring to it as ‘hormonal,’ or ‘manipulative.’ Crying or reacting to things doesn’t make us hormonal, soft or immature. It makes us human and trust me, that’s a wonderful thing to be.