“At My Father’s Funeral, I Couldn’t Cry: Why Men Find It So Hard to Cry (And How It Hurts Us All)

Everyone cries. Crying is a natural, deeply ingrained biological function, a reflexive response to strong emotional experiences. Usually sadness, but it can happen when you are extremely happy or even angry. Crying has a lot of scope.

And crying is important. Many point to its function as a powerful mechanism for releasing stress and emotional pain, which is a key aspect of good well-being and mental health.

As a neuroscientist, I’ve been well aware of this for some time. As a result, I’ve scoffed at the idea that “men don’t cry,” dismissing it outright as unhealthy macho posturing, a useless holdover from the past, and something we should ignore in these more mentally enlightened times.

But then, in 2020, I went to my father’s funeral. The very narrow, socially distant one needed because he died of COVID-19, at the age of 58.

I never got to see him, never got to say goodbye and had to give a eulogy. It was, by some margin, the saddest day of my life.

But I didn’t cry.

It’s not that I didn’t Want cry. I did it. I knew it was right and necessary. But I couldn’t.

You know when you feel that tingling in your sinuses that means you need to sneeze, but the sneeze never comes? It was like that, only much sadder.

I finally cried that night, just before bed, when everyone else in my house was asleep. However, I had clearly internalized a lot more of the “men don’t cry” perspective than I realized.

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Why do we cry?

Despite how common it is, the real reason we cry is still unclear.

We know it is a deeply fundamental process; the tears we cry due to strong emotions, known as psycho-emotional tears, actually are chemically different from those we produce when we have dust in our eyes or cut onions.

But why did this process evolve in the first place? Sure, the whole “releasing stress and powerful emotions” aspect is very helpful, but why did evolution decide that this process would benefit from being loud, noisy, and result in leaky eyes?

He’s saying that crying out of emotion is a trait unique to humans (as far as we know). Much of the things that make humans unique come from how intensely social we are, relative to our fellow humans. In fact, a surprising amount of our brain function is devoted to forming and maintaining emotional bonds with others.

One theory is that crying is a way to signal to those close to us (emotionally or geographically) that we are experiencing powerful emotions and need help, support, empathy, or just general connection.

This is underlined by the fact that our emotional tears contain chemicals like oxytocin, which improve emotional bonds.

It’s sadly ironic, in a way, that we’ve learned to be embarrassed to be seen crying, when it practically is the whole point its.


Why don’t men cry, and why is it so bad?

Men can cry. Men Should scream. They all have the same plumbing and neurological systems that women have, for that matter. But we live in a world where the expression of men’s emotions is regularly considered a sign of weakness, of vulnerability.

However, as I learned at my father’s funeral, it is one thing to know intellectually that men can and should cry, but in practice it is more complex than that.

We are all, whether we like it or not, shaped by our environments, in countless ways, both overt and subtle. Our brain learns by doing and by observing. And in particular, the people around us and our interactions with them shape our own thinking.

So if we live in a world where the “women cry, men don’t” message is constantly reinforced, our brains will readily internalize it, and if you’re a man, it will work to prevent crying, even under the most emotional circumstances.

This is dangerous. The parts of our brains that process powerful emotions, allowing us to deal with them, are the same parts that create They. So if we don’t allow ourselves to experience our emotions, we can’t process them, and as a result, our mental health declines, to a potentially fatal degree.

In essence, such thoughtless masculinity, which prevents men from crying, can be literally toxic.

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Four simple ways to improve crying

So if you are a man who wants cry more, but is struggling to overcome decades of social programming they tell you should not, what can be done?

It’s a difficult process, but here are some helpful options:

Embrace your emotions safely or privately

Crying in front of people can be a scary prospect, but you don’t have to start there. If you can make yourself cry, that’s a big step.

In fact, watching sad movies or listening to sad music alone is a very common pastime, because it allows the brain to recognize and process negative emotions, but in a safe and risk-free environment.

It’s a bit like emotional training; it is not Cute repeatedly lift heavy weights, but it is good for you.

Personally, while trying to work through my crying issues, I kept revisiting the most heartbreaking scenes from Pixar movies. It was a bit like using an emotional nicotine patch.

Talk about it

It may seem trivial, but if you have someone you can open up to emotionally, take advantage and do it.

A good friend, a romantic partner, a close relative, anyone. Those who were close are actually an important aspect of the human brain’s emotional processing; sharing emotions is often as important as experiencing them. It’s so much easier to cry when you have someone who is there to help you do it.

Break the cycle

Following the advice above, it’s also important to avoid reinforcing the message that men don’t cry.

If you have friends or colleagues who are the type to laugh and ridicule any emotional expression in other men, you may need to distance yourself from such negative feedback.

Test your limits as and when you feel able to, but when you try to unlearn a bad lesson, you would ideally avoid being taught it again.

Appreciate “manly” crying.

There are plenty of examples out there of healthy masculinity, involving men openly crying in a good way, just look at Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds crying when their Wrexham team got promoted.

Look for them. Hug them. We’ve always been told about the darker examples of men’s communities, but it’s not them only ways to be a man in our modern world.

Dean Burnett delves into how our brain actually works in his latest book, Emotional ignorance.

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