Crying Too Much

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Reader’s Question

Recently I realized that I cry too often in inappropriate situations.

Anything can trigger it, really — somebody scolds me, comments on my work, just frowns at me, or responds a bit harshly. The thing is, I know they mean no harm, I really do. I appreciate their pointing out my mistakes, and I know the scolding was in order, but at times the tears just start flowing. Then, when somebody asks me what’s wrong or tries to comfort me, it gets so bad that I can’t utter a proper sentence because of the lump in my throat.

There is also something with how I interpret people’s expressions and words. At some point I become sure they don’t like me, or are annoyed with me.

Regardless of how many times they may reassure me that it’s not like that, and no matter how hard I try to convince myself, I just can’t believe it. I think all my friends stick around because they also lack social skills, pity me or benefit somehow. In effect, I get upset a lot; and sometimes one thing can be too much and I’ll tear up again.

If a stranger says something rude it also makes me cry, even though I know it shouldn’t bother me at all.

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if I did it at night in my room, but it happens during the day. I can’t hold it in because I start to suffocate, quite literally.

I’m 17. Is this normal, and will it pass eventually, or should I seek some help?

Any tips on how I can calm myself? Breathing slowly doesn’t help.

Psychologist’s Reply

From what you described, it seems as if there could be a few things happening. I will give a brief description of various scenarios, and it will be up to you to see if any of them fit.

First, it sounds like you might be a sensitive person in general, and especially sensitive in relationships with others. Scolding that might seem minor still feels significant, and it brings up strong feelings in the moment for you. Being a sensitive person is difficult at times, because you might find that you are having to manage your feelings more frequently than others.

Beyond interpersonal sensitivity is social phobia, which is characterized by a marked or persistent fear of social situations due to a fear of showing anxiety symptoms or acting in an embarrassing way. You have noted that it is embarrassing to cry in these situations, but you have not indicated that you are avoiding people or situations due to a fear of crying. Those with social phobia usually recognize that their fear is excessive, yet they still have strong anxiety reactions when placed in situations that they fear. It is difficult to diagnose oneself with social phobia. If the fear of crying or appearing nervous, silly, or dumb interferes with school, friendships, or any other aspect of your life, it might be worth discussing with a mental health professional. Strategies such as abdominal breathing (as you mentioned), self-talk, and progressive muscle relaxation are behavioral and cognitive techniques to help you overcome anxious responses (such as crying).

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You did not mention symptoms of depression such as depressed or irritable mood, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, appetite changes, or suicidal thoughts. However, I do want to mention that depression can bring with it frequent crying, negative, or pessimistic thinking, and a sense of worthlessness. If your mood has been more sad or irritable than not over the last two weeks or longer, the frequency with which you are crying could also be related to a mood problem (e.g. depression).

The other aspect that stood out is your interpretation of others’ behavior. You mentioned feeling as if others do not like you, are friends with you only because they pity you, and so on. Your friends have denied that this is the case but you are not convinced. In some ways, your own view of yourself might be as problematic as others’ views of you. I wonder if your own thoughts about yourself (e.g. negative thoughts, perhaps), are influencing your assumptions about how others see you. For example, if someone dislikes the way he looks, he might assume that others also dislike the way he looks. He might even engage in ‘mind reading’ when someone looks at him on the street and think, “Oh, she thinks that I am too short.” If you believe that you are more flawed than everyone else, you will be more likely to interpret others’ words and actions as reflective of that. In these cases, exploration of beliefs about oneself and the automatic thoughts that accompany those beliefs can be useful. If you were to increase your awareness of where your beliefs stop and others’ beliefs begin, you might be less apt to believe that others think poorly of you. A therapist trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy can assist with this process.

You asked if you might grow out of this. My answer is, you might! At age 17, there are many transitions coming up for you that could be contributing to an overall level of stress and anxiety for you. There is hormonal and physical development that can affect mood and behavior. In addition, high school can be a stressful time for people, depending on how successful you feel with your academics and how accepted or comfortable you feel socially. It may be that when you finish high school and move on to another setting, you get in touch with a new way of seeing yourself. My hope is that as you age and develop, you find a sense of comfort and peace with yourself.

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