Can't stop crying

Originally Published: June 9, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 10, 2014
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Dear Alice,

Are there any techniques for controlling crying? I doubt that my problem requires clinical attention; however, it frequently manifests itself as a serious handicap. During conflicts (particularly with professional superiors or with significant others), I find myself unable to defend my position, which only makes the problem worse. Sympathy only tends to aggravate the crying and it is impossible to stop once it starts. I am a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, and I don't seem to be growing out of it. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Reader,

Conflict is a normal and healthy part of any relationship. It's bound to occur, even in the best personal, professional, or casual relationships, as people enter these interactions with various life experiences and opinions. Examples of conveying conflict in a negative way can include yelling, screaming, breaking things, or name-calling. It could also be more passive-aggressive, such as making sarcastic comments, glaring, ignoring the other, or something similar. As you can see, the difficult part can be learning to express your feelings in the midst of a conflict without losing your cool, exploding, saying things you don't mean, or, in your case, crying. Sobbing at inopportune moments might feel like a serious handicap, but it happens to many people. It's helpful that you seem to recognize when, under what circumstances, and with whom your crying happens. Being able to identify what often triggers your weeping is an excellent first step in helping you control the urge to cry whenever conflict arises.

If you can think of conflict as a normal part of life, it might make it seem less intimidating. Learn to find other sources for responding to conflict by visualizing. Envision a situation with a partner or co-worker that could send you into tears. Imagine staying calm and taking some deep breaths. Picture yourself stating your feelings and thoughts in a calm, confident manner. It may sound too good to be true, but research shows that repeated visualizations of acting in a way that is contrary to our normal behaviors or responses can actually change the manner in which we react.

Write down all of the situations that have elicited crying for you in the past. What was it about the circumstances that made you cry? Find some things that you can say to express your feelings without getting choked up. Here are some examples you can use or adapt to particular situations:

  • When you feel frustrated or angry at a supervisor, imagine some things you could say, such as, "I appreciate your feedback on _____. I was hoping we could include my input in the report as well."
  • At a meeting when you disagree with someone, you could say something like, "Jack, I liked what you said about X and we could definitely address that issue. I'm also thinking that we need to address Y so that we can prevent _____ in the future."
  • Or, imagine that you're with your partner and you feel yourself getting teary-eyed because you're angry or frustrated. Try saying, "Honey, I don't agree with what you just said and I'm feeling angry. I need a minute to collect my thoughts so that we can talk about this and come to a solution." Telling your partner about your difficulty expressing conflict will hopefully make him or her more understanding, and give you the time and space you may need to collect your thoughts.

Rethinking your dilemma as a challenge to overcome and prevail over, rather than as a serious handicap that prevents you from reaching your goal(s), may  give you the confidence to tackle the problem without feeling hopeless. For example, many have been able to successfully deal with anger management problems, a fear of public speaking, or whatever it may be that holds them back. So, view your crying as one way that you've been expressing challenging feelings, and now you're going to learn a different way of communicating that is more effective for you and still allows you to express how you feel, all the while maintaining your composure.

Talking with a counselor could help bring you some relief. Together you can explore the origins of your conflict resolution (or lack of) style that can shape how you communicate as an adult. Columbia students can contact Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) for an appointment. If you’re a college student elsewhere, consider contacting your campus counseling services.

Don't forget to be easy on yourself. You're learning new skills, and just like learning anything new, it takes time and practice. Good luck!

Alice