Crying when talking to authority

Originally Published: December 3, 2010 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 16, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I would like to know why I feel like crying when I speak to figures of authority. It happens most often when there is a serious subject to discuss; however, it has happened when talking about good things, too. It has happened when talking to my parents, grandparents, boss, and teachers. The common factor is that I see them as figures of authority and we are discussing me. I can talk with these people about anything else, but if we are talking about me, I begin feeling the urge to cry. I bite my tongue to distract myself. It is very embarrassing and uncontrollable. The most recent outburst happened when I was asked to describe my strengths and what I need to improve. I could feel myself wanting to cry, but it was still controllable by biting my tongue and speaking in short sentences. However, the teacher began using a soothing tone, asking what I thought because I wasn't saying very much. I was no longer able to control myself and cried. How do I stop this from happening and why does it happen? I am otherwise a very outspoken person and have no issues with public speaking.

Dear Reader,

So you've noticed this pattern — that tears come involuntarily when you're talking to people in a position of authority who are evaluating you. And fighting the tears is hard even when someone responds kindly. Know this — your experience is not uncommon. Two questions for you: What are you thinking when you're talking to these people? You say you have the urge to cry, but what other feelings are you experiencing besides the embarrassment you mention? Understanding what the tears are about may be the first step in figuring out how to stop them.

The emotions that cause tears to fall can take many forms: sadness, empathy, relief, stress, fear, anger, intense joy, and longing, to name just a few. Crying is a uniquely human response. Some scientists believe that crying evolved as a way of creating connection and as a way of letting others know that something is genuinely wrong. Tears can signal real distress — they have a purpose.

When being praised, ask yourself if any of the following thoughts or questions go through your mind: I don't deserve this. If they really knew me, they wouldn't be saying these things. Can this possibly be true? What if their approval is only temporary? What if I disappoint them later? Do these sound familiar or are they different from what you are thinking? It's possible that you may be evaluating yourself more harshly than these people who are giving you praise, so getting positive feedback could feel "too good to be true." Emotional responses might be anxiety, self-consciousness, or embarrassment at the attention — you response might also be a feeling of relief. What is it like for you to have positive traits or progress pointed out by others? Do you feel relieved at being noticed? Does it feel scary? Is it hard to take in? Take note of your thoughts and feelings the next time you are praised. Consider how your feelings differ when talking to peers versus when talking to authority figures.

Similarly, observe your own internal thought patterns and emotions when someone is giving you critical feedback. The following thoughts could trigger tears: I am losing her or his approval. I am a total failure. She or he has lost respect for me. She or he no longer likes me. Sometimes, those feelings can become exaggerated as you replay the interaction or anticipate further criticism. Such thoughts can have consequences beyond the tears. Again, what emotions are coming up in these moments?

So, what to do about it? By taking a position as an investigator, approach your tears with a sense of compassionate curiosity to get a sense of your internal world in these moments. Ask yourself gently, what is this about for me? The act of nonjudgmental self-observation could help alleviate the response or reduce the urge to cry in the moment. Additionally, talking to a counselor may be helpful, too. If you're a Columbia student, you can make an appointment to speak with a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC).

Take care,

Alice