6 Reasons Why Some People Can't Cry
Social, psychological, and medical causes.
Posted September 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The inability to cry can have numerous possible causes.
- Antidepressants, depression, trauma, personality factors, social stigma, and certain medical conditions can all inhibit us from tearing up.
- Fortunately, many of the reasons we can't cry can be successfully treated and reversed.
Perhaps you’ve just been rejected by a romantic partner, or lost a job. Maybe a loved one has passed away. You take refuge in your bedroom and wait for the sobs… that never come.
As it turns out, you’re not alone. While there are no official statistics, the inability to cry is thought to be quite common. Many people can’t let out (negative) emotions in front of others—or at all.
While it’s not always pleasant to experience, crying has its upsides, including the ability to process emotions and gain support from others. The research into why people cry has taken off in the past dozen years, but there is less data on why some can’t mist up.
If you’re hoping for a definitive answer, you’ll most likely be disappointed. Instead, there are many possible reasons why some of us can’t cry. To get a sense of what those might be, I talked to world-renowned emotion researchers Ad Vingerhoets and Lauren Bylsma. Here's what I found:
1. Emotional Trauma
Having a history of emotional trauma can blunt the overt expression of feelings. According to Vingerhoets, a retired professor in the department of psychology at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, “From the moment someone experiences a psychic trauma, they can lose the ability to cry.” The reason usually involves a psychological defense mechanism to protect yourself from unpleasant feelings, either consciously or unintentionally.
Vingerhoets mentions several examples: an escaped victim of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lost the capacity to cry after his rescue; a female patient who experienced a stillbirth couldn’t shed a tear in the many subsequent decades. And I’ve seen this with my own patients who have experienced trauma. The good news: If identified correctly, this is one of the more treatable causes of the inability to shed tears.
2. Your Personality Style
Crying is notoriously difficult to study in the laboratory because of the artificial conditions. Nevertheless, Vingerhoets’s body of research has found that those who cry regularly report feeling more connected to others and also receiving more social support. So, can the opposite be true?
According to Vingerhoets, there is only one published study that looks at some of the reasons for the inability to cry emotional tears. In this sample of 475 adults, the tearless subjects reported less connection to others, demonstrated less empathy, and had less of an emotional response to art forms and nature. But Vingerhoets points out that it’s nearly impossible to draw definite conclusions about the role of personality style in the lack of emotional expression from this single study.
3. Your Antidepressant
Some of the most widely used medications in psychiatry—the antidepressants known as selective serotonin (or serotonin/norepinephrine) reuptake inhibitors—can be an under-the-radar cause of suppressed tears. While they remain valuable tools in the treatment of anxiety and depression, these medications can make some patients feel numb. This effect will either get better or go away when the medication is withdrawn, or the dose is lowered. I’ve seen this numerous times over the years with my own patients.
One patient, “Tammy,” a woman in her early 60s taking a serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, was unable to cry while going through a painful divorce and battling cancer. When we reduced the dosage of her medication, however, the tears flowed freely, much to her relief.
This is counterintuitive and perplexing. Doesn’t being depressed mean crying more rather than less? It turns out that some patients with major depressive disorder report feelings of emptiness rather than sadness. This is particularly true of a severe type of depression known as “melancholia,” where the sufferer regularly feels worse in the morning and experiences a complete lack of pleasure. The psychiatry diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association mentions melancholia as a subtype of major depressive disorder and lists “empty mood” as a symptom.
5. A Medical Condition
This is less likely to be the culprit than some of the other reasons. While not common, there are a few medical conditions that can inhibit tear production.
The autoimmune disorder Sjogren’s Syndrome, for example, causes dry eyes and can block the production of tears. An even rarer disorder, known as Moebius Syndrome—a congenital affliction—can block the movement of eye muscles and inhibit the lacrimal (tear-producing) glands. At times, lacrimal gland inflammation can also play a role.
6. Social Stigma
Bylsma, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, states that “a need for control can keep some people from crying.” This is especially true for biological males, who cry, on average, less than once every two months, while biological females in Western countries cry two to four times per month. (Take note: There is a lot of variation in these statistics, and we need to account for individual differences, childhood environment, and cultural and societal norms.)
“People who were always invalidated as a child might be reluctant to cry. This is particularly likely for men,” says Bylsma. But societal norms have been shifting in recent years. Case in point: It’s become more acceptable for male athletes to cry in public at either defeat or victory.
The good news is that many, if not most, of these factors are manageable, even treatable. If you are frustrated by an inability to cry, it’s important to seek assistance from a medical or mental health professional who can help you explore the reasons for your lack of tears and guide you toward a resolution.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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