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Why "No Tears Today" Stickers Need to Go

Praised for holding back tears, kids learn to ignore and hide painful emotions.

Key points

  • A lot of us grew up being told that our negative feelings are invalid, annoying, and even destructive.
  • Negative feelings do not go away just because we ignore them. They often will manifest in unexpected ways.
  • Habitual avoidance and dismissal of our feelings can cause us to feel numb and disconnected.
 Anna Shvets/Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

A few years back, I took my then 3-year-old to a lab for blood work. His little vein evaded the probing needle time and again. But he sat in my lap, his small frame wrapped in my embrace, trying his best to hold still through the sobs. After the fifth attempt, the phlebotomist finally breathed a sigh of relief as blood began to fill the empty vial.

When we were finally done, my son proudly accepted a colorful sticker from the phlebotomist. The sticker had No Tears Today printed amidst triumphant bursting stars. He wore it proudly on his chest, his face still glistening with tears.

As we walked toward the car, he suddenly asked, “What does the sticker say?”

“It says no tears today.”

As I read those words, I knew something didn’t sit right. I turned to look at my son. The glow of pride and joy that enveloped him just moments earlier disappeared. Instead, a look of hurt and silent defeat. Then the tears returned.

Angrily, he ripped the sticker off of his shirt. What was meant to be an attestation of his strength suddenly turned into mockery and a cruel dismissal of his experience. This is a memory that I could never quite let go of. It is, in fact, what inspired me to start writing for Psychology Today.

As a therapist, a big part of what I do is to help people process their feelings. A good number of people struggle with the prerequisite step, the identification of feelings. In sessions, I am often met with a look of confusion, frustration, and resignation when I ask people to name their feelings. Some question the utility of this exercise. Some are openly fearful of unearthing things that they have worked hard to suppress. Some insist that they, in fact, have no feelings.

The No Tears Today sticker flashes before my mind’s eye when I hear the “no feelings” declaration. A lot of us grew up being told that our negative feelings are invalid, annoying, and even destructive. Starting in infancy, we label quiet babies as “good babies,” whereas the ones that cry a lot are deemed “fussy” or even pathologized as “colicky.”

Many adults aren’t good at recognizing feelings. We often work hard to avoid feelings because they can get dark, sticky, messy, and heavy. If we acknowledged them, then we would have to deal with them and risk drowning in their murky depth. Would it not be easier and cleaner to hide behind a “no tears” sign?

If, as children, we were praised for holding back tears, then it comes as no surprise that we become adults who habitually ignore and dismiss our painful emotions. Instead, we do things that take our attention off of feelings: We incessantly scroll through social media posts; we play video games; we eat things we know we don’t need; we exercise, sometimes excessively; we do risky things. What’s wrong with ignoring our feelings when they get dark? These feelings do not go away. They remain seeded and will likely manifest in unexpected ways. We become disconnected from ourselves.

So back to the aftermath of the painful blood draw. It became clear to me that what was most devastating for my child was not the physical pain but the realization that his bravery alone was not deemed good enough, that “no tears” was apparently the “ultimate triumph.”

I got down on my knees and held his little body tightly in my arms. Breathing in his honesty, I told him that it was absolutely OK to have tears. And the tears flowed.