Michael Bader D.M.H.

What Is He Thinking?

Why We Cry at the Movies

Classic research suggests what really brings on the waterworks.

Posted Sep 03, 2014

Psychoanalyst Joseph Weiss, M.D. made many profound contributions to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis (e.g., his book, How Therapy Works). But perhaps his simplest but most profound insight was captured in his 1952 article “Crying at the Happy Ending.” It explains a wide range of phenomena and I reference it all the time in my work as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst.

Weiss attempted to explain the ubiquitous phenomenon that people watching movies cried at happy endings. Commonly, the film depicted danger, loss, and grief, but rather than crying at those moments, the viewers instead cried when the ending presented some form of reconciliation, reunion, or otherwise successful resolution. Weiss asked: Why doesn’t the audience cry when loss and tragedy are actually occurring, but only when the events are over or otherwise resolved in a satisfactory way? 

His answer lay in the concept of safety.

We feel too psychologically vulnerable and imperiled to express feelings appropriate to the situation while that situation is actually occurring. Those feelings are held at bay. When the dangerous or painful situation is over, it’s safe enough to express what was there all along—such as sadness. It’s not that the happy ending that brings on the crying, but, instead, that it makes it safe enough to feel what was always there but had been repressed.

A useful parallel might be seen in the experience of being in an extremely cold environment and then entering a warm house. It’s only then that a person begins to shiver and “recognizes” how cold he or she has been. When someone is in danger, his or her ego is oriented toward surviving and mastering that danger. The emotions that were appropriate to the incident are repressed, only to emerge when the danger has passed. 

We see an extreme version of this phenomenon in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Prolonged and threatening danger, in relation to which an individual is relatively helpless, is traumatic. To survive it, feelings and thoughts have to be repressed. It is only when the person returns to safety that symptoms appear—nightmares, startle reflexes, panic attacks, etc. All of these would have actually been appropriate during the period of trauma, but couldn’t safely be expressed.

This is a powerful insight.

So many of my patients grew up feeling loss and lost, unprotected and unloved, ignored and neglected. But these feelings are dangerous to know about, to feel too strongly and to express it in real time. Children, after all, are dependent and incompletely developed and will go to any lengths to protect their attachment to their caretakers. They do so by at least partially repressing painful feelings and perceptions. To the extent that the therapist establishes conditions of safety, conditions completely specific to the individual patient, these repressed feelings can progressively emerge. The sessions can be quite emotional. The reason, again, is that people repress feelings and perceptions that are too dangerous to experience, but, under conditions of safety, are able to finally begin to let them out.

Watching movies or television episodes, or reading books, can be experiences during which it is safe to experience otherwise warded-off feelings. I will often ask a patient what made him or her cry in such a situation. It might involve a parent-figure, spouse, or friend understanding the hero, or offering protection or love. Right away, I know that these feelings have been there for much of the patient’s life. The fact that it’s someone else on the screen going through this makes it safe to vicariously identify with the pain and emotionally express it when it is symbolically resolved.

Such a simple construct is often surprising to patients—and ignored by therapists. This is because many people don’t understand the role of safety in the way Weiss did. Psychotherapy, in fact, works because it establishes, hopefully, the conditions of safety that enable a patient to recover painful memories and feelings, the expression of which leads to greater self-regulation, compassion, and understanding, and a freer path forward to his or her healthy goals.

The next time you or a friend cries at a happy ending, don’t look at the resolution, but at the conditions that the ending resolved.

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