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How to Care for Your Loving Heart

Sometimes it helps to cry your heart out.

Key points

  • Pandemic stress and overload makes it hard to feel emotions like love.
  • Crying can help us connect with ourselves and free ourselves up to love.
  • Crying has emotional and physical benefits, too: It releases oxytocin, which eases both physical and emotional pain.
  • Don't be afraid to let yourself cry—find reliable ways that start the process, and the body knows how to take it from there.
Crying can be good for you.
Source: Chepko/iStock

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether celebrating this year feels natural or discordant in this very precarious moment of our history, I think we can all agree: The world and its vulnerable inhabitants could really use the profound comfort of more love right now.

If you’re a regular reader here, you are likely not surprised that my thoughts this year went not to the flowers and candy and such but to the other side—the experience of when it’s hard to love. Or, more to the point, when it’s hard to feel connected to the love within, between, and around us.

At a time when we are greatly needing the reassurance and nurturing of love, what we may be feeling instead is an absence, a bracing, the ache of the impenetrability of our hearts, and the anguish of things seemingly getting in the way of our feeling love in the unencumbered way we remember from before.

What things get in the way?

Well, the worry and sadness we might feel reading the news any hour of any day. Add to that fear, stress, exhaustion, grief, anger, job stress, dishes, laundry, homework. Life! All of this likely falls under the category of “love in action,” because in the end, why else do we do anything, really, except for the sake of love? But as the pandemic and this moment in human history rage on, the strain of supply and demand mismatches of our own emotional and practical resources is eclipsing what we long to feel—that intense flow of grace when we are replete with love and bolstered with a belief in what is possible.

My kindred over-functioning people, it’s not that we are dysfunctional or shut down by choice. We are out of steam. We are pandemic weary. We are on uncertainty overload.

How do we keep going? Every. Single. Day.


We just do.

But truth-telling here: It’s not easy. Just because we can do all this, and maybe we’re even becoming increasingly better at responding flexibly to the constant shape-shifting of whatever this moment calls for, it doesn’t mean it’s somehow natural for us. We can’t be in a constant state of gratitude for all the gifts we do have amidst the losses and strains. At least, I can’t. Can you?

Honestly, don’t you just want to cry sometimes?

How paradoxical that it can be so hard to simply open to our emotions just under the surface! Like looking at them through a window—they are right there, yet out of reach. As a psychologist, I know we need to connect with those emotions because, in the words of my dear friend, Dr. Dan Gottlieb, “buried feelings are buried alive.” They don’t just go away, but how do we access them?

Enough background—here’s the story that moved me to write this post.

At a recent online event, Sharon Salzberg, the beloved Buddhist meditation teacher who brought lovingkindness meditation practice to the Western world, told a story about her early days inviting a Buddhist monk to her then newly founded meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts. A friend of hers had just passed away, and she was trying hard not to be “attached” to grieving by crying too much and missing what she was supposed to be learning during the monk’s stay. In one of her meetings with the monk, he asked her if she was crying about her friend in her meditation. Thinking it was the “right” answer, she said, “Not very much.” To her surprise, the monk responded, “No, no, you must cry your heart out. Every time. That is how you get the greatest release.”

That wisdom, people, that is a keeper.

There is no cure for crying. No treatment. Crying is the cure.

But sometimes it’s hard to do.

Can we cry on demand?

Not easily. Especially if we’ve been putting it off. The body gets used to putting on the brakes to hold back tears, so when we finally have a minute to ourselves, it’s not like we’re going to burst into tears right then and there. But maybe if we changed our relationship with crying, it would be easier to do when we need to.

Crying is our native tongue; it’s how we express ourselves when we first enter this world. And not crying—that’s the culture. To shorthand it: I heard of a summer camp that gives kids candy if they don’t cry when talking to their parents in their weekly calls. I think that captures the broad sentiment.

I had an odd thought about crying that came to me while working on this post. I thought of a Rube Goldberg machine—you know, where someone’s trying to make toast or something—you put a marble in a tube, and it goes through an elaborate, unlikely, and perilous obstacle course, cascades set in motion other cascades as the lone marble makes its way to its destination and finally: toast!

It’s perilous and beautiful, organized chaos.

How like our own heart! Everything is there at the ready, however perilous, unexpected, and frankly unknown to us all along the way—the emotional tracks are there; we just need to set them in motion, throw that first marble in. We can nudge the start of the dynamic—the hidden path of wisdom of our own good hearts.

We don’t need to know the route. We really can’t know it, right? The path takes us where we need to go. And then there’s an end; we come to stillness at our destination. At least an end for that moment.

The beauty of us that prevails even through hardship and strain, lost sleep and despair, is that we are that inner Rube Goldberg machine. The tracks are there—ancient and modern, universal and personal. When we cry, our inner wisdom takes over, and we go instinctively just where we need to. An invisible and exquisite sequence, a simple task of our humanity that brings us from point A to point B.

What starts your inner Rube Goldberg machine, unfolds those tangled-up emotions?

Maybe you have a piece of music that helps the process. Maybe it’s writing in a journal. Or watching a movie that you know is a sure-bet tearjerker. Or maybe even a comedy that makes you laugh till you cry. Whatever it is, I hope that you find it when you need it.

Because after you cry, you are you—only better. Less turbulence. More flow. More open. You are more available to connect, and your heart can breathe.

For the parents out there—these ideas can help our thinking about kids and crying. For parents, it can feel like there are two choices. Let kids cry—which feels uncomfortable or even unbearable to us—or make them stop, which is not good for them. There is another option: Teach kids the dynamics of feelings so they can understand that crying is a good way, a natural way, to honor the sadness or hurt inside and then move forward.

And that brings me to another point: Some people have no trouble crying, but once they start, they may find it hard to stop. If this is you, remember first of all there’s not a right way to cry or a right amount of time; it’s what’s right for you. A compassionate response is to have at the ready the thought that you have every reason to cry; it is valid and justified. But then ask yourself, “Is it helpful or good for me to be crying now?” Just pausing to consider that question can help to create that inflection point to transition out of crying when you’re ready and into something else that does feel helpful to you in a way that honors your experience and your needs.

And if we need more validation about why crying is good for us, the body provides it. Crying stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-restore system; it releases oxytocin that eases emotional and physical pain, gives a sense of comfort and well-being, and even clears bacteria from the eyes!

So, I hope that this Valentine’s Day, or anytime, we all can feel free to take our sense of brokenness and allow ourselves to heal in the ways we need to. To have lovingkindness for ourselves and to cry our hearts out, alone or with the ones we love. In so doing, we soften our hearts and make room to be present for the moments to come that we can step into, ready to connect with our whole selves.

And P.S.: If you want to see a Rube Goldberg machine in action, here’s one that's quirky and over the top by the amazing musical group OK Go. I have to say, even watching a few minutes of this video while writing this piece did make me laugh/cry and cry/laugh—the extremes, the beauty, the improbability, the absurdity, and so, mission accomplished right there!

Love to all,
Dr. C

©2022 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. This post is also printed on my website.

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