We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and our emotions are understandably high. But it doesn’t mean that one person is more emotional than another just because they have water coming out of their eyes, as one writer explains.
A few weeks before lockdown began, I was living in a house share in Peckham with two others. Our initial cynicism about the hype surrounding Covid-19 had quickly turned to fear, and we sat on the landing in our pyjamas with our heads in our hands.
“I need a gin and tonic,” I said, rummaging in the fridge for a lemon half. My housemate burst into tears, realising that she wouldn’t be able to afford to pay rent if she couldn’t do her agency teaching work or go to acting auditions. I felt upset for her, and scared about the stability of my own job, a new position I’d only been in for six months. I could have cried with her.
I also could have cried when my medical consultant rang me to say that I was in the high-risk category for the virus. He told me not to go into any shops and to go back home to my family. While I was grateful that I had a safe place to go and I wasn’t being asked to shield for three months, I could have cried for the loss of my independence and the lifestyle I had built, as well as out of fear that I could become seriously unwell.
Again, I could have cried when I heard the highest daily death toll of 980 people, or when I found out that a transport worker had died after being spat at. I could have cried, processed the emotion, and signalled to others that I was feeling sad.
For me, one of the positive by-products of the current crisis has been that people are opening up about their emotions. Whether it’s an Instagram caption about a daily cry, or an article encouraging us to express our anxiety through tears, the message that it’s OK to cry can only be a good thing.
While it’s terrible that our situation is inflicting this overflow of emotions upon us, there is comfort to be taken from the shared experience. We might be isolated in our own homes, but we are united by our tears, shed for ourselves, our families, our friends, NHS workers and strangers who have it so much worse than us. We feel less alone, even just for a moment or two, when we read about someone else sobbing whilst eating a tub of Ben and Jerrys and clicking “yes” to the Netflix prompt, “Are you still watching?” We can all cry together, then bravely dry our eyes as we take our latest sourdough loaf out of the oven or read out our round in the Zoom pub quiz.
Except, I haven’t shed a single tear.
As I think about this, my mind is assaulted with questions. Am I heartless? Emotionally detached? Lacking in empathy? Surely there is something wrong with me. How can I be living through a global pandemic in which so many people are losing their lives and their loved ones, and not cry, even once? And no, I am not Cameron Diaz in The Holiday.
Over the years, I have learnt a lot about my emotions, having been diagnosed with several mental illnesses, including depression. My depression has never looked like it does on TV: crying under the duvet, bursting into tears in the checkout queue, or living in a constant state of tearfulness.
Frankly, I wish it had, as at least then I would have been able to let other people know how terrible I felt. Instead, my emotions shut down, but I appeared highly functional on the outside. I was getting out of bed, working through to-do lists and – at my worst – submitting a university dissertation. Even now, I distract myself, sometimes feeling nothing, sometimes feeling as though there’s a thick fog crushing my brain that I can’t explain to anyone. So why don’t I cry?
Psychologist Hayley Lewis describes crying as an “outward manifestation” of emotion, serving as a way of dealing with or expressing an intense feeling. “The mind is a powerful thing,” she explains to Stylist. “If you ignore what’s going on in your mind, the physiology will take over.”
But this doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone: “’Normal’ is a relative term. What’s normal to you could be different for me. People express fear, anxiety or upset in really different ways.”
Lewis explains the three main things that feed into this: personality, upbringing, and culture. “You could have someone who is not open in expressing how they feel, but it’s all inside, sort of churning away. It doesn’t mean that one person is more emotional than another just because they have water coming out of their eyes.”
We might need to find other ways of processing our emotions healthily. “Anything that helps you to externalise what’s going on and make sense of it,” Lewis suggests. “If we can name the negative emotion we’re experiencing and describe it in some way, it actually takes a bit of the power out of it.
“Talk it through – you might have a therapist or even just a friend. Or journaling – if you don’t want to talk, writing things down in your journal or notebook can be helpful. For others, it could be about drawing. Anything that gets it out of your head and works for you.”
What works for me, I’ve realised after years of therapy, is writing. My lack of tears doesn’t mean I don’t feel emotions, or that I’m ignoring my feelings. Instead of beating myself up about my apparent coldness, I’m learning to show myself, and others, compassion.
Whether we’re crying or not, we’re all travelling this difficult road together, and we need to cling to that. While the virus is distancing us physically, our shared emotions and acceptance of our differences can bring us together. There’s comfort to be found in that.