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Tears & Tolerance

“Adults say sorry when they cry in front of each other.  Should I say sorry too Mommy, or just not cry in front of those people?”

-A 7-year-old child-

I want to speak a little about *normalising emotional distress*

Yesterday I wrote a post about what happens when we cry.  It read:  What a different world it would be if more children grew up with the message that crying = strength. 

Our bodies gift us the wondrous healing power of pain killing tears. How incredible is that?  I have this hope that more children grow up seeing strength in crying.  Rather than being falsely taught that crying is something to hide or stop.

I attached the following image:

Image credit seerutkchawla

I carried on reflecting about how our individual responses and the wider cultural response to the very necessary self-regulatory power of crying, is met with so much discomfort in our society.

Those of us who cry more easily and children who cry frequently, are usually highly sensitive beings. Sensitivity has a genetic component that brings with it a higher degree of reactivity and what might be described as a more intense experience of the world.  Children who are deep feeling beings with tender hearts, can be extremely sensitive to their environment. 

Gentle, attuned and deeply compassionate care, can be a game changer for sensitive children.  To be seen, known, understood and accepted as we are, can be transformational for all human beings.

Acceptance can feel rare in our neo-liberal, capitalist and individualist society that prizes robustness, rational behaviour, success, competitiveness, 100% attendance scores, standardised testing and reward-based systems, to ensure conformity and compliance. There is no room for emotionality here, for:

“Neoliberalism is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity” (Metcalf, 2017).

Our culture not only calls on us to be so many things, but it also feeds an enormous discomfort with open displays of emotion, such as crying. All too often crying is perceived as weak and many of us have grown up hearing phrases such as: ‘Big boys don’t cry’, ‘she’s turning on the water works again’, ‘man-up!’ and ‘don’t’ be such a wimp!’.  Frequent crying gets associated with phrases such as he’s too sensitive’, or ‘she’s really high maintenance, or ‘they’re Just. Too. Much!’  This messaging is much more harmful that we might first think.

Few of us have been raised or supported to see crying as an important or indeed integral part of our communication and regulation.  Our cultural relationship with public displays of distress, can mean that we find ourselves apologising for crying in public.  With widespread discomfort around emotional distress, we can indeed find ourselves saying sorry on autopilot.  

In such a context, it is understandable that many of us feel, or have felt triggered when our own children cry, especially if they cry ‘a lot’.  It can feel confronting to be faced with the feelings this brings up, feelings that may be associated with childhood wounds, being invalidated when we cried as children and the unmet needs we may still carry.

As painful as it can be to do so, some of us may have spent time deconstructing the messages we received as children.  Reformulating our relationship with our emotions and self-expression.

As we strive to be part of the changes we want to see for our children, we may already have asked: What would feel healthier for us, and more aligned with the kinds of messages we would choose to share with our children?  

I feel so much sadness about how much we all miss out on, in a culture that struggles to honour our children’s ability to feel emotions more deeply, and to express them authentically.  There are many unrecognised qualities that are part of being so deep feeling, such as being beautifully attuned to how other people feel, being an empathic friend, and being skilled at detecting incongruence. 

When I think about autistic masking in the context of a neuronormative culture so afraid of authentic self-expression, I see yet another layer of why. Why Autistic bodyminds make the daily assessment that it is too unsafe to show up as we are.  In a world so terrified of being ‘too much’, of being ‘different’ of stepping outside of so called social ‘norms’, it is no wonder that many of our bodymind’s instinctively, reflexively, mask just to survive.

We have so much to learn from our children’s ability to shine a light on the parts of life that no longer serve our needs, aspects some of us may have become dissociated from. When we hold safe space for more of our children’s fully authentic expressions, the rich benefits begin to show themselves to us. 

None of this is easy to do, especially in the moments that challenge us the most.  The responsibility of parenting, of childcare and education, is all encompassing. As we watch our babies grow, and keep on doing the best we can, we also hold onto so much hope that their struggle will be less. 

All of our unrecognised labour, love and co-regulatory care through these parenting years, all of our efforts to model the healing power of expression rather than suppression, will become part of our grandchildren’s heritage too. 

To follow my work, and to join an online space committed to exploring Autistic experiences, difference and diversity away from the pathology paradigm, you are so welcome to join me at: https://www.facebook.com/ChangingTheNarrativeAboutAutismAndPDA

By Jessica Matthews

Writer, home educator and Autistic advocate, with specialisations in psychology, polyvagal theory, Autistic / neurodivergent wellbeing.
BACP Integrative therapist, Post Grad training in Clinical Psychology , BSC Psychology Hons degree.

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