Adult Children Of Narcissists And Crying

I am not one who believes that crying is a sign of weakness.

I cry all the time. I just don’t cry in front of other people.

Mostly.

I cry in front of Randy because it’s safe to cry in front of Randy. I cry over sad videos and cute stories about kids. I cry over television shows that are designed to yank your heartstrings. I just don’t cry over me.

I refrain from crying in front of other people because even though I don’t think crying is a sign of weakness, I think it’s a sign of my weakness.

I am the oldest of 3 girls and my narc father made it very clear to me his disappointment that I wasn’t a son. His first child was supposed to be a boy. The message of disappointment contained a thinly concealed accusation that the fact I didn’t have a penis was somehow my fault.

It was important to him that I be strong. Being strong included not crying.

Crying was for girls. 

When I was 10 years old, I was playing barefoot in the cemetery behind my house and sliced my heel open on a broken bottle. My father was terribly annoyed that bandaging it wasn’t enough and that he had to take his time to take me to the ER for stitches.

I remember screaming my head off when they cleaned it out and shot it up with Novocaine. When I came out, my father was livid. Was that me back there screaming like that? I embarrassed him.

The words ‘I’ll give you something to cry about’ were often spoken.

He lived up to that threat, too. He often gave me something to cry about.

And cry I did. I cried over everything for years. Any confrontation ended in tears. Often, confrontation began in tears. Criticism from a boss or a coworker would make me cry.

I so badly wanted to bottle up my tears. I was embarrassed by them.

Hypnotists were popular back in the 80s for cigarette addiction and weight loss. I decided to see one to help me stop crying. I couldn’t get through the conversation with the hypnotist without sobbing.

It didn’t help.

I did manage to get my waterworks under control. I was well into my 30s, but I managed. I went from crying over everything, to not crying at all. I did this by avoiding confrontation at all cost. I did it by not standing up for myself and swallowing anger and hurt. I also managed my tears by taking anti-anxiety medication before any event that I knew could trigger tears, such as a performance review at work. Or just going to the doctor to describe cold symptoms.

I was a walking exposed nerve who felt the pain of everything all the time, but I did it without crying.

For many years now, I have had people tell me that they admire my strength. I am such a strong person. Every time I heard this, I felt a little bit more like an impostor. I’m not strong! I’m just an expert at avoidance.

I’m working on living a more authentic life and not avoiding painful feelings, I’ve had to deal with the tears again. I’ve broken down and cried in front of my discount therapist on more than one occasion and was mortified by my tears. She has explainedcrying to me over and over that tears are not a sign of weakness, they just are.

The last time I cried in front of her, all I got was a headache. I wasn’t flushed with shame and I didn’t feel weak. I didn’t like crying in front of her, but I felt a little more comfortable with it.

I also had a sort of confrontation with my boss. Usually, I have to be extremely angry to have any type of confrontation and, in this case, I wasn’t angry at all. I calmly explained to him that his ‘jokes’ were not funny. I found them degrading and demoralizing. (He finds it hilarious to talk shit about women). 

I think at one point, I felt the hint of tears pricking the backs of my eyes, but there was never any danger of them falling.

I was beyond proud of myself. I found strength that I didn’t know I had. I was able to tell another human being that I was unhappy with their treatment of me and I did it without screaming and crying.

It didn’t change the situation at work, but I know it changed me. I think I might be more strong than I’ve ever given myself credit for and I’m beginning to feel that tears are no longer my enemy.

That’s not to say that I want to walk around crying all the time over every little thing. I still feel that there is a place and a time for tears. I doubt that I will ever feel comfortable crying in front of anyone other than my husband or kids, but I think I can drop the associated shame.

I so badly don’t want my identity to be one that was shaped by my father’s mental illness, but it is. I can’t change this overnight, but I can keep chipping away at it.

My tears don’t make me weak.

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  1. Rocco says:

    So….. this is a sensitive subject for me as well. I’ve “wanted” to cry so much, especially in the last year. The last time I cried for ME was when I left for boot camp. Not a single tear when I left for deployment, came home from deployment, and maybe a handful of tears when my kids were born. The only time I seem to cry now is when I watch videos of soldiers coming home to THEIR families. I have no idea why they stopped, but I feel like they would make me feel better from time to time. If I feel this way, I know that everyone feels this way. I’m a “macho shithead” (as I am called by my work friend) and I feel that everyone should shed some tears when they feel they need to.

    Reply
  2. Mary says:

    I really, really have trouble with this as well. It is really hard for me to cry for myself. I can cry for other people or because a movie was sad. I can cry in therapy, and I can cry in front of two specific friends. And that’s it. Never alone because there is no one I trust to bring me out of the crying. My therapist and I talk about this a lot. I don’t think it’s that I think that tears are weak. I just don’t trust myself to ever stop if someone else is not there to “save” me from my tears.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Like you, I can cry for other people. I haven’t really thought about whether or not I cry alone. I don’t think I do. I cry in my sleep sometimes, but I don’t think that counts.

      Reply
  3. Kareña K says:

    ‘I was a walking exposed nerve who felt the pain of everything all the time, but I did it without crying’
    Ditto till the PTSD kicked in, now I can’t control it, with people I care about at least. I still have an effective barricade against strangers. I wish I knew how to pull up the drawbridge and lower the portcullis so that people can’t hurt me any more. My defence system is shot to hell.

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  4. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t cry in front of anyone. If I can’t swallow the tears, I have an immediate “flight” response. I have mastered the art of silent crying, so unless you are looking me in the eyes, you might never know it is happening.

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  5. stef says:

    I hate crying in front of anyone, too. Ever. But–I’ve gotten to where I’m OK doing it…as long as it’s silent. As in, JUST tears. No noise. Not sure why that matters, but I’m OK with crying silent tears all the way through a funeral from beginning to end. Or when the mom comes home and hugs Kevin at the end of Home Alone. When I think of my bakery-that-was. Or when I see heartbreaking news online. I blame it on menopausal emotional-ness or whatever. But inside I hear “softy!”–and I try not to listen.

    I never cry over my dad anymore, though. I did that enough already.

    He’s starting to come at ME with tears, though, in an “old, slurring-your-words, washed-up, drunk-off-your-butt” alcoholic way, but it’s a little too late for those to move me to anything but irritated horror. The last 2 times I’ve talked to him have ended with me saying, “I’m sorry–what? I can’t understand what you said. Are you CRYING right now? OK. I have to go. *click*”

    I may have forgiven him a long time ago for being a jerk, but he lived every minute of his life exACtly the way he chose to, and crying about it now is really just not going to help.

    Sorry. Didn’t mean to go off.

    What I meant to say was that–I’m so glad you were able to stand up to someone without tears. I know the feeling.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      You can go off all you want!

      I can’t imagine my dad crying to me. Although, I would probably do the same thing..a little too late for that shit..

      Reply
    • Michelle says:

      and thank you. It felt really good to have my say without crying.

      Reply
      • stef says:

        I know. It’s sort of borderline mortifying to talk to him on the phone, with him mumbling and sniffling like an old weepy drunk. He still forgets my kids’ names, though, so, nothing has really changed. I know that forgiveness is the right thing, but it’s the “forget” part that i struggle with. Crying doesn’t prove that he’s changed, just that he’s afraid to die unmourned, so I’m sorry– if he expects me to pat him on the back and tell him everything’s fine, after a lifetime of leaving carnage in his wake… its not happening.

        And yeah…I love the feeling of rationally having your say without ending up crying.

        Reply
  6. REDdog says:

    Well written Michelle. I’ve struggled with crying too, a bit like Rocco I suppose. I grew up watching my Father either angry or aloof. He cried, but inappropriately, like, saying grace. He could beat the shit out of an 8yo for dropping a glass of water in the kitchen without the slightest hint of remorse and then sit down at the dinner table and warble his way through the blessing like he was watching a dolphin being clubbed to death with a baby harp seal. I think it didn’t help me much. Thanks for this piece though, it did help label some stuff for me. Respect REDdog

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      As terribly disturbing as it is to think about a child being beaten, I had to smile at your dolphin/harp seal analogy. I’m glad you liked the post. I don’t know why I keep writing on this subject. It doesn’t always make me feel good writing about it, but it means a lot to me to connect with people and hopefully make them feel less alone when dealing with issues that stemmed from our childhoods.

      It’s also possible that I’m just really down right now because I’ve been sick for weeks and I’m so tired of it..

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  7. Doug in Oakland says:

    Sorry to hear that you’re still not feeling well. Great post. Crying is personal and somewhat intimate and fraught with uncertainty over how those seeing it will react. It can feel like such a betrayal when your own body rats you off that you are starting to lose your emotional grip, but it probably evolved that way for a reason.
    I used to associate crying with the bouts of depression I went through when I was younger, and the feelings of loss of control it brought on were frightening, so I was glad when when I improved enough that it didn’t really happen any more. It took some more time and effort to kind of relax about it a little, and get back to a place where music (or certain marriage proposal videos on the internet, let’s be honest here) can bring tears to my eyes and leave me feeling good about it. And that’s just me by myself. Letting go in front of other people is hard.

    Reply
  8. Bev says:

    Michelle, we are so close to being twins, separated at birth, each given to dysfunctional parents. i would start telling you about it, but i’m crying right now. no joke. OUR LIVES ARE SO MUCH THE SAME, and it started before birth! Pre-birth psychological/emotional child abuse. We may have created a need for an entirely new type of therapy. Hey, it counts as some kind of success.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Okay…I am ALL IN…we’ll name it something trendy..be a flash in the pan…jet out with millions and buy our own islands..where we can cry to our little hearts content. 🙂

      Reply
  9. This is very timely for me, I just came back from session #1 with a new therapist.

    My problem is I am a stress crier…and I have been under a lot of stress more recently than ever. It isn’t that I can’t take criticism or deal with car repairs, I just start crying automatically. This was way before the depression and anxiety, so you know that doesn’t help either.

    I know that “how dare you embarrass me/make me look like I’m not a perfect parent” look and routine very well. I get to start working through the toxic parent situation up through today one session at a time.

    Sending you strength and peace, and a shoulder to cry on if you need it 🙂

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      I cry when I’m very angry, there is no stopping that shit..that’s why I try to avoid that as well.

      The toxic parent thing sucks and it’s hard to work through and it’s frustrating and painful. I’m also grateful to have some insight to why I am who I am. I’m also working through grieving over who I COULD have been. That’s some hard shit.

      Thank you for the shoulder! 🙂

      Reply
  10. I cry a lot… people in my family get pissed at me for it. I can’t seem to control it though. The more I try not to cry, the more panicky I get, until I’m like “WAAAAAAAAH!”

    Reply
  11. Jennifer Steck says:

    I cry when I am really angry. It happened at work a couple times over the years and it was not considered a good thing. I’m glad things are balancing out for you. Sometimes there is nothing better than a good cry.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Yeah, Crying at work isn’t a good thing. I cry when I’m really angry, too. I try to walk away when I feel myself getting to that level

      Reply
  12. HogsAteMySister says:

    Great courage and great writing. Keep it up.

    Reply