Various observers have tried to understand the meaning of human crying, beginning, perhaps, with Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. It appears there may be at least seven kinds of crying.
In all likelihood there are more than seven, and others will add to this list. However these seven seem to be the ones that most readily come to mind. Each often has its own particular meaning and each has its own goal. Sometimes the meaning is unconscious.
1. Crying of Transformation. Aristotle wrote about cathartic crying, and described it as the deepest type of crying—a type that often leads to a catharsis or a transformation of one’s personality and to new insights. People may fall into transformational tears when they attend a funeral or see a tragic movie or experience a tragic event in their lives, such as the death of a loved one. The tears often become deep sobs that cannot be controlled, and once the sobs break loose they can go on for a long time, even days. Upon going through this process, one often comes up with new memories of their past, new insights, and a new perspective on life. Psychotherapy often brings out this kind of crying.
2. Crying for Joy. Crying because you feel joy or happiness can happen for at least two reasons. The first reason is simply that you feel a kind of joy or happiness you haven’t felt for a long time. You win the lottery, an old flame that you never expected to see again suddenly drops by or you get an award you didn’t expect. The joy you feel ignites an emotional response that provokes the tears. The second reason that people cry for joy is that they are experiencing a kind of happiness (a sense of being cared about), that they lacked in the past, and therefore the tears are both of joy and sadness—joy due to the present happiness and sadness due to the awareness of not having had it before.
3. Crying from Anger. If you’ve ever heard a baby cry from anger, you will know immediately what I’m talking about. When babies are crying and they do not get what they need immediately their crying becomes angrier and louder. Nobody can do angry crying like a baby can, and the baby’s angry cry is intended to let the caretaker know that they demand your attention NOW! Some insecure caretakers take this personally and will do anything to stop the crying, which can lead to the shaken baby syndrome. Adults can do angry crying too, and their goal is the same, to let you (or the world) know you have pissed them off big time.
4. Crying from Pain. Sometimes people injure themselves and it causes extreme pain. It is a pain that is so acute that it brings tears to your eyes. Even the toughest of men, such as athletes, will break into tears when the pain is great enough. Or people can have very painful migraine headaches that cause tears. In some people, the crying may have to do with a wish for sympathy. In others it is simply a physiological reflex action of the body in response to the severe pain.
5. Crying to Manipulate. This kind of crying is sometimes called “crocodile tears.” It is done in order to make somebody feel guilty or to get sympathy or to stop somebody from fighting with you or disagreeing with you. One of my male clients said that whenever he saw his father grab the belt, he would start to cry right away, and sometimes that would prevent his father from actually whipping him. A husband might not want to visit his wife’s relatives and the wife may cry in order to make the husband feel guilty about not liking her relatives. Or a daughter might tell her mother something critical, such as, “Sometimes you make me feel depressed,” and the mother will cry, “You’re just saying that to hurt me.”
6. Crying to Relieve Stress. Women in particular are good at this. A woman will be feeling stressed about something, often without realizing it, and will hold in the stress all day. Sometimes she may even hold on to the stress for several days. And then somebody says something seemingly innocuous such as, “I never noticed it before, but your left eyebrow is lower than your right eyebrow.” And the woman will suddenly burst into tears. The stress she has been holding onto comes out in this explosion of tears. There is no ulterior motive in this kind of crying. It is simply a release.
7. Crying Out of Self Pity. Sometimes people break into sobs because they are feeling sorry for themselves. A woman may hear about a friend winning the lottery and instead of feeling happy for her, she begins to cry and feel sorry for herself. Or an athlete may suffer an injury on the basketball court and while lying in bed recuperating, he continually falls into sobs of self-pity. “Why did this have to happen to me?” he may say to his wife when she visits. Crying out of self-pity is both a release for the person who does it and a cry for sympathy from others. However, it often does not get pity from others but instead turns them off.
According to the German Society of Ophthalmology, the average adult woman cries between 30 and 64 times a year, and the average adult man cries between 6 and 17 times a year. Men tend to cry from two to four minutes at a time and women cry about six minutes at a time. Women break into deep sobs in 65% of cases, compared to just 6% for men.
There is no difference in the crying of male and female children under 10.