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The Weight of Unshed Tears

I recently started watching the ABC series How to Get Away With Murder, which is currently streaming on Netflix. I typically look for shows with multiple seasons so I don’t have to go hunting for entertainment as frequently. I’d heard of this one years ago, but it had never progressed to the top of my must-watch list. Eventually it appeared in my Netflix “recommended” list and seeing a solid 6 seasons listed, I went for it.

There are definitely pros and cons to the series and in general, it is entertaining and intriguing enough for me to keep clicking the “Next Episode” button. At 3 ½ seasons in, one thing struck me over and over again (no pun intended if you’ve watched it!). Someone in the cast of characters is always crying! Tears flow freely scene after scene. Given the title, it could be assumed that the characters in this thriller are dealing with stressful situations, complete with heartbreak, deception, loss, and confusion. A fabricated, fictional, souped up twist on reality and real-life emotions.

The seemingly endless trail of tears caught my attention and felt so prevalent because I rarely cry. I’ve noticed throughout the years that this emotional expression has become less of an occurrence in stressful or hurtful situations, but I haven’t paused to consider the reasons behind this. Why have my tears dried up? Where is that stress and pain going? Did it go anywhere? Am I just plodding along, hauling the weight of these unshed tears with me, refusing to acknowledge the significance and emotional impact of certain life situations?

Actually, yes. That’s exactly it. Over the course of decisions, relationships, and failures in my adult life, I’ve adopted an emotional stuffing technique. I’ve stuffed my emotions down, unable to be vulnerable. My long ingrained desire to present a pretty picture of life overtook my ability to process the gravity of many life situations and decisions. Betrayal, insincerity, hypocrisy, animosity, lies. I don’t want to wallow in disappointment or sadness or suffering. I just want to move on to the next “happy” moment, adventure, or feeling of success. I don’t give myself interim to process or acknowledge myself, my behaviors and my emotions. I don’t cry.

Not only do I have difficulty crying about my own hardships, but also the hardships of others. Even when it is something truly gut-wrenching and horrific, even when I get goose bumps or am physically shaking, my tears are still hesitant. My eyes might well up with tears, but there is rarely enough momentum for more than a few drops to fall, if at all. I stifle the sorrow. It’s not because I don’t care. I’ve just spent so long with my faucet turned off that my affectivity is rusty.

I did this to myself, I realized after a lengthy period of self-reflection. Throughout the four major romantic relationships I’ve had in my adult life, I’ve consistently disregarded my gut instincts and created an almost constant state of fight or flight for myself. Fight or flight mode is your body’s alert system that you are not safe. Physiological responses occur to prepare to fight or flee when in the presence of danger, including elevated heart rate, increased respiratory rate, dilation of blood vessels to supply large muscle groups, and pupil dilation. This ingrained reaction to the uncertain typically takes place when fear floods your body with adrenaline. In this state of apprehension, the intensity of self-preservation does not generally allow for tear production. When the panic subsides and the body returns to a state of peace, homeostasis, and a relaxed state, then your body releases the stress in the form of tears.

But what if the panic doesn’t subside?

What if the situation of uncertainty is your day to day life?

What if you made decisions that created this constant anxiety for yourself?

I’m not sure what moment in my mental rehashing of historical trust issues sparked the bulb in my brain. But all of a sudden, a bombshell went off in my mind. I did this to myself. I’ve been doing it for 20 years. My entire adult life. In every relationship. I repeatedly, unconsciously wove a web of anxiety for myself that I’ve been stuck in and battling against for years. I’ve spent more time in fight or flight mode than in peace. What did I do to get to this perpetual state of fight or flight?

I caved, plain and simple. In all of my major adult relationships, I was betrayed, both emotionally and physically. I left them all. But I wasn’t strong enough to completely cut ties and stick to my guns. When tearful apologies were offered, I hopefully accepted them from my head and heart. But my guts were not convinced. The nagging feeling of betrayal and doubt worked its way up to my brain and I became untrusting of pretty much every interaction – phones, computers, acquaintances, friends. Having been made a fool before, I was always on edge with the fear of reoccurrence. Despite my love for these men and my recognition of their positive qualities, the fun we had together, the intertwined families and friends, trips, and life experiences, my limbic brain continued to perceive a threat because of the past deception bestowed upon me. Although I accepted apologies and continued in these relationship, I created a deep conflict between my conscious choices and my stress response. Rightfully so. I willingly reentered a comfortably uncomfortable place where risk was a reality.

By returning to these relationships, I devalued myself for the sake of another’s happiness and along with that I became resentful and angry. Even writing about it now makes my chest tight. Continuing in those ‘unsafe’ interactions riddled my life with anxiety. How does this pertain to my lack of ability to cry you might be asking?

According to Kate Bratskeir’s article What Really Happens to Your Body When You Hold Back Tears on, crying often occurs after a fight or flight response to return your body to balance or homeostasis. However, crying is also viewed as weak or vulnerable and is often suppressed. As I continued through these relationships, already feeling vulnerable after betrayal, I wasn’t keen on any appearance of weakness and, whether consciously or not, I was always on edge. I really believe my body has been tense and on alert for so long that the uninhibited state required to cry has not been available to me. So, for the most part, I stopped crying in the direction of my life’s upsets. Maybe deep down I knew all along that these decisions were contrary to my peace, but I didn’t have the mindfulness when engrossed in the moment to recognize that I was sacrificing serenity with these self-betraying relationship repeats. When the pieces of my puzzle finally came together in my mind, the weight of my own self-deception was profound.

I’ve been polite throughout the last 2 decades and have ostensibly taken my share of the blame for the ultimate and final failures of these relationships. In all actuality, I am the one to blame, wholly and completely. How could these romances ever succeed when I willingly betrayed my own discernment and emotional security to reestablish the broken connections? The insight might not have been immediate, but sooner or later, I realized my return to the partnership was against my better judgment. And detrimental to my mental health. Anxiety, trust issues, self-doubt, familial struggles, and ultimately the feeling of worthlessness created a foundation for a dam that blocked an outlet of emotional strain in the form of tears. If those tears had flowed and I had allowed myself to mourn the betrayal and loss, I might have moved beyond the pain instead of returning to it.

I am still hurt and haunted by countless situations that I have experienced throughout my adult relationships and I continue to hold those emotions and anxieties inside the majority of the time. I do have tearful outlets that I’ve discovered though -- three specifically that I’ve accumulated over time. They may sound silly, but I cannot even talk about them without tears streaming down my face. As I’ve rolled through these thoughts and ideas repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, I’ve put some associations with each of my go-to sources of lamentations.

1) Brotherhood – 2013 Budweiser Super Bowl Commercial:

2) A Normal Day – 2020 Story of This Life Mother’s Day Commercial:

3) How Deep The Father’s Love For Us – Selah:

In conversation, I cannot even fully describe each of these without choking on my tears. It has been that way from the first time I saw each of the two commercials and sang the worship song in church. In Brotherhood, I see loyalty, trust, and companionship. In a Normal Day, I see the power of perspective, love, and simple joys. In How Deep the Father’s Love, I see shame, sacrifice, humility, true love and glory. These three stirring examples hold the keys to peace that I did not allow myself to grasp. I was not patient with my own emotions of pain, embarrassment and discomfort. Twenty years of suffering and distress in the form of endless anxiety because I could not give myself time and distance to process and reflect and honestly, to be fastidious and restore my peace before I tried to ease someone else’s sorrow, the sorrow of those who wronged me initially. My life would have taken a totally different trajectory if I had paused, considered my value, how I deserve to be treated and want to be loved, and then remained steadfast in my resolve.

Twenty years later, I finally find myself capable to that patience and strength. I am sorry, 18 year old Amanda, for lacking the ability to put my own well-being above pleasing or placating others. May this realization put cracks in the dam that, over the past 20 years, I built in self-preservation with a foundation of anxiety. And may the dam ultimately give way completely to release the tender elements of myself that I decidedly obstructed so peace, gratefulness, and authenticity flows through my actions and decisions as easily as the tears will eventually flow from my eyes.

~Steve Maraboli~

~Johnny Depp~

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