The Wisdom I Gained from Crying

Two years ago, I moved from my native California to Singapore for my undergrad.

I was lucky to have my parents help me move into my dorm room. But when it came time to say goodbye to them, I cried the hardest that I ever have in my young adult life.  Even throughout the week that followed, I would experience a moment or two each day when my tears just wouldn’t stop flowing.

‘What is wrong with you?’ I thought to myself.

If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I’m usually the calm and stoic one. That week, I felt like I had been replaced by this girl who couldn’t get a hold of herself.

Let me be clear: I kept my crying to a very closed circle (i.e. to myself and to my family whenever I Skyped them that first week). Outside of that circle, I delved into activities, conversations, and unpacking as a way to distract and, more importantly, bolster myself.

In spite of the efforts that I made, no amount of cold compresses could remedy telltale red and puffy eyes. Naturally, concerned questions and comments ensued.

When you’re doing your best to deal with feelings of insecurity and vulnerability, the last thing that you want to hear is, “Aw, you’re so cute!” or “You look sad. Come here (cue hug).”

While my peers had good intentions, I didn’t appreciate the comments.  I didn’t want sympathy – if anything, I needed someone who could take me seriously and understand where I was coming from. Above all, I didn’t want to be mistaken as weak.  

Fast-forward to today.

I just started junior year. By now, I’ve become pretty used to constant trips between California and Singapore, punctuated by even more travels to different countries. Flying solo is a lot easier thanks to the friends that I’ve made as well as daily Skype calls to my family. For all intents and purposes, Singapore has become like a second home for me.

Surprisingly, I still cry whenever I leave my hometown.

Are the waterworks unnecessary? Am I just being melodramatic? Maybe. However, I’ve come to an important realization that allows me to wear my tears unapologetically:

Crying doesn’t signify weakness or a loss of control – it’s actually an important way for me to acknowledge the emotions that unconsciously culminate inside of me.

It’s only after that point of acknowledgment that I’m able to make sense of why I feel the way that I do in that moment.

So, why do I cry?

There are some great explanations that you could find online about the reasons that people cry. This TED-Ed video nicely sums up some of those main arguments:

In my personal experience, it all boils down to this: I cry when I’m overwhelmed with an emotion or different emotions that I can’t really identify but end up lumping under one category: sadness.

Looking at all of those emotions as a single mass without their individual nuances makes it impossible to communicate how you’re feeling. As result, it becomes extremely difficult and frustrating to effectively deal with them.

It’s only now that I can identify most of the reasons behind that intensive period of crying back in June of 2013.

I was at a point in my life when there was a lot of change. As excited and as grateful as I was, I was also really uncomfortable.  

Before going to Singapore, I had always traveled. Travels, however, would take place within the context of family. That was the family with whom I grew up in the same house, the same city, for my entire life.

College was a major change from 18 years of an unwavering routine. I felt most comfortable with my parents and my cousin. For the first time, I would be living away from them. Though the goodbye was only temporary, the idea of leaving behind my blanket of familiarity was hard at first.

As a result, I also became resentful

Disclaimer: I am incredibly happy with where I’m at right now and wouldn’t change a thing.

But being in an unfamiliar place filled with strangers made the freshman me resent having to be there. Cultural differences at first played a role in that resentment.

Take, for example, a simple greeting of, “Hi, how are you?”

I automatically ask this whenever I see someone that I know. I grew up never having to think twice about it, until people in Singapore began responding to my greeting with a chuckle, a “why do you keep asking me that?”, or a parroting back of my question (complete with an imitation of my American accent).

I laughed with them. In truth, a part of me resented them. I had a hard time poking fun at myself. At a point when I was trying to fit in and find my place, I didn’t appreciate having my ‘otherness’ pointed out, even in this small way.

I was scared

I left for Singapore three weeks after my high school senior year graduation. I had everything to look forward to: I was starting a new chapter of my life in a new country at this new school where I’d meet lots of new people who would teach me and help me grow.

It was all very exciting, but I had never encountered so much newness in my life and was constantly filled with anticipation. From that vantage point, the opportunity looked pretty scary and daunting.

 I felt lonely

I’m really close to my parents. They give me a lot of advice on all things life, and I’m pretty sure that the freshman me panicked at the prospect of not having them there for once. Maybe that’s the result of being an only child.

In any case, I distinctly remember having a weird feeling of being left behind in the moment that they left for the airport to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I really wanted to go back with them. I remember looking at how happy my classmates were and feeling completely alone in my sadness.

Does that make sense? Nope. Not in the least. Looking back, I think that I was a bit over the top. After all, there is such a thing as modern day technology that makes keeping in touch incredibly easy.

I also understand that the freshman me couldn’t see the bigger picture, making a temporary ‘goodbye’ seem like a permanent loss. I still cry whenever I say goodbye to my parents, and I think that I always will. The difference between then and now is that I know that the feeling of loneliness will pass.

I was embarrassed 

Why are you sad? You should be happy! You’re being overly sensitive. Stop drawing attention to yourself; that just looks really bad. If all these people in more or less the same situation as you can deal, then you should be able to, too.

I said it twice before and I’ll say it again: Shedding all of those tears embarrassed me. The above paragraph was the “pep-talk” that would take place inside of my head whenever I’d try to gain back my composure from a bout of crying.

Talking to myself in that way ended up being counter-productive. I made myself feel horrible, which, as a result, led me deeper and deeper into an unhealthy cycle of self-pity.

In the end, I cried even harder – my embarrassment led me to fiercely deny all of the emotions that had been brewing inside of me until they eventually just seemed to explode.

The light at the end of the tunnel

While I don’t go out of my way to have one, I’m a lot more open nowadays to letting myself have a good cry. Usually, I really need it.

The turning point for me was at the end of that first week of my freshman year. In my room, I decided to just let myself cry without questioning it.

I knew that I wouldn’t be my most rational or objective. But that was OK. Crying unabashedly just for myself ended up being immensely cathartic because after, I felt an amazing sense of clarity.

That was the moment that I realized: The tears that I shed helped me confront all of the intense emotions that I tried, unsuccessfully, to mask.

Above all, I let myself feel all that I felt without the need to apologize, explain, or self-deprecate.

Only in doing so was I able to handle and understand each of these discrete emotions. That knowledge has informed the way that I handled similar situations thereafter.

When I feel uncomfortable, I know now that I have the agency to change my surroundings – or, at least the way that I think about them — in a way that works for me. If I’m resentful, I first ask myself why, confront the reason, or just tell myself to move on if I feel that the reason isn’t worth the effort.

If I’m scared, I let myself be scared. Rather than let that fear paralyze me, I try to make it a driving force that pushes me forward. I always end up realizing that there was nothing to be scared of in the first place.

If I’m lonely, I reach out. Though I’m a big fan of emotional self-reliance, we all need someone whom we can trust and lean on. My best friends are always willing to lend their support, which I would have never known if I hadn’t accepted reached out to them.

When I’m embarrassed, I like to tell myself: “Give it a rest. You’re only human.”

So if you’re a crier like me, don’t be ashamed. I think that you happen to be a passionate and sensitive person. Crying is just how you deal, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Photo feature: Miss O’Crazy

Jocelyn Lim