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Have a Shoulder to Cry On? Why It Helps

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistNovember 01, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

Does crying on someone’s shoulder really help – or does doing this just mean that you’re emotionally weak? The answer is clear: It really can help. Why it helps, and how, is best explained by looking at how we develop emotionally.

When infants cry, their parents comfort them with some gentle rocking, and maybe even offer a soothing lullaby. With time and experience, children learn that they can rely on others to manage their feelings, and eventually, they learn to do this for themselves. However, there will always be situations when a child’s emotions are just too overwhelming for them to manage alone. If all has gone well for that child, they can still turn back to their caregiver to feel comforted. And as the child re-establishes their emotional equilibrium, they can re-engage more effectively in their life.

Healthy adult relationships continue to play out this dynamic. Each person in a relationship generally possesses the inner acceptance and strength to experience their emotions without feeling distressed by them. But when either person does feel overwhelmed, they can turn to the other person for help. Differences of opinion and problem-solving are temporarily sidelined while the friend or partner offers empathic responses, comfort, and support. Sometimes people go through difficulties at the same time, requiring them to focus on supporting each other. Once they are both feeling more emotionally stable, they can go about the business of working through conflicts or figuring out the solutions to particular dilemmas.

Unfortunately, people sometimes learn from experience that they need to rely solely on themselves to manage how they feel. But rejecting outside support leaves them vulnerable should they become overwhelmed by their emotions. So it’s common for them to simply minimize or deny their emotions. This strategy can work effectively, but it can also leave them feeling alone when it fails. And even when it succeeds, it often leaves them feeling out of touch with their own emotions and distant from others – even their partners or closest friends.

If you are one of these stoic people, think about whether you are really okay with being so self-sufficient. Do you feel truly connected in your close relationships? Or do you feel like something is missing? If you realize that you are not fully satisfied, then it’s time to rethink your relationships. It may be time to reach out for support from your partner, family, or close friends. But do so cautiously.

You want to be sure to nurture the kind of relationship that you can rely upon before making yourself too vulnerable. Opening up too quickly to the wrong person has a good chance of ending in you feeling disappointed – and then closing yourself off again. So choose someone who is likely to be supportive. Express how you are feeling when there is sufficient time to do so. And test out sharing just a little at a time. If you don’t feel supported, you might want to reconsider sharing more with that person or talk with them about feeling unsupported (with the hope of engaging their future support).

Remember, the ability to feel comforted by others is wired into us from birth. So why not turn to it when you are struggling? Your loved ones can be a wonderful source of strength when you are feeling overwhelmed. They can help calm and comfort you, renewing your ability to think clearly and fully engage in life.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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