Don’t Cry Out Loud

Back in the early ’90s, “Saturday Night Live” did a mock self-help show called “Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley.” Stuart Smalley (no relationship!) was a spoof on individuals who were obsessed with 12-step programs and who had become addicted to the act of going to therapy. Smalley ended each show by looking into a mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me! The skit was hilarious because Smalley was the personification of vanity, self-indulgence and narcissism — traits often used to describe our culture.

To counteract our self-absorbed culture, many Christians have gone the opposite direction. Worm Theology is based on Psalm 22:6: “I am a worm, and not a man…” or the line in the Isaac Watts hymn “Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed,” which says, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” Worm Theology is a belief within Christianity that a feeling of worthlessness and expression of low self-esteem means God is more likely to show mercy and compassion.

Instead of debating the merits of this belief system, I want to focus on what I see as a natural consequence to a low view of self in our Christian culture today: a lack of self-compassion. Sadly, I even noticed this in my own house last night with my 14-year-old daughter.

My family recently relocated from Northwest Arkansas to Colorado Springs. No cross-country move is ever easy, but it’s been especially hard on my daughter Maddy. Last night I lay on the floor of Maddy’s room as she cried about feeling like no one really understands her feelings. It broke my heart to hear how alone she feels — that no one understands what she is going through. Thus, she felt that she has no one to share how she really feels. In the end, she ultimately got tough with herself and expressed that she should be over these feelings, that her feelings were wrong and that she was stupid for getting so emotional.

I so wanted to jump in and correct her, “Your feelings are not stupid!” but I didn’t. I wanted to tell her that God cares about her emotions (which He does), but I refrained. I was tempted to recue her by telling her that I care (which I do), but I stopped myself. What an insensitive father, some might think. I didn’t jump in to rescue my daughter because I want her to learn something that most Christian adults don’t get: Their feelings matter!

But sadly, for so many people, their emotions usually don’t matter. I watch time and again, when counseling with people, that they constantly judge, belittle, criticize, demean, minimize and marginalize their emotions. It’s like there’s this Christian belief that we must never wallow in our emotions. It’s like people are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent or vain (like Stuart Smalley) if they have compassion around their feelings. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on your self is the way to be. It’s like the ’70s song by Melissa Manchester that had the lyrics, “Don’t cry out loud. Just keep it inside and learn how to hide your feelings.” Listen to some of the messages that are out there about our emotions:

  • Real men don’t cry.
  • You’re just being a drama queen.
  • Play through the pain.
  • It’s just that time of the month.
  • You shouldn’t feel that way!
  • That’s not how you really feel!
  • Why do you get so emotional?

Both men and women have learned these messages well, and the tragic consequence is that most people have no idea how to validate their own emotions. Since birth, most of us have had our feelings so massively invalidated that we don’t know how to care for our emotions. Instead of valuing our feelings as a great source of information, we stuff them, ignore them or judge them away. Thus, the hope for our relationships is that we will find that perfect someone who will finally care about and validate how we feel. Although we don’t do it, the fantasy is that our friend, significant other or spouse will value our emotions. Great plan, right?

I believe one of the greatest gifts we can give our self is the gift of compassion. When we are upset, frustrated, fearful or hurting (like Maddy) we should be the first one in line to care about how we feel. Why should I expect someone else to care about my heart and emotions if I don’t do that job first and foremost? The question we should be asking ourselves is do we treat our self as well as we treat our friends and family? We are often gentle, kind, compassionate and empathic with others. However, a new research study on self-compassion found that people who find it easy to support and understand others, it turns out, often score surprisingly low on self-compassion tests, berating themselves for negative emotions and perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising. The research suggests that giving us a break and validating our feelings and imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.

The more you seal yourself from your emotions, the more isolated and disconnected you feel. While you can suppress and repress your feelings, you cannot get rid of them. You always bury emotions alive. At some point they will always come out, but then they usually come exploding out like a volcanic eruption. The only way to make peace with our emotions is to value them, face them, explore them, understand them and then take them to the Lord. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Suppression takes an incredible amount of energy — energy which is constantly being tapped to maintain a wall of protection around your heart. 

The bottom line is that your emotions are incredibly valuable. Not in a way that suggests we should all indulge in emotional bliss, holding hands while singing “Kumbaya” like Stuart Smalley. Give yourself the gift of compassion around your feelings — after all, your emotions are the voice of the heart.

What do you do when you are fearful, frustrated, upset or hurting? Are you good at self-compassion, or do you stuff, ignore and judge your feelings?

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About the Author

Greg Smalley

Greg Smalley, Ph.D. is the executive director of marriage and family formation for Focus on the Family. He helps lead marriage seminars around the world and together with his wife, Erin, does intensive relationship coaching for both married and engaged couples. Greg is the author or co-author of 11 books including The Wholehearted Marriage, Before You Plan Your Wedding, Plan Your Marriage, The DNA of Relationships for Couples and The Marriage You’ve Always Dreamed Of. Greg earned his doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University. He’s a fan of the Oklahoma Sooners, diet lemonade at Chick-fil-A and sports memorabilia. He and Erin have three daughters and a son.

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