While people generally experience the same emotions, the way they express them can be rapidly different from person to person. Some may have more muted reactions to their emotions, while others may be very expressive. These differences are accounted for by many things, in particular the way a person’s genetic make-up connects their emotions and behavior, and the way people learn to understand their emotions and how to handle them. A particular emotion that can be expressed in a variety of different ways is anger. Anger, depending on the trigger and the person who is experiencing it, can take shape in many different ways. Behaviors like yelling, throwing things, slamming doors, etc. are all common behaviors that are a result of angry emotions. But, often there are other things that people find themselves doing when they are angry that most people do not directly connect with the emotion of anger.
For some, they will find themselves shutting down and being unable to articulate their anger in the moment. Others notice themselves withdrawing from a conflict and never really being able to speak their mind. Some find that they will cry when they feel angry, as well, which is often confusing and frustrating! People who cry when they get upset can often feel like they are not conveying the appropriate emotion for the situation and it can make others either not understand them or see them as “weak” or unable to handle conflict. But, crying is a normal reaction to having an intense emotion like anger!
All human emotions have been sustained through evolution because they serve some sort of function. Happiness, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust, and anger all tell our bodies different things about what is happening in our external world and help us find the motivation to address it and fix what needs to be changed. Anger, in particular, is an emotion that helps keep us safe, as it is directly connected with the evolutionary fight or flight responses we have deep in our history. In the early days of human life when our environment was less developed and safe, people were searching for food, shelter, and safety throughout most of their day. When they encountered a threat, they would either need to fight and overcome it or flee (run away) from it to keep themselves safe. Anger developed as an emotion that helps us recognize we are not feeling comfortable or safe with a particular situation and gives us the motivation to change it or get away from it. This is why people often have very big angry reactions, if they have not learned how to appropriately express their anger for situations that do not call for such extreme outbursts.
So, how do tears fit into expression of anger? Sometimes people who are more emotionally connected can have varying degrees of feelings and emotions all at the same time. An example of this is when something really sad or scary happens and people often feel the impulse to laugh. Emotions, when they develop quickly or intensely, can sometimes bring with them behaviors that don’t seem to connect with what we are actually feeling. Tears, or crying, is another example of this and can happen when experiencing a variety of emotions. It is common for people to cry when they laugh too hard, when they’re happy or surprised, when they are scared, and of course when they are actually sad as well.
Tears and crying have a variety of functions in the body and are not always connected with emotions, but emotional tears develop from the endocrine system that releases hormones that help to regulate a person’s internal emotional state to protect them and keep them safe. Crying is a physiological coping skill that helps to release stress hormones to help a person feel better. So, instead of thinking about being weak or immature when you experience angry tears, try thinking about how that response is really your body taking care of you and regulating your anger so that you do not do something that you regret. While it can feel frustrating in the moment that you are not getting out your feeling sin the way you had hoped, you can always take the tears as a sign that you need to walk away from the conflict, reconnect with your thoughts and feelings, and address when you are feeling more regulated.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events