Some of the experts I interviewed suggested pinching the bridge of my nose, where the tear ducts are, to stop the flow. But I couldn't get my hand to my nose fast enough. And though I received excellent advice about rehearsing nontearful things I might say in a confrontation, such as the one with my son's daycare administrator, that didn't work, either.
Then Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a cognitive and behavioral psychologist in New York City, told me to take a step back—literally. "It's not what the other person says that's causing you to cry," he explained. "It's how you interpret it." I'd never thought of it this way, but Bubrick had hit on something that made sense. I may be frustrated or angry in the moment, but I can decide which insults or slights are worthy of such an outpouring of emotion. Getting to the root of why I well up so easily will probably take a lifetime of therapy, but for now, Bubrick provided me with a practical way to deal with its effects. The trick, he told me, is to remove myself from the drama, even by just a foot, to short-circuit the usual rush of tears.
As I listened to Bubrick talk about the possible effect of something so simple on my mental state, I remembered a study I had come across weeks earlier, suggesting that even our facial expressions can influence how our brains process emotions. Researchers at Columbia University had found that study participants reported having a less intense emotional reaction to a scary video when they didn't frown during the viewing. Was it possible, since I enter most fraught interactions with eyebrows raised and knitted together, mouth pressed into a frown, that my expression might actually be triggering the feelings that lead to tears? If so, could I really cure the crying problem with a neutral face and a single step away from whatever was upsetting me? It seemed unlikely, but I decided to give it a try.
Two days after speaking with Bubrick, I showed up for a doctor's appointment only to learn that the doctor wasn't in. His assistant cavalierly mentioned, without a trace of apology, that he had meant to cancel my appointment but got distracted. Meanwhile, I had hired a babysitter, blown a deadline, and driven an hour through maddening traffic to get there. I felt anger welling up. But instead of getting flustered, I relaxed my face and took a step away from the counter, which felt only a little weird.
"Are you kidding me?" I blinked, tearless.
And then: "That's incredibly rude."
It was a small victory—but an unbelievably empowering one. For the first time in 25 years, I expressed a strong emotion without dissolving under its weight.
Since then I've been practicing the new technique—in talks with my husband about money, in a minor confrontation with a friend, in meetings with editors. It's sometimes hard to remember to use the tricks in the heat of the moment, but with every tearless encounter I'm gaining confidence that my emotions won't get the best of me. I recently made a follow-up visit to my son's daycare, where I told the administrator I was transferring him to a preschool. When I gave her the news, my eyes were as dry as her heart was cold—and that felt right.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
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