Unless you’re one of those lucky people who lives in the middle of nowhere and never has to leave your house, chances are at some point you’ve had a mini-breakdown in a public place. It happens to us all! Normally it’s not anything earth-shattering that brings it on — perhaps you’ve had a particularly crappy day at work, or maybe you’re feeling extra tired because you had one too many glasses of free wine at that happy hour thing last night and then stayed up until four in the morning worrying that you're going to spend the rest of your life alone? But sometimes it is actually a more serious/horrible thing, like your boyfriend tells you he’s been cheating on you in the cereal aisle of a grocery store or the doctor calls you at the office and tells you to come in for some scary test.
No matter what puts you in a fragile state, once you're there it doesn't take much to push you over the edge. One micromanage-y email from your boss or a funny look from a stranger on the street or the wrong song popping up on your iPod and the camel’s back is broken. It doesn't matter that you're standing in full view of 200 other commuters, your tears (or full-on wracking sobs) cannot be stopped. It feels terrible, but there's no shame in it! You just have to ride it out and do what you can to minimize the damage.
First things first: When you find yourself on the brink of one of these emotional tornados, the best thing to do is the same thing you should do during an actual tornado: seek shelter. Never be shy about bolting from any kind of social situation if you feel tears welling up. Lie and say you’ve got an urgent phone call you have to take. Or, if you're in some kind of professional meeting, excuse yourself by saying you don’t feel so well. I generally think it’s better for coworkers/clients to think you’ve got a stomach bug than to start guessing about what personal drama is making you cry. Wherever you are, don't worry about what people will think, just make something up and get out of there.
Obviously heading to the nearest bathroom is the tried and true solution, but depending on where you are this might not be an option, in which case, get creative. If you’re at an office building or a hospital or other large corporate structure, go into the stairwell or duck into a supply closet. If you’re at a store (and who among us does not want to cry while shopping for clothes), go into the dressing room. If you’re in a restaurant or bar and the bathroom is taken, go out to the sidewalk and hide around the corner. If you’re at work, crouch in a corner of your cubicle or under your desk — or run out to your car if you have to. Just get away from people as fast as possible so you can freak out in private.
Unfortunately, as you’ve probably experienced yourself at some point, there are many instances where hiding just isn’t an option. If you can’t get to a safe space in time, you’ll just have to ride out the storm in full view of everyone. At a certain point crying in public is a bit like throwing up, it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. So you can either fight it and make yourself even more miserable or you can go with it and politely do your best not to get it on anyone around you.
Here are the three basic steps to surviving full loss of tear duct control in public:
1. Talk Yourself Down
When you feel tears coming on and you have no escape path, it’s natural to panic. But in this case that’s only going to make it worse. You’re going to have to channel your best supportive friend voice and walk yourself through it. (Inside your head; not out loud!) Start by reminding your brain that crying is natural. As they sang on “Free to Be You and Me,”
It's all right to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It's all right to cry
It might make you feel better
The sooner you can get it out of you, the faster you’ll be able to regain your dignity. So don’t fight the tears, just let them roll out of you, and focus on breathing deeply. This will calm you down, and also it’s the best way to stop yourself from making those weird hee-hee-heeaving sounds that I find way more embarrassing than the actual tears themselves.
As you breathe in and out, you have to actively focus on not thinking about what’s upset you to begin with. Instead of digging deeper into your pit of despair, go to your happy place, as those annoying self-help people always say. I don’t care if you have to think about puppies licking your face, or put a cloyingly upbeat song on your iPod, or picture a deadly worm crawling into the ear of the person who has upset you, just do whatever it takes to distract yourself enough to stem the tide of tears. Now is not the time to deal with your emotions, that’s better left for when you get home, where you can open your gaping wound back up and drink a glass of wine in the bathtub while you wallow in self pity and sob uncontrollably—you know, like sensible people do.
2. Play Dumb
Yes, inside you’re a hot mess and there is liquid shooting from your eyes, but there’s no reason anyone else has to know. Managing your outward appearance requires some serious mental multitasking, but it will make it easier for you (it provides yet another distraction) and also make everyone around you a bit more comfortable and less likely to embarrass you by giving you an unsolicited hug. So basically, you need to turn on your inner theater geek and act like even though your eyes are leaking, everything is fine. The one exception here is if you are having a full-on Sobapalooza, in which case there is no way you’re going to pull this off. You’ll just have to do your best to hide your face in your hands while you weep and moan like a dying hyena. (Hey, sometimes you just have to go for broke!) But assuming you’re having a run-of-the-mill woe-is-me moment, these are several ways to help yourself fake it ‘til you make it.
-Use props. Pretend like you’re reading a magazine or listening to a sad song. Or you’re all broken up because you’re watching a wrenching drama on your tiny iPhone screen. Or you’re on the phone. (You could actually call someone, but sometimes talking about why you’re sad makes you even more teary, so do this at your own risk!) These things all make it look like there’s a method to your madness, and people tend to ignore you more readily. Also, if you’ve just got a light teary eye, you can yawn a lot and rub your eyes in an effort to look like you're exhausted and/or have allergies.
-Stone face. If you have nothing to read/watch/listen to, adopt the classic “public space dead face.” Lock your eyes onto an imaginary object in the middle distance, grit your teeth just a tiny bit to give the illusion of a tough attitude, and look as bored with life as you can manage. The less vulnerable you look, the better. Also, if you have sunglasses in your bag, put them on — even if it is the middle of the night. Better to look like a drunk badass than a soppy mess. If you're outside, start walking in any direction as fast and with as much purpose as you can. With any luck, you'll eventually end up in front of a Starbucks and you can go in and use their bathroom. (It will probably be so gross that you'll want to cry, but hey, too late, you already are!)
-Keep interaction to a minimum. If a stranger (or even a well-meaning coworker) asks you what’s wrong, keep your answer simple. Something like “Eh, just a lousy day” or “I just have a terrible headache” is perfect. Chances are they’re just asking to make sure you aren’t in some kind of real danger, and the last thing they want is a 20-minute long explanation of how your spouse is a manipulative narcissist. Also, there is a chance that the person who asks if you’re okay is crazy or unpure of heart, and what you really don’t need in your fragile state is to pour your heart out to them and then have them say, “Shut up, you loser,” or worse, “Do you want to come back to my place?” (No, you do not!) If some well-meaning person offers you a tissue, take it, say “thanks,” and then go back to being stoic.
3. Pull Yourself Together
Eventually, hopefully after just a few minutes, your tears will subside. At that point, you’ll want to work on erasing all evidence of your breakdown. If you’re one of those people who looks pretty when you cry (so unfair!), then you’ve got nothing to worry about — just dab your eyes and get on with your charmed life. But if you’re like me, your eyes get all red and your face gets mottled-looking and you get congested and look like shit for at least half an hour after you’re done crying. In that case, you should find the nearest bathroom ASAP, blow your nose, and splash some cold water on your face. Pressing a cold, wet paper towel against your eyes is soothing, and take some deep breaths too, because, though I have no scientific proof, I feel like doing that makes you look more sane and confident. Of course, sunglasses indoors can again be your friend. (Except if you’re at work where it’s probably not worth looking like an idiot.) Stay in the bathroom (or wherever you've ducked into) as long as you need to regain your composure. If you find yourself feeling better because you've released your negative emotions, then by all means carry on with your plans for the day. But if you're still feeling raw or like another crying fit might be imminent, go right home and curl up in a ball if you can. If that's not an option, just go as easy as you can on yourself. Have some tea, call a friend, or spend a few hours watching cute cat videos online instead of working. You deserve it!
No matter how severe your eye showers were, it's very important that you not waste a second beating yourself up or feeling embarrassed about it. Sure, you lost it a little in front of some other people, but in the grand scheme of things it’s no big deal. Chances are you’ll never see any of them again, and even if you do they probably won’t be judging you. I mean, you’ve seen people cry in public, and you didn’t sit there thinking “what an asshole,” did you? No, you probably just felt bad for them for a second and then went back to thinking about your own depressing life. So, if it’s your day to be that guy who cries on the train, you just have to give yourself a little internal hug and move on. Of course, if you’re really feeling pitiful or you're sad that the cute guy you just walked past saw you looking weepy, I suppose you can add the shame you feel to the list of things you’ll cry about later in the bathtub!
Picture via Flickr