Why Can’t I Cry?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My ex-husband is suing me. My kids don’t want anything to do with me. My job is a dead end, and my life sucks. I feel like I have no future and can’t see beyond the end of this letter. So why can’t I cry?

Most people in my situation would be bawling their eyes out, but I feel nothing. Just a void—an empty, numb, emotionless void. I can’t even remember the last time I cried. It has to have been over a decade.

I seem to have no tears in me at all. I even tried to force myself to cry the other day because I thought it might help to finally do it. I hit myself, hurt myself, called myself names. Nothing.

What gives? The only thing I can find online is information about melancholia. I might be depressed, but I don’t feel like that’s the whole story. I haven’t been able to cry for a long, long time. Is there a psychological explanation for this? And what can I do about it? —Dry Me a River

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Dear Dry,

It sounds like there is a tremendous amount of turmoil in your life. Considering the far-reaching impact it has had on a previous marriage, your relationships with your children, and your work, I’m guessing it didn’t come to be this way overnight. I imagine things fell apart a little bit here and a little bit there over time. If I’m correct about that, I think it is possible the numbness you describe initially developed as a coping mechanism—a way to help you manage all the pain associated with the tumult in your family and work.

Sometimes people try to cut off the more difficult emotions they experience, like grief, sadness, fear, and anxiety. The problem with cutting off painful emotions is that it also cuts off the positive ones, resulting in a sense of numbness.

Sometimes people try to cut off the more difficult emotions they experience, like grief, sadness, fear, and anxiety. The problem with cutting off painful emotions is that it also cuts off the positive ones, resulting in a sense of numbness. It sounds like somewhere along the way you just shut down to try to protect yourself from pain. After building this defense system over time, it can be difficult to reconnect with your emotions, as you discovered in your attempts to cry.

I think it would be helpful for you to talk with a therapist as you try to work through this and reconnect with your feelings. The safety of a strong therapeutic relationship can allow you to explore your world, past and present, and access your full range of emotions. Your work in therapy can also help you to develop healthier coping mechanisms to handle the more painful emotions you experience. It’s also possible that getting to healthier emotional state might help you to repair some of the relationships that seem so badly damaged. You might also feel better positioned to take on some new career challenges.

You have arrived a difficult place in your life and there are no quick fixes, but you do not have to go through this alone. There is help.

Best wishes,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.

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