It’s Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions

It’s Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions

It's Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions

Emotional Health


IT’S OKAY TO CRY | It’s ok to feel exhausted, or angry, or discouraged. It’s ok to find rage building in your chest, or to feel fear and worry buzzing like bees in your gut. It’s ok—really, it is—to have big, powerful emotions, and it’s also ok if you don’t know what to do about them.

This may not feel like a shocking statement, coming from a therapist, but it’s worth saying even so.

 It’s worth saying because I’m pretty sure you’ve heard differently.

You may have heard that being angry is unattractive. You might have been told (or you might tell yourself) that your sadness makes you weak, or that fear is unacceptable. You may have learned overtly, or through experience, that the things you feel are inappropriate for someone of your gender, your race, your age, or your position. You may have discovered that sharing your emotions with others can make them uncomfortable, and can have painful or embarrassing consequences.

I suspect you’ve heard and felt these things because I’ve heard and felt them too, and so have my therapy and coaching clients who come to see me, seeking a place where—finally—their emotions are welcome.

Validate Feelings

I imagine that you, like me, like each of us, have adapted to these expectations. You might use humor as your shield, or you might intellectualize, straining the vulnerable bits out of the experience in favor of a punchline or a cognitive conclusion. 

Another popular choice is distraction (hi, smartphones and those earbuds you never take out anymore); or—another crowd-pleaser here—you might use your work as a hideout, allowing busy-ness (and often, positive feedback) to drown out any emotions that might come knocking. One that I use all the time? Taking care of someone else: I let whatever the other person is feeling fill all the space in the room.

You might identify with some (or even all) of the defense mechanisms I’ve listed here, or you might not. Your way of coping might be food, or substances, or exercise, or sex, or sleep, or even—brace yourself—something you learned in therapy. Yes, strange though it might sound, most strategies related to “emotion regulation” (think: breathing exercises, grounding practices, and many forms of mindfulness) function primarily to protect us from emotions, buffers between ourselves and the emotions that plague us.  

You might be thinking, “hey, isn’t a lot of that stuff good?” If so, you’re right!

Wheel of Emotions

Sometimes—often, even—our emotions can feel messy, draining, unprofessional, and in the way. They can make it hard for us to, say, focus at work, or to be kind in conversations, or to fall asleep at night. They can also push us outside our personal windows of tolerance (the degree to which you can endure a particular emotion before you stop acting like your best self).

When that happens, things can get ugly, or even dangerous, and it is very important for each of us to have ways of helping ourselves stay within that safe, manageable emotional range. Some ways are healthier and more effective than others; the key is to find something that works for you in the moment without making your situation worse long term (addiction is one way certain defenses can backfire, for instance). 

But let’s say you’ve got a defense that’s working for you, consistently creating distance from your emotions, and not creating any kind of perceptible danger. Is this enough?

I would argue no. It isn’t enough, either for me, or for my clients.  Here’s why:

The emotions are still there, unresolved. In your less-guarded moments, you feel them.  And if you’ve been fending them off for a long time, you might notice that they start to change over time—and that these changes can be deeply unpleasant. We tell ourselves that emotions go away with time, but often the reality is much less rosy.

Feelings, like fruits and veggies, are meant to be digested while they’re fresh, and an emotion left unattended can rot: frustration can build into rage; hurt can fester and become resentment or even contempt; and sadness can, when left to itself, become a full-blown depression

We know, deep down, that we can’t go on avoiding our emotions forever, but it can be hard to stop—especially if the only alternative seems to be allowing the emotions to overwhelm you.

Emotional Goals

So let’s say you wanted to approach your emotions differently (Maybe you're ready to agree that It's Okay to Cry).  What would that look like?

This is a question I hear a LOT (especially lately from my online therapy clients), and it’s a good one. In fact, it still gets clinicians and researchers across the disciplines of psychology, counseling, and human development into spirited and complex debate. 

For starters, it’s important to recognize that we have emotions for a reason. Just like hunger lets you know that you need to eat, or pain tells you that you’ve been injured, emotions give us important information about ourselves and our needs

Emotions happen faster than conscious thought, which means that they give us the ability to notice and respond to our environment quickly. They are also fundamental to human bonding: without emotions we cannot experience connection, empathy, love, or loyalty. We can’t create partnerships, families or communities, and we can’t even communicate coherently with ourselves. 

In other words, our emotions are an asset. They’re not a necessary evil, an inconvenience, or a character flaw: they are essential feedback, allowing us to keep ourselves safe, whole, and connected to those we love.

In order to tap into this strength, I walk my clients (and myself) through five simple steps, counting them off on my fingers.

5 Simple Steps to Emotional Health

#1 The first thing to do is learn to notice our emotions as they happen. (Hint: the easiest way to do this, especially if it’s unfamiliar, is to start with your body. Is your forehead creasing? Is your heart beating fast, or slow? Are your hands or feet fidgeting? Might you be tensing your shoulders, biting your lip, clenching your fists, holding your breath?) This may involve learning to pause some of the strategies mentioned earlier, allowing yourself to direct your attention toward the emotion rather than away.

#2 The second step is simply to name the emotion. You may be feeling more than one at a time, but you can avoid confusion and overwhelm by just focusing on one at a time.  So now perhaps you’ve paused, noticed a lump in your throat, and thought to yourself, “I’m feeling sad right now.”

#3 Now for the third step: ask yourself where the emotion is coming from.  (This is a meditation technique called “reflecting:” you ask yourself a question, allowing your mind to answer without conscious effort, without pushing. You may surprise yourself with how you answer!)

#4 The fourth step is crucial: validate what you’re feeling. Emotions don’t get resolved until they’re taken seriously, so this is your chance to tell yourself things like: “It makes sense that I feel this way;” “My feelings are legitimate;” “It’s ok that I’m feeling this right now;” “I can feel this and still be ok,” “It's okay to cry.” 

In this step, self-compassion starts to peel back the layers of resistance we have toward a certain feeling, giving ourselves permission to own our experiences rather than smothering them or shaming ourselves. And here’s the twist: even as we make room for the emotion, we start to feel calmer. 

Finally, we turn our attention to the need indicated by the emotion, and try to find a way of meeting it.  So if you’re feeling guilty, you might need to make an apology.  If you’re feeling angry or hurt, you might need to protect yourself.  If you’re feeling lonely, you might need to try connecting with someone.  And if you’re feeling sad, you might just need to cry. 

This step can be tricky, because sometimes the thing we feel we need is impossible (for instance, if you’re grieving the passing of a loved one, you might truly feel that you need them back; or if you’re deeply ashamed of something you said to your partner, you might feel you need a time machine to go back and change your behavior). 

It can also be hard because sometimes emotions urge us to try unhelpful things to make ourselves feel better, like punching someone who’s made us angry. It can be tempting to think that resolving the external event is the same thing as resolving the emotion, but that’s problematic too: it’s often beyond our capacity to “fix” whatever has happened to make us feel this way, and in any case, emotional needs often transcend their impetus (they’re often bigger or deeper than a single event). 

#5 The key to the fifth and final step of this process is to choose kindness toward yourself and the emotion at hand, demonstrating that you’re taking your feelings seriously, and that you’re going to act accordingly.

Walking yourself through these steps isn’t easy, especially the first time.  If you’re new to this sort of thing, be sure to cut yourself some slack: it takes practice. You might feel silly reassuring yourself, or you might get lost in your own thoughts as you try to figure out where a particular feeling is coming from. It’s normal to struggle.

As I write this, the world is struggling, and each of us are working as hard as we can to hold ourselves together, weathering circumstances we could not predict and cannot resolve. Our shared predicament makes it more important now than ever to know what to do with our feelings. In crisis time, we need something better than defenses and avoidance—we need to bring curiosity and compassion to our own emotions, and to the emotions of others.

And remember…it's okay to cry. 

Wishing you the best, 
Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC 

denver therapist online therapist denver marriage counselor online marriage counseling

Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC is a marriage counselor, family therapist, life coach and individual therapist who creates a warm, safe environment, bringing out the best in you and your relationships. She empowers couples and individuals to heal and grow using evidence-based approaches that create real results and lasting change.

Let's  Talk



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Financial Counseling For Couples

Financial Counseling For Couples

Financial Counseling For Couples

How to Build Trust Around Finances In Your Relationship


Here at Growing Self we often do financial counseling for couples with people seeking to get on the same page around money. Let's face it: money is a loaded topic. From our younger years, we are taught that finances are not a polite dinner-time conversation. It’s poor etiquette to bring up your salary, your expenses, your debt, and your money goals even among your closest relations. Why is this?

Our personal finances often influence how we feel about ourselves. They can have a huge impact on how much freedom, power, security, and comfort we experience in our day-to-day lives. 

Finances impact our significant life and relationship milestones, like getting married, having a baby, or buying a house, and can also figure heavily into big decisions like pursuing education, addressing medical needs, and planning for retirement.  

Money, more than almost any other topic about which couples fight, directly bears on survival (some researchers have even noted that fights about money are more likely to end a relationship than fights around other topics).

In my experience as a couples therapist and relationship coach, there are several reasons why couples struggle to address their money woes both individually and as a team. Today I want to provide you with easy to incorporate tips on how to talk about the taboo topic of money with your partner.

Why Is Money Such An Uncomfortable Topic For Couples?

Most of us were taught early on that sharing financial specifics is rude, and clients have sometimes told me that talking about money makes them feel embarrassed or “exposed.” If you feel this way too, you’re not alone.

For those who are in a budding new relationship, talking about money may not be necessary. Then, when you get to the point in your relationship that it feels like the right time to start addressing this topic, it can feel so foreign and surreal that you just keep pushing it off.

Because expectations around sharing and transparency are unclear, couples are left asking lots of questions without any clear blueprint for the “right” way to proceed.  

Do we combine our finances, or keep separate accounts? 

And if we are going to combine them, when do we do that? When we move in? 

When we get engaged? When we get married? 

How much influence should we have over each other’s spending?

Do I have a right to know where my partner’s money is going?

The discomfort goes both ways. For those who have been successful with their finances, they may feel rude bringing it up (almost as if boasting their money success), even though they have worked hard to get to where they are, practiced self-control, and self-discipline with their money habits.

For those who feel less than successful with their finances, they may feel shame or regret around their finances and they don’t want to bring that into their relationship with their partner. Talking about finances is emotional. Telling your partner about a large accumulation of debt may feel shameful.

You may be fearful of how your partner may view your spending or saving habits, or worry that entering a discussion about finances will end in a fight. The way you manage your money reflects your values, and when partners criticize these choices in one another, it can feel uniquely threatening.

When To Discuss Finances As A Couple

Many of the  couples who come to me to find clarity around discussing their finances are at a loss for how to move forward. They have already exhausted the topic, fought over whose approach is better for the relationship, and have often felt unheard by their partner (or have experienced broken trust surrounding finances within the relationship).

You don’t have to wait until you get to that point. In fact, the earlier you start talking about finances, the easier it will be to create a plan together moving forward.

How Do I Bring The “Money Talk” Up In My Relationship?

Start by checking in with yourself. Getting an accurate and up-to-date sense of where your money is going on a regular basis will allow for you to approach the topic with confidence. 

Take stock of bills and scheduled payments, debt (including any student loans, a mortgage, and credit card debt), regular monthly expenses (like gas, groceries, etc.), and any miscellaneous spending (think: eating out, travel costs, buying Christmas presents, and so on). 

If you’re a little on the budget-avoidant side of the spectrum, it can be helpful to take your own financial pulse before raising the issue with your partner. That way you may be better prepared to answer their questions, and you’ll be more aware of whether or not you’re satisfied with your current spending habits. (If you’re already operating from shared accounts, you may be able to skip this step!)

Because finances can be an uncomfortable conversation (at first–it gets easier!) I recommend that you schedule a time to meet with your partner in a neutral zone – whether that’s at home, at a coffee shop, or maybe even out on a walk. Don’t spring the conversation on your partner in the middle of a romantic dinner, around friends, during work, or at your family reunion (although I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this!).

Financial Conversations Every Couple Should Have

You already know where you stand financially (hooray for finishing step one!), and maybe you now have a better sense of where you want to be. So, begin the conversation by sharing these details with your partner: be honest and transparent about where you are, and describe where you ultimately want to be financially as a couple.

Once you’ve shared, allow your partner to weigh in. If this conversation comes as a surprise to them, don’t expect them to have all their answers or point-of-view laid out clearly right away. They may need some time to think about what you’ve shared and to take stock of their own financial situation.

While you have this ongoing conversation with your partner, share your goals and listen respectfully to theirs (no matter how different they are from yours). Maintaining an open, nonjudgmental stance is the best way to keep the conversation from shutting down or spiraling into conflict.

Expectations From Financial Conversations As A Couple

Beginning this conversation will allow the two of you to set expectations around your money. The whole point of this conversation is to build trust, awareness, and success in your relationship and in your finances.

This conversation should lead you toward shared goals, an idea of what your future looks like, what you can each expect out of your current employment status, what changes you need to implement, and how you can achieve your financial and lifestyle goals over the next one, five, ten, or even fifty years.

Three Tips To Successful Communication Around Finances

Respecting your partner will be what gets you through any difficult conversation, especially when the conversation has to do with something as life-altering as money.

If there are large disagreements, try talking about the meaning behind your position and asking about what your partner’s position means to them. Example: having a higher eating-out and entertainment budget might be your way of prioritizing community and friendships, while saving that money might be your partner’s way of feeling secure in the face of potential future emergencies.

Here are three tips for successful money talks.

Be Patient

As discussed earlier, this is not a one-time-over-morning-coffee discussion. It’s an ongoing conversation that you may need to have weekly, or at the very least once a month. The more time and effort you put into discussing and implementing change in your finances as a team, the more successful you will be. It takes time, and that’s okay.

Be Realistic

Change is not going to happen overnight, and you’re not always going to see eye-to-eye but if you’re realistic with yourself, your partner, and with your bank balance, your relationship will have a better chance of moving forward at a manageable pace towards your goals.

Be Compassionate

Above all, be compassionate. People mess up. Have grace both for yourself and for your partner. Recognize that new habits take time to build, and that you probably won’t have everything figured out in your first month (or year) budgeting together. And guess what? That’s okay too.

Final Thoughts…

Do What’s Right For YOUR Relationship

There’s more than one way of handling your finances. If you are having trouble finding the right method for your relationship, maybe speaking with an expert to gain insight into what might work best is the right move for you and your partner. 

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Different Approaches

There is no one right way to talk about money or handle your finances. You don’t have to be a money expert to start making good money moves. Working together as a team is going to be the MOST important step to achieving your financial goals, and to maintaining trust in the relationship.

Avoid Financial Infidelity At All Costs

A good rule of thumb in relationships: the moment you feel an impulse to conceal something, that’s your cue to share it with your partner. Admitting that you made a poor decision is less harmful in the long run than getting caught hiding it.

Here's to your financial success together!
Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC

P.S. Do you have any conversational tips to share about building trust around finances in your relationship? Share with us in the comments section below!


Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC is a marriage counselor, family therapist, life coach and individual therapist who creates a warm, safe environment, bringing out the best in you and your relationships. She empowers couples and individuals to heal and grow using evidence-based approaches that create real results and lasting change.

Let's  Talk

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