Help! I can't stop crying during conflict.

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I am a sensitive person and usually that's all well and good. However, I've noticed a change in my behavior/reactions over the past few years. I am an active conflict-avoider. A peacekeeper. I dislike being around other people in conflict even if I am not involved. And I am not sure when it started, but now when I experience conflict I cannot help but cry. And I mean like full on voice breaking and crying, and it's very difficult for me to stop or control my emotions.

This has happened in personal situations like roommate discussions and relationship talks, but it even happens if my superior mildly scolds me at work. I know that I have issues with authority figures, self esteem, perfectionism, and shame based on my earlier family dynamics and being raised religiously, among other things. 

I try to be open with my friends and loved ones, and I feel close with them. We talk about our fears. They know about all of the above. I don't understand why I would react to conflict this way. I am worried I am "using" the crying to shift blame away from myself during conflict, or that others view it that way. In any case, it is affecting my relationships as I have been closing off or avoiding even mild conflicts. I am also increasingly anxious about the affect this could have on my career.

I was in therapy for over a year while I was in school and I am waiting until I start grad school to go back. I am not sure that we really addressed this in sessions. I have been trying to do the work myself but it hasn't changed my interactions. I don't expect you to have the answers, but I was wondering if you would have any advice for the meantime. How can I begin to approach being vulnerable around others? Is there a way to have discussions about conflict without centering my physical reactions when they occur? How do I respect what I need while listening to the concerns of others?

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I am not going to pretend that I have a perfect answer for you. In fact, I will admit to being at least a little stumped. Normally, when I get a letter that I have no idea where to start with I… put it off. Sometimes, I don’t even come back to it because I feel I simply cannot offer the letter writer much other than sympathy. But your letter stuck with me. Partially, I’m sure, because I myself am quite the crier. I love crying! Both my parents cry easily. Pretty much everyone in my family does! I have loads of experience with crying and being around crying. I know baby cries, I know happy tears, I know drunken breakdowns. And I absolutely, absolutely, absolutely know conflict-is-making-my-body-shut-down tears. (From personal experience). I am a crier and a shut-downer by nature. So I feel you.

One of my most deeply held convictions is that crying is healthy, normal, and good for you. I think it’s bizarre (and--like many negative reactions to regular human emotions--probably in many ways a byproduct of capitalism and colonization. No time for tears when you’re meant to be working!) that we are all so uncomfortable with crying. It’s very similar to laughing, as an example. In fact, as far as science seems to be able to tell, crying functions pretty similarly: it allows other people to know how you’re feeling. We even can recognize different types of cries in other people--happy tears, sad tears, afraid tears a.k.a. tears for fears.

So let me be clear that I don’t think the goal is or should be to Stop Crying. In fact, while ultimately you may want to cry less or to cry at different times, I don’t think you ought to focus on Not Crying. Mostly because you’ll set yourself up for failure. Not crying is one of the hardest things to do! Also it sucks ass because normally you’re left just as emotional as you would be if you were crying but also overwhelmed from trying not to cry and everyone can usually tell you want to cry. Anyway! Don’t focus on not crying.

Focus on listening to people and communicating what you need them to hear. That I think, should be the goal. The question isn’t “How do I become less of a sensitive baby?” which is not true of you and is judgemental of yourself, but rather, “How can I communicate my needs and boundaries better and in turn hear the people I love and care about?”

Let’s start by re-framing some things. I am ALL FOR people being self aware and noticing their own patterns and how those patterns are helping or harming themselves--those are good things! However, humans love and crave narrative and labels, and as such, people tell themselves a story about themself and it sticks. Forever. They say: I am a sensitive person. And that becomes The Truth. It becomes powerful. In a scenario where perhaps they would not respond all that emotionally, they condition both themselves and their loved ones to believe that they will be “sensitive.” And, when the time comes to respond differently, they believe they’re bad at not being “sensitive.” They believe they live in one mode and one mode only. You know when you buy a new car and then you start to see that kind of car everywhere, even though there are the same number as before? All evidence that you see starts to fit the narrative of I Am A Sensitive Person. All the arrows point in only one direction. Everything else is discounted or discarded.

Obviously, people have personalities and tendencies, but none of us is set in stone. None of us is as fixed as we might believe. I urge you to stop telling yourself that you are a sensitive person who cries too much. You’re a person with needs and feelings like the rest of us. Sometimes you have trouble communicating those needs and feelings as you wish to. That’s fine!

And really, that’s what the crying is about: you are desperately trying to communicate to others that a boundary of yours has been crossed. You are in fear-mode, it sounds like. It’s incredibly, incredibly, incredibly normal for people who have a history of trauma to shut down in even “minor” situations that might mirror what happened in their past. I myself used to want to cry every time I talked to my boss--even if it was a positive talk!--because of my past with an emotionally abusive step parent. Your crying is a coping technique and one that has, in some ways, worked. Your brain is convinced that it is protecting you. And sometimes, it has been! Sometimes, I’m sure, crying has protected you from triggers. So we can’t be too too mad at your brain. We just need it to dial things back a bit.

Of course, now, the issue is: how??? Firstly, your idea of going to therapy and bringing this up is fantastic. In fact, I would say it is necessary! Secondly, and I think this is something you should/will address in therapy, you have to get to the bottom of what it is that you’re actually afraid of when it comes to conflict. Are you afraid of people leaving you? Of being unliked? Of being “in trouble”? Ok… if you are in trouble, what does that mean? What do you fear about being in trouble? Are you afraid of being seen as a bad person? Of being shunned? Of being harmed? What is the key fear that you feel when you’re avoiding conflict? Once you figure that out, you can come up with a mantra of sorts that grounds you. Like, “It is ok if someone is mad at me, I will not die. They will not hurt me.” Or whatever! The mantra is for when you’re at the highest level of stress/panic/sensitivity.

If you have repeated interactions with someone and feel close enough with them, create a safe word of sorts (my go-to is “pineapple upside down cake”) when you’re feeling overwhelmed and you need a moment to calm yourself more. It might take a few times of using your safe word to get through conversations to begin with, but that’s ok! With people you love and trust, they’re going to get that you’re working on this and they’re going to be supportive. You can bring it up like this, “Hey, I tend to get really overwhelmed in emotional conversations and I can kind of shut down, I’m working on finding better ways to communicate, so I might need to take a minute break and regroup. It’s not me shutting you out, I promise. If I need a minute, I’ll say X, and I’ll be back to talk as soon as I can.”

Another suggestion I have is to try to communicate more through writing. Send emails to people you love describing what you’re working on emotionally and why. I’m not saying you owe anyone an explanation of anything, but you can send an email to a very close friend or family member that says, “Hey, I feel like I’ve been very easily overwhelmed when it comes to emotional conversations recently, and I still very much want to talk to you and hear you and so right now I’m trying to write more so that I can still talk to people, but in a way that’s a little less overwhelming for me.” Communicating via writing allows for both of you to focus on what you’re talking about rather than, as you put it, your physical reactions. If you feel comfortable talking to your boss or supervisor about the same thing--that you’re working on this, but that written communication often works better for you--then great! Tell them that, or ask for what would work better for you.

You sometimes have to “train” yourself/your brain to go through scary emotional situations and prove to your brain that you are not harmed. Sometimes our brains are like the kid who is sure there is a monster in the closet and we have to keep coming in and turning on the closet light and being like, “Look, you little brat there is NOTHING THERE!!!!”

The reality is that you are going to cry sometimes, still. You are not going to change magically as a person, even if you go through therapy. And you shouldn’t want to. Crying is great! Being sensitive is great! When you are in the moment with other people, try your best to listen to them, to focus on them. Remind yourself as often as you need that you are safe. (The advice I have for a situation that actually is not emotionally or physically safe is to get out as soon as you can and don’t be worried about crying!). Label your emotions as they come in. When you’re ready to cry, say, “Ok I know you’re overwhelmed right now. I hear you. That’s ok, but we are safe. We’re at Melanie’s house having a nice glass of seltzer. Things are good, I don’t need you to cry right now, but thanks.” Will this make you not cry on command? No! But it’s meant to ground you and remind your brain that you don’t need it to sob.

Ultimately, your brain is trying to help, unfortunately it’s making a bit of a mess of it. It’s sort of similar to how when people get stressed out, sometimes we break out, which is NOT helpful. Like, thank you body, I already got it. I know I’m stressed and you’re actually making it worse because now I have a bunch of zits. Bodies aren’t always cooperative.

Again, this is a lot of In The Meantime advice, because I do think you need to talk to someone about the places this stems from--you identified some yourself in the letter, but you’re going to need to actually process what happened to you and how it has shaped you. It will be easier then to identify triggers for you feeling overwhelmed and to learn tactics for coping when they occur. Keep looking until you get a good therapist, if at all possible.

This will get easier and better. Growth is not linear, however! You will still have fun little moments where you cry a lot for “no good reason” and that’s ok!!! We all do!!! You’ve got this!

You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at

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