Wednesday 7 September 2022

I'm Weak and What's Wrong With That?

What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.
— BrenĂ© Brown

Trigger warning: suicide and suicidality. This is posted as an awareness piece for World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10). Suicide is not a sign of weakness.

Inspiration and Ego

This article was inspired by a friend who questioned something I’d written in an open letter to my father. Here’s what she said:

I did want to briefly comment on something you wrote in your blog post about open letters, in particular the one to your father where you wrote “You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes.”

I question why you put “cry” and “weak” in the same sentence, and it makes me wonder what “weak” means to you, especially since you champion the “fighting stigma” cause. It isn’t “weak” to cry, or to have feelings or emotions — in fact, it’s the opposite. I think that’s important to note, especially when the suicide rates among men are so high — you may want to address that before you send out the wrong message from the one you perhaps intended.

My immediate reaction was to go on the defensive. That’s not what I meant! How could she say that? How could she think that? Did she actually read the whole letter? But then I took a moment to breathe and allowed my instinctive ego response to pass. As it shifted I felt something else: gratitude. My friend had bestowed a valuable gift. She’d offered me the opportunity to look back at what I’d written, consider what those words meant to me at the time, and what they mean to me now.

I invite you to read the letter to my father in full, but the sentence my friend questioned appears in the following paragraph. (Italicised here for emphasis.)

I grew up accepting disability and illness as things you put up with without making a fuss about them. But Dad, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t learn how much it fucking hurts to live in chronic pain. I didn’t learn how someone can rail against the injustice of it all, scream at the universe — and then move past that and take the next step. You never let me see it’s okay to cry and be weak sometimes, and share how you’re feeling when life is really shitty. I have no idea how you felt about your life. Or your death.

I want to explore this further because as my friend said it’s an important topic. I’m grateful to those who have discussed the subject with me and given permission for me to quote from our conversations. Some names have been changed.

It’s Okay to Feel Weak

The following is excerpted from the reply I sent my friend, with minor edits for clarity.

Thank you for the questions about my open letter to my father, and especially the line mentioning crying and being weak. My first thought is, yes, I get what you mean. Maybe what I wrote does give the impression I meant crying (allowing yourself to cry / open up emotionally) is weak. Thinking back to when I wrote the letter four years ago, I think I meant it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to be weak. In other words, I was talking about two different things, not necessarily saying crying is weak.

That might sound contrived, but I believe the interpretation is justified. In the original sentence I mentioned three things: crying, being weak sometimes, and sharing how you’re feeling. I continued:

Thinking it through, though, I’m uneasy asserting it’s not weak to cry. I don’t think crying is necessarily “weak” or “not weak.” It may take strength or courage in order to cry — especially to allow yourself to cry in front of someone — but I’m not sure how helpful or healthy that message is. To men in particular, but to anyone really.

“It takes strength and courage to cry” may help some people, so they feel okay about opening up emotionally. But for me that message actually increases stigma. It stigmatises being (or feeling) weak. It says to me “crying is okay, because it’s not weak to cry, in fact it’s the opposite.” But what if you do feel weak? I do, sometimes. I say it’s okay to feel weak. It’s okay to feel strong. It’s certainly okay to cry, whether you feel weak or strong doing so.

This insight was new to me. It felt important, though, and I wanted to explore it further.

Crying is Letting Go of Something

I brought it up in chat with another friend, Brynn. I began by explaining I’d been asked about what I wrote in the open letter.

“[My friend] said it sounded as though I thought crying is weak, which might not be a healthy message, for men in particular. I’m interested to know what you think about it.”

“I think it takes strength to cry, in front of others especially. I do that in group therapy and it’s still very hard to do.”

I thought about this for a moment. I wanted to ask about my what’s wrong with weakness? dilemma.

“Thanks, Brynn. I get what you mean. It can take strength to cry. (I would add it takes trust.) But I have a problem because saying that carries an implicit message that being weak is bad. Like, okay maybe crying isn’t weak, but what if it was? What’s wrong with being weak sometimes?

“I think society — and particularly this has been done to men — has taught us that it’s not ok to emote like that. That it’s weak somehow. I guess there’s nothing wrong with being weak if we say crying is a weakness. Personally, I think bottling up one’s emotions is weak. I’ve done it all my life, as a way to avoid my feelings.”

“I understand what you mean about bottling up feelings. I never cried at all until I was in my forties. It might even have been later. I wasn’t consciously bottling things up, and it’s not like I cried in private, because I didn’t. But then, all of a sudden, I could cry, and did. It’s been that way ever since. I don’t cry often but I certainly do sometimes. Thank you for sharing.”

“You’re welcome, Marty. I admire people who show their emotions. I think it takes courage to let go like that, because crying is, in part, letting go of something.”

The idea of crying as letting go made sense to me, but I still felt there was something I’d not fully explored.

I’m Weak, and What’s Wrong With That?

Chatting with Brynn reminded me of a line from a song — “I’m weak, and what’s wrong with that?” A quick search revealed the song was “Weak” by American indie pop trio AJR. (The version I remembered is by Halloran and Kate, featuring May Raya.) The song is about weakness in the context of temptation and addition, but many of the comments left by listeners speak to its wider relevance. Here are a few taken from one AJR version of the song on YouTube.

I’m not crying cause I’m weak I’m crying cause I’ve been strong for so long.

This song makes me so comfortable about my problems. It helped me to realize that admitting your weakness isn’t a failure but something after which I can feel slightly better.

Ironically, this song makes me feel strong.

I love this song because of how even though you may feel weak at times, you are strong in so many different ways.

This song always makes me feel better about myself since I do feel like I am weak.

Every time I hear this song I cry because it reminds me to never give up.

The first comment echoes Brynn’s idea that crying can involve the release or letting go of something. The rest offer hope. We may feel weak at times or in certain areas of our lives, but we can move from feeling weak to feeling stronger, and recognise that we’re strong in other areas. This resonates for me. I feel weak sometimes, and there are certainly areas of my life I’m “weaker” (less proficient) in than others, but I don’t feel defined by those feelings. I don’t feel that I’m a weak person, or a failure. In saying that, I’m aware of a sense of privilege. I’ve never been subject to stigma or discrimination for expressing such feelings. That’s not true for everyone.

No Barrier between You and Your Feelings

A conversation with another friend, Maggie, brought more ideas into the mix. I told her what I was working on. She said it was funny, because she’d shed tears very recently, “and I have indeed subconsciously felt weak.” (She actually said it was ironic, which reminded me of Ironic by Alanis Morissette. The song carries some personal significance for me, although — ironically — it’s more about coincidence than irony.)

She told me she’d recently been there for a close friend who’d been deeply upset. “There she was,” Maggie said. “Just as vulnerable as could be. From my perspective it appeared as though she felt weak about it.” She described giving her friend Zelda space for tears and to talk about what was going on for her. “Zelda,” she said. “You are crying and hurt and full of fear and anxiety right now, but based on what you have told me I think you have displayed great self-control. The tears are not an indication of weakness, although we often experience them that way. In fact, your tears are a release of everything it has taken you to maintain the self-control to be the you that you want to be.”

Here again was the idea of tears as a release. Maggie went on to describe what happened when she met a long-time friend at the airport. “I see her at the luggage claim and she sees me. As soon as we hugged each other I unexpectedly ‘broke down’ (such a funny expression!) and cried and cried and couldn’t stop hugging her. Something I was FEELING brought the tears. It wasn’t sadness, nor fear, nor weakness. It was feeling LOVE. Feeling HAPPY. Such a treat!”

Although the circumstance were very different, this was exactly how it felt for me the first time I cried. The tears came out of nowhere. I was totally unprepared for them and for a time there was no way I could stem the flow. It was like a dam had burst. I suggested to Maggie that like mine, her tears had been a gift. “It’s like there was no barrier between you and your feelings,” I said. “They expressed themselves as tears and you had no resistance to that happening.” “Exactly!” she replied.

Learning Is Always on a Weak to Strong Dimension

I mentioned earlier that I’m weak in certain areas of my life, meaning I lack knowledge, proficiency, skills, or experience. This aspect of weakness was expressed beautifully by my friend Paul.

Weakness is an inherent part of life. For years I’ve been weak with music technology; now I’m strong. Everything is like that. Learning is always on a weak to strong dimension. Weak... nowt learnt. Strong... loads learnt.

I love Paul’s idea of weakness and strength being on a continuum. Learning helps us to move from wherever we might be on that spectrum in the direction of increasing strength. That’s true whether we’re talking about something practical like learning to use technology or more general life skills. Movement isn’t always in one direction, of course. Events and situations can shift us back towards feeling weak or inadequate. True strength — a better word is resilience — isn’t about always being at the “strong end.” It’s about feeling confident in our ability to handle things, no matter where on that weak–strong spectrum we find ourselves.

What’s in a Word?

So, after all these conversations and deliberations, what conclusions have I come to? I’ve never believed crying is a sign of weakness in any pejorative sense of the word. I certainly didn’t intend to equate tears with weakness in the letter to my father. If I was writing that letter now, I would word it differently, to make that distinction clearer. I don’t intend to edit the post, but I will add a note of clarification linking to this article.

I remain convinced that labeling crying as inherently “strong” is at best problematic. It shifts the stigma from crying to weakness. It reinforces the fallacious and dangerous idea that weakness is undesirable, shameful, and — for anyone identifying as a man — unmanly. I believe it’s as okay to feel weak as it is to cry.

What actually is weakness, though? It’s clear that it means different things to different people. There’s nothing problematic in saying that. The same is true of any word we use to label emotional states and behaviour: love, hate, sadness, happiness, good, bad. We use these words as though they have definitive meanings to which we all subscribe. In fact, they mean different things to each of us, largely determined by our culture and lived experience. Mostly, there is sufficient overlap for us to get by. If I tell you I’m sad or in love, you won’t know exactly what the words means to me, but you’ll get the gist.

The problem comes when we use words such as weakness to express value judgments about ourselves and other people. That’s where stigma and discrimination come into play. It’s why my friend asked what weakness means to me, and whether my use of the word challenges or reinforces society’s wider misunderstanding of weakness; a misunderstanding which, sadly and often tragically, deems weakness worthy of shame and denigration. I’m not personally responsible for society’s understanding of weakness or anything else, but as someone writing in the mental health space — and in particular as a man writing in the mental health space — I accept my responsibility to express myself clearly and in ways that counter rather than reinforce unhealthy societal tropes.

Suicide Is NOT Weakness

It’s worth being ultra clear: I do not equate suicide with weakness in any way. People who have attempted or died by suicide are often called weak or selfish. As far as I’m concerned that’s unwarranted, unfair, and simply — patently — untrue. People understand illness and wellness in different ways, but for me, there’s no moral dimension to mental health, up to and including self-harm and suicide. I wish this was far more widely recognised. Fran and I hope this blog, the book we wrote about supporting friends with mental illness, and everything else we do publically and privately, contributes to that vital message.

Weakness as Overwhelm

My personal take on weakness is that it’s the label we use when we feel unequal to the challenges we face. I feel weak when I’m temporarily overwhelmed, confused, or unable to respond effectively to whatever is happening. This is rarely a pleasant experience. An excess of love or gratitude can be disorienting and scary. The first words Fran ever spoke to me were “sometimes even too much love can be overwhelming.” Conveyed kindly, it was an admonition nonetheless. Ultimately, weakness is a feeling; an emotion. As such, I know it will pass. It labels how I feel in the moment. It is not who I am.

You Don’t Have to if You Don’t Want To

I believe passionately that it’s okay to feel weak, to cry on our own or in front of others, and to express ourselves openly and honestly wherever and whenever we feel safe doing so.

But it’s also okay if we don’t. Most of my adult life I was incapable of crying. Now, I cry easily. Neither state was inherently better than the other. I find it helpful to share my feelings and mental health with trusted friends, and publically here on our blog. I applaud others who want to do likewise and feel able to do so. But not everyone is in that situation. For many years I processed things in my diary rather than talk about them. There are still things I choose to journal privately rather than share with friends.

It’s no healthier to cry or talk to other people than to journal or process things in other ways, if those ways work for you. What’s unhealthy is not having the opportunity to process, or feeling inhibited from doing so for fear of being judged poorly.


If you’ve been affected by the topics discussed here or are concerned for someone you know, our resources page includes links to suicide crisis lines, support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else. For World Suicide Prevention Day 2020 we compiled a selection of relevant articles we’ve shared over the past few years. We also have a list of resources relating specifically to men’s mental health.

Over to You

In this article I’ve explored crying, emotional vulnerability, and weakness. What do you think? Do you think I expressed myself poorly in the open letter to my father? Does it give the unhealthy impression that it’s weak to cry? If so, how might I have said it better? More generally, do you believe it’s weak to cry? Strong? What does the word “weakness” mean to you? Is it okay to be weak?

Whatever your thoughts, we’d love to hear from you, either in the comments section or through our contact page.


Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano at Unsplash.



  1. In a way I guess labeling people as strong or weak based on how they display an emotion, in this case sadness, is maybe not the real answer. This may be simplistic but I think people just need to be allowed to be human… just human. Maybe we can throw out strong or weak when it pertains to human emotions and just let them be what they are: part of the human experience without any judgement one way or the other. I know we can feel weak but that doesn’t mean we are. In terms of learning new things like on a job and being weak on stuff like that, of course you can learn. But to me that’s a separate issue. Emotions are emotions. They are often quite complex. What I’m learning for myself is not to judge my feelings. It’s not easy but I think it’s relevant here. Feelings are feelings. And by saying I think it takes strength to cry, I’m not implying that’s there’s any weakness anywhere. What I truly believe is what I’ve just stated. Why do we need to label emotions like that anyway? The answer maybe lies within what feels uncomfortable and what does not. For myself personally, I wasn’t allowed to show emotions as a kid. As an adult, I’m having to learn that I can, with safe people. I would say that emotions can be challenging in this sense, because generally society has taught us it’s not ok. I think tears are a gift and there’s even a book I read once called “The Gift of Tears.” And maybe they don't have to come out of a place of weakness or strength. Maybe they just have to Be.

    1. "Maybe we can throw out strong or weak when it pertains to human emotions and just let them be what they are: part of the human experience without any judgement one way or the other." I totally agree with that comment.