The term “swallowing one’s tears (back)” is often used to describe someone suppressing their grief or despair, stopping themselves from crying. The expression seems to float somewhere between a figure of speech and a literal description of a physiological process. However, in most dictionaries, no entry can be found.
Here are some examples on possible usecases of this expression (translated from German):
“James de Malplaquet sang to it as if he had to swallow his tears, with a gentle vibrato in his voice, a glass of whisky or red wine in his hand nearly all the time (…) and paid homage to such beautiful despair that one felt the desire to drown oneself in a barrel of ale in the cellar of a British pub that very night.” (Tagesspiegel, Oliver Dietrich, 20.01.2012)
“Sharma apologised before the plenary with his head bowed, paused, had to swallow his tears. Shortly afterwards, the watered-down Glasgow Pact was adopted.” (taz, Susanne Schwarz, 12.12.2022)
“This time, however, Stanisic has to swallow tears for once, which make his voice brittle. ‘That’s how it is when you work with memory,’ he says, ‘eventually it gets you.'” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Karin Janker, 14.06.2019)
Similar semantic constellations also exist in other languages than just German and English, for example, svälja gråten in Swedish, polykat slzy in Czech, or inghiottire le lacrime in Italian. In other words: We’re probably onto something.
However, in terms of its physiological content, the phenomenon of swallowing tears hardly appears to be a subject of scientific interest. This could indicate that it is actually more of a metaphorical construction than a physiological process. Yet, a brief study of the process of crying itself certainly shows the possibility of a literal interpretation, for tears are formed in the lacrimal glands and then flow through the tear ducts into the nasal cavity. This in turn is connected to the pharynx, so that it is indeed possible to swallow one’s own tears very naturally (alongside the mucus that also forms in the nose when weeping).
That swallowing (back) one’s tears is an actual thing might be also supported by the fact that any advice to stop unwanted crying often mentions intentional swallowing. This is where the proverbial “lump in the throat” comes in. It occurs because emotional crying opens the muscle at the back of the throat, called the glottis. Crying tries to keep the glottis open while swallowing, creating the feeling that a lump is forming in the throat. It is advised to drink a sip of water, swallow empty or yawn, which can help the felt lump, and eventually the crying itself, to go away.
Metaphorically, or even poetically speaking, the process of swallowing one’s own tears seems significant in that crying per se seems to perform a movement from the individual’s inside to their outside: emotions and the nervous system produce a fluid that makes its way from the interior to exterior parts of the body, to the visible and thus to the social, when tears run down the cheeks. Swallowing tears reverses this process: The movement into the outside is thwarted and diverted back into the inside, the attempt to make and become visible is prevented and the social potential of crying, the receiving of support and help from others, is made impossible.
But: perhaps you’re just saving them for another day?