I’m a psychologist, and part of my job is to help clients get to a place where they can be hopeful again — where they’ve sorted through their problems, they know how to work through their anxiety or depression, and they no longer feel consumed by pain or endless worries.
But with this particular client, finding hope felt impossible. He’d been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and he had come to me to learn how to cope with the news of his untimely upcoming death. During each session, I was continually caught off guard by the overwhelming sadness I felt as I watched his health unravel. In the few short months that we’d worked together, he had become visibly weaker and more gaunt. When he revealed that his oncologist had told him his treatment had stopped working, my eyes suddenly filled with tears.
“You’re crying,” he said.
Indeed I was. I was mortified. Even worse, I worried that I had sabotaged his treatment. I knew for sure that I had done something taboo: Crying in therapy is fine, but the therapist isn’t supposed to be the one who’s doing it.
Throughout my time in graduate school, professors and supervisors cautioned me and my classmates against tearing up with our clients, claiming it could muddy the healing process. Even worse, they believed that crying could prove that you weren’t cut out for the profession. “It’s a sign that you over-identify with your client’s pain,” my professor told us. “If this is the case, you may not be an effective therapist.”
That’s as far as we got, though — we never learned what we should do or say if tears were shed.
But despite the warning that crying in front of a client is potentially damaging, research shows, well, the contrary. One study found that 72 percent of therapists have cried in session, suggesting that tears are the norm rather than the exception. Sometimes, their tears were in response to sad situations like the one my client found himself in; sometimes, they cried because they felt touched by something their client shared.
“I believe that the stigma associated with therapists’ tears comes in part from misunderstanding what they express. We often associate tears with weakness, lack of control, and a lack of professionalism, instead of understanding that they can be an expression of grief or an empathic response to the pain we see in others,” says psychologist Amy Blume-Marcovici, author of the book When Therapists Cry.
The taboo against tears also stems in part from Sigmund Freud’s oft-cited belief that therapists should remain “blank slates,” onto which our clients can project.
“Freud’s ideas have influenced therapists, making us feel like we should withhold emotion during our sessions,” Blume-Marcovici says. But Freud died a long time ago, and many of his ideas have followed suit. Not only is therapy no longer solely “Freudian,” but people can connect with therapists in a much broader array of ways — in the office, online, even via text. Because of these changes, therapists are no longer expected to remain so tight-lipped about their own lives, with clients or with the broader outside world. There are still ethical guidelines to uphold — you shouldn’t be friends with your client is an obvious example — but sharing a few personal details no longer constitutes a breach.
And many therapists have merged their professional lives with their social-media presence, sharing opinions and stories and tweeting about how to treat depression, trauma, addiction, and more. Some post curated “self-help” mantras on Instagram. These types of updates can serve as a sort of “therapy commercial,” giving potential clients a sample of the treatment before they book an appointment.
While some mental health professionals may feel taken aback by this level of sharing, a recent study found that clients prefer when their therapists speak to them more openly. For some, it can be healing when therapists use a technique known as “immediate self-disclosure,” and reveal how they feel about their clients and the therapeutic relationship.
“I think the blank-slate ideal is gone,” says psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW. “People can open up more fully when they feel safe with the therapist. A blank slate does not create this safety.” When she feels that it may help the therapy process, Jacobs Hendel says, she shares how she feels about her clients, and may disclose a personal antidote. If she cries during a session, she’s mindful to address it head-on, asking questions like, “As you see me crying on your behalf, what comes up for you?”
“A sound therapist will welcome this discussion, not shy away from it, creating space for the client’s reaction,” she says.
Among some therapists, at least, the conventional wisdom seems to be fading away: Therapists’ tears aren’t necessarily problematic. What’s most important is how the therapist addresses them with the client. Therapists who try to sweep it under the rug may make their clients feel uneasy. However, acknowledging one’s tears and inquiring about their meaning could offer clients a sense of understanding, which only helps the healing process.
In my case, I asked my client how my tears had made him feel, even though I felt awkward bringing it up. He said he was worried that I “pitied” him, but I reassured him that wasn’t the case at all; I was only saddened by his suffering. My honesty opened up a discussion about how others had reacted to the news of his illness.
He felt people were “nice” because they didn’t want to upset him, but that these interactions didn’t always seem genuine. Because of this, my client said he appreciated my “realness,” as well as my ability to talk about my feelings. Ultimately, discussing my tears helped us to develop trust, which allowed him to talk more openly about his prognosis.
And for me, crying wasn’t a one-time occurrence. Over the years, I’ve shed tears with several other clients: Witnessing a client’s shame can cause me to well up with sadness, while celebrating the birth of one’s baby can make me tear up with joy.
These days, when I supervise therapists-in-training, I let them know that crying in session isn’t uncommon. And if they become misty-eyed with their clients, I may disclose my own experience as a way to lessen any shame they may feel. I’m no longer embarrassed to express compassion through tears — I’ve found that when handled with care, they can communicate more than words.