1 Question, 5 Answers is a column where we ask different types of healthcare pros to weigh in on the same issue.
It’s your therapist’s job to support you — not only by dispensing wisdom and advice, but also by empathizing with you. And that means, from time to time, your therapist might get misty-eyed when you share feelings or recount difficult experiences.
Whether or not you’ve personally witnessed a therapist cry, it’s a fairly common occurrence. In a 2013 study, almost three-quarters of psychologists admitted they’ve shed tears during a session. Some patients might appreciate the display of compassion. But it can also feel awkward, and even inhibit the healing process, when the person who’s supposed to help you hold it together can’t seem to hold it together themselves.
Not sure what to think about (or how to handle) your therapist welling up in front of you? We asked five mental health professionals when displays of emotion are and aren’t appropriate — and how patients should deal with crying therapists. Here’s what they had to say.
Katie Lear, LCMHC, RPT, RDT
Charlotte, North Carolina
It’s not out of the question that a therapist may be so connected with a client’s story in a given moment that they’re moved to tears. We are human too! Empathy is a huge part of our job, and part of empathy is resonating with what your client is feeling.
But there is a big difference between tearing up and full-out sobbing in session. If a therapist gets a little misty, it indicates that she’s really connected to what her client is saying, but the focus still stays on the client, where it belongs. This could help validate a client’s feelings and even strengthen the therapist-client relationship. A therapist who becomes inconsolable during a session, however, has pulled focus away from the client and that is no longer helpful or appropriate. Clients shouldn’t be worried about having to take care of their therapist’s feelings, and this could damage the relationship.
It’s absolutely within your right to tell your therapist if you ever feel uncomfortable with something that transpires during session. A skilled therapist will know how to handle — and even welcome — feedback from you. If your therapist’s crying is making you feel uneasy, bring it to their attention. You’re likely not the only one who feels this way. However, if the crying is appropriate and not disruptive, there is no need to feel guilty or concerned.
David Fornos, MA
My personal take is that yes, it is okay to cry as a therapist in session as long as it meets two criteria: It’s a genuine expression of emotion and it doesn’t take the focus off of the client. Many people may have an idea that therapists are supposed to be objective and even cold in session, that they should be blank slates that judge clients from some lofty and far-removed vantage point, but that’s not the case.
Therapists are human beings with emotions just like everyone else, and there are times when showing emotion in session can really help the client. One of the most important jobs a therapist has is to model a healthy interpersonal relationship, and there are no healthy interpersonal human relationships without emotion. That being said, displays of emotion absolutely must be in service of the client and not the therapist.
If you have the impression that the therapist is using your time (and money) to work on their issues, then you should absolutely find a new therapist. However, if you’re going through something that brings up intense sadness, or relaying a sad memory, a therapist’s crying may be something that ultimately strengthens the therapeutic relationship, which is statistically a primary factor predicting positive change.
Julia Katzman, LMSW
St. Louis, Missouri
A friend told me a little while ago about the first (and only) time a therapist had cried in front of her. She was 14, and had just found out that one of her parents was terminally ill. She said that she didn’t even really remember what she told her therapist about it, she just remembered them sitting in an otherwise empty room, talking, and then her therapist started to cry. She told me that she doesn’t even remember if she was also crying or not, or anything else that happened during that interaction, only that she has a very clear memory of a single tear going down this woman’s cheek and her voice getting all wobbly.
My friend has always been a therapy avoider. She assumes that therapists won’t really be able to help her, and that she just needs to figure stuff out for herself. I think this was the only therapist she’s ever had who she actually trusted. And the way that my friend described it, all of that trust is tied into this one moment. She said that seeing her therapist cry made her realize that they had a relationship that wasn’t just transactional, and that this woman genuinely cared for her.
As a therapist, I think about my friend’s experience a great deal. The idea of crying in front of one of my clients makes me personally uncomfortable because I do feel that it would be unprofessional on my end, and I don’t love the idea of being so vulnerable with a client. Crying in front of a client is risky — it could make them uncomfortable or make them feel that you’re occupying too much space during their session,and damage the therapeutic alliance. But it could also strengthen the therapeutic alliance, especially if they’re uncertain if you really have a relationship that’s more than a transaction.
Being a therapist is a weird job. You’re expected to remain stoic yet empathetic while you hear some of the worst stuff people have ever experienced in their lives. Some clients think you should be a blank slate, and others want you to be their best friend. So, sometimes, crying in front of a client is the worst thing you could do, and sometimes it might be the best thing. But most of the time, it’s just because therapists are people, too. And just like everyone else, we cry.
Natalie Moore, LMFT
There’s a difference between a therapist becoming slightly teary-eyed, versus a therapist breaking out into a full-on sob. That said, the therapist should be aware that they are taking a risk by “going there.” The therapist should feel confident in their ability to continue to hold space for the client, and the client should still feel that they are being cared for and that they don’t need to switch roles and care for the therapist.
Ultimately, it is the therapist’s responsibility to modulate their own emotional responses during sessions, whether that means using in-the-moment tools or whether that means seeking support in their own therapy and professional consultation. One thing that therapists are encouraged to do is to refer clients out if the client has a trauma or life situation that is too triggering for the therapist to hear about.
If a client feels uncomfortable with their therapist’s level of emotional display, they can end the session early to regroup and decide how they’d like to proceed. This could include bringing the concern up with the therapist at a later time to rectify the issue or finding a new therapist who doesn’t become as emotional in sessions.
Anne ‘Kip” Rodgers Watson, LPC-S, CHPC
When a client has gone through a severe experience such as loss of a family member, abuse of some kind or a natural disaster, we experience the pain along with the client as they recall the circumstances. It is appropriate to meet the client’s emotional response to it. What is not appropriate is to lose emotional control. Simply, we are to role model and display appropriate tears should the situation call for it.
Joining our clients in their emotion can help them understand that what they are experiencing is normal. Pain, anxiety, depression and anger are normal feelings, especially when facing loss and challenging life events. Validating these feelings paves the way for healing to take place. If a therapist does not on some level share in the emotion, the client can feel like there is something wrong with them and possibly hold back from being authentic and truthful in sharing their thoughts and feelings. If clients decide to withdraw and stop fully revealing during session, then transformation and change is short-circuited. Often, that is when patients get stuck, stop coming to therapy, or find another therapist.
Patients hopefully should feel comfortable to cry and work through their difficult emotions, trusting the therapist to guide them through it. This real and raw display allows them to find comfort both in the therapist but also in their own ability to shed tears and be vulnerable without judgement.
Nick Bognar, LMFT
All kinds of interactions happen in therapy. The therapeutic relationship is about being truthful and boundaried, so some situations may induce tears, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. One question therapists should always consider about their behavior in session is, “Am I doing this to meet my need, or to meet my client’s need?” A crying therapist might be exercising their own emotions and trauma, or allowing a story to affect them on a personal level that is separate from the client. If so, that’s not helpful to the client, and therefore inappropriate.
However, a therapist who cries out of genuine empathy for a client might provide an emotionally corrective experience for a client. A client who has been abused may have been told for their entire life that their suffering isn’t real or doesn’t matter. If their therapist experiences the emotion on their behalf, it may help heal a very deep pain within that client.
One of the beautiful things about therapy is that the client can come as they are. Any response the client has is legitimate and permissible. So if the therapist cries, the client is free and encouraged to respond as authentically as possible. Are the therapist’s tears bewildering?
Upsetting? Frustrating? Confusing? Freeing? Some combination of things? It’s all good and important stuff for the therapy. Clients never have to feel bad for their emotions (in fact, none of us do). If the experience of seeing the therapist cry evokes a strong reaction, it’s definitely a meaningful thing.
Responses have been condensed and lightly edited.