Crying in front of your counselor

Crying In Front of Your CounselorI generally don’t think that your therapist’s personal experiences can tell you whether or not he or she will be a good therapist or the right therapist for you but there is one exception to this: I think every therapist ought to have had his or her own therapy. Not just to work through our stuff (‘cuz we all have stuff), but to intimately know the vulnerability of pouring your heart out to a stranger who is getting paid to listen to you.

Some of us decide to come see a counselor because we have thoughtfully considered our options with logic and care and we have decided that therapy makes the most sense. That’s some of us. But most of us come because we are desperate and we need things to change; most of us come because we’re in crisis. So we come, shaken and perhaps scared and perhaps defensive and we sit down in front of someone we have never met and who we might be afraid will judge us and find us wanting, and we try to open up.

And sometimes, when we are feeling very fragile we may start to cry and that may feel terrifying or humiliating. We might be afraid that our therapist is disgusted by our tears or is anxious for us to stop.

So I thought I would tell you what it’s like for a therapist (at least this therapist) when clients cry so then you will know. And you can ask your therapist what it’s like for her so you can know that, too.

I used to worry before I had clients that I would cry, too, because I usually cry when other people do but it turns out that the boundaries of our relationship protect me from this. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes get a lump in my throat or have to quickly blink back tears before I catch myself but when my clients are crying, I’m very aware that I can’t let myself have the luxury of falling in with them. I feel both expansive — like I’m making way so there is room for all of the tears — and small — because I’m humbled by their vulnerability. I know that a big part of my job is being strong enough to stay exactly where I am and to allow my client to have her whole entire feeling without needing to share it with me or protect me from it or even to protect the feeling from me.

  • I do not judge her.
  • I do not feel annoyed.
  • I do not feel uncomfortable and wish she would stop.
  • I do not think she looks ugly or silly or weak.

I do trust her and I trust that crying is what she needs right then. I am a great believer in the power of crying to make us feel better. (I listened to this song a lot as a child.)

The counseling office is sacred space and part of what makes it sacred is that it’s a safe place for shedding tears.

Comments 15

  1. Hi Dawn, Thank you so much for posting this, which I found really really helpful. I find myself doing both a lot of crying and a lot of worrying about being judged, within therapy, and it’s so good to hear the therapist’s perspective (just as it was to hear your perspective on ‘feeling cared for’ by a therapist). I just wanted to say again that I love your blog, find it immensely helpful, and wish there was a ‘Reblog’ button as there is in WordPress, as I have wanted to hit that button so often! I’m almost tempted to join Pinterest just to be able to share your posts!

  2. The counsellor who knew me best once told me that she thought it would mean something good when I finally let myself cry in therapy. I can’t say I understand that fully (intellectually I understand that it’s feeling safe enough with my emotions to display them) – but this week I cried in front of a different psychologist and wondered if a) this was the sort of crying she meant, and b) does this mean I’ve reached the next level of healing?! I’m glad for the experience I had with the first counsellor where she explicitly let me know that she welcomed my tears. I note that I never felt comfortable crying in front of her – I think because she was a little too much like my mother! But I did feel comfortable crying with the psychologist who is closer in age to me, and who I feel is more my intellectual equal (the first counsellor having a broad experience and training I was sort of in awe of).

  3. On the topic of therapists in therapy – I think it’s essential and in my country psychologists can’t get registration until they have been clients. I also think supervision is essential. It makes me terribly uncomfortable to ask about it, but if my therapist isn’t presently having supervision then I wonder and second guess some of their reactions and I guess my brain spends a fair few cycles thinking about what is their stuff that they are bringing into the session. If they are having supervision I relax a lot more and trust that whatever’s most important on their end will get dealt with away from me. My current psychologist I haven’t asked about supervision and am worried she will say she doesn’t do it. I don’t want to hear that as I have already invested in the relationship!

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      I love love love my supervisor and feel so grateful to have her. Another therapist has recently joined us so we’re not quite a group yet but it’s also wonderful having a peer at the sessions. In other words, I agree with you. I’ve been surprised by how many (a minority but still) therapists I meet who have never had counseling and visibly recoil when asked. That seems like the height of hypocrisy to me.

  4. Good post. Caused me to reflect on the one time I made my dear therapist cry. It did not bother me or upset me. Nor did I think he was making it about him. I could see he was trying to hold it back but I could also see his eyes welling with tears and hear the crackle in his voice as he tried to keep his composure. Me? I made me feel good and validated. My story, my situation, was horrible, so disturbing it, or at least my relaying of it, made him cry.

    On a more random note you made me realize how much I miss that show with Gabriel Byrne “In Treatment”. His relationship with Diane Wiest was interesting not to mention his own with his clients.

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      I’ve only seen a few of those shows (I should see if I can find them streaming again) and I loved them. I love both those actors anyway!

    2. I really enjoyed that show (I have seen Seasons 1 & 2), and it also repelled me. Obviously flawed characters and conflict drive TV storylines, but oh my there were so many basic failings that I objected to in Paul’s therapy and his moral choices or non-choices! It was interesting to read reviews by psychology associations saying it was a pretty good representation of the goals and process of therapy.

      What was fascinating from a very personal point of view was watching the two couples over the two seasons – there were so many phrases and mannerisms that were *spot on* from my experience of couples counselling. Some of the phrases I would swear I actually said myself – although since my experience was with an abusive man who got worse during and after counselling that also coloured my reaction to the show/these couples.

  5. Great post, Dawn. Thank you for writing this! This line especially got me: I know that a big part of my job is being strong enough to stay exactly where I am and to allow my client to have her whole entire feeling without needing to share it with me or protect me from it…

    With the recent tragedy in my family, I did a lot of protecting others in my life as I told them the story of what happened. I left out details that were horrifying, edited others to be more palatable. It was an enormous relief to know that when I got to see my therapist that I could tell her the whole, unabridged story and I didn’t need to protect her from how awful it was.

  6. I was sexually abused. I still can’t tell it the way it really happened. Talking about sexual details makes me ashamed because my parents didn’t talk about it with me. I can’t even cry as much as I need to . I trust my psychologist

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      Hi Scared, you didn’t finish your comment but I wanted you to know that I read it and I’m thinking of you. It’s ok to take your time to tell your story however you need to tell it. I’m really glad to hear that you trust your psychologist!!!

      1. I admitted to my therapust that my dad threw me against the washer because I was rebelling. She gasped I think because 1) I told her 2) felt my pain. Then after avoiding the feelings she responded because I couldn’t feel the anger, sadness but had tears in my eyes. I’m not upset with her but felt validated. I then told her about my journal. I told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to relive the emotions especially the suicidal ones that I had but no longer do now as an adult. I Just things to heal and let me move on. I don’t like crying in front of people. Big I hope I’m close to doing so with her

  7. Thank you very much for your post. I’ve been searching the web for ways to open up to my therapist. I find it really hard to cry in front of her. I think I have a fear of what will come out if I start crying so that holds me back. Trauma has stopped me from crying in general and I guess I’m not sure how to start to open up. Some times I get close but then I hold it in. My therapist says she feels totally comfortable with her clients crying but I think it’s me that stops it from coming out. Any tips would be helpful

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      It takes time — sometimes a long time — to feel comfortable enough in any relationship to allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to cry. Please be patient with yourself and also know that you can do good, hard, useful work without reaching a particular benchmark, like tears. Self-care can help — exercise can be cathartic and so can journaling, listening to music or meditation. Just keep going, keep doing the work and keep sharing with your therapist.

  8. This could and potentially should address similar concerns as experienced by a male client. They are typically more vulnerable to the fear of appearing weak or overly sensitive due to gender stereotypes.

    Still a very powerful area to acknowledge and praise therapeutically.!

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      The vast majority of my clients are women (like 99%) so that’s the focus of my blog posts but I’d love to read a similar post directed to male clients. Diana, if you write one, please come back and link here because I’d love to read it and I’m sure other readers would, too. 🙂

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