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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.

Leave it Here

gift-insideAbout twenty years ago I went to a training at the Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland presented by CARES Northwest about interviewing children as part of a sexual abuse assessment. During the second half of our day we watched videos of the practitioners interviewing the kids. I remember one child’s story in particular because it was a very hard story and because at the end, for the first time, you see one of the interviewers crack. The boy, who was about ten, asked her about what would happen at the end of the day, what would happen to the interviewer. The woman conducting his assessment started to choke up. We could hear the tears in her voice as she told him that at the end of the day she opened up all of the windows in that room and let the wind blow away all of the fear and sadness so that the space could become peaceful again and ready for the other children who would come there and need to tell her their stories.

That’s stuck with me over the last two decades.

Once a client said something to me that wasn’t so bad but to her it felt very bad to say it and after she said it her eyes got wide and she clapped her hands over her mouth.

“I can’t believe I said that,” she said behind her hands.

“But you did,” I answered.

“I did,” she said. Then she put her hands in her lap and we spent some time talking about saying it before we talked about what she said. But she left it at the office that day. That’s where she left it to be considered and examined and she did not feel the need to pick it back up again in her everyday life.

I think of my office as sacred space and as safe space. I want my clients to know that they can say whatever they need to say — whatever they’re most afraid to say — and they can leave it there. If they need to, they can leave it there and pick it back up at our next session or they can leave it there and let it go. I will hold it safe for them until the fear and the shame and the sadness are no longer so powerful and then they can set it free and know this secret — whatever it is — is no longer more powerful than they are.

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