Where Do the Therapist’s Tears Come From By Nicholas Sarantakis on 12/9/21 - 1:58 PM

I would like to think that as a psychotherapist, I know where the tears of my clients come from. Perhaps, in the moment, they are experiencing an emotional breakthrough, an encounter with an estranged part of themselves, which has come into consciousness. Or perhaps they are bravely reliving a past trauma, which will hopefully result this time in a different, less painful imprint on their soul. But at the same time, moments like these have also been important ones for me, as I witness this cathartic unfolding in the safe space that I have helped craft, in which the client can face and express some of their most difficult feelings. And in that shared moment, I encourage the client not to hold back, not to feel embarrassed, but to acknowledge their tears and allow their emotion to spring to the fullest.

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But could it also be that such special moments have also elicited powerful emotions in me? Is it my role to simply welcome them in the context of the healing relationship, or is there something more in it for me, more personal and sensitive in what I feel in these moments?

Most of us have watched films where the therapist dives headlong into the emotional wave of their client’s story. In the film Good Will Hunting, we witness a heart-warming scene in which the misty-eyed, unconventional psychologist, Sean, played by Robin Williams, embraces young, delinquent but traumatised Will, played by Matt Damon, when the latter sobs after a profound emotional breakthrough. How often do we encounter something like this in “real” practice? Probably not that often. Indeed, the landmark TV series In Treatment takes an approach that arguably resembles much more the “real” practice of psychotherapy. The series takes us through the sessions of the protagonist-psychotherapist, Paul who practices from a psychodynamically-informed, relational therapeutic model. Even though Paul does indeed connect with his clients in a deep way, and even if many of their struggles trigger strong emotional reactions in him, he never lets them become too visible, nor does he allow himself to become tearful. Instead, following “standard” professional practice, he brings his reactions and feelings to his own personal therapist or to his supervisor, whose validation seems quite important to him.

So, are the therapist’s tears “allowed” in front of clients or not? What does psychotherapy research actually say about this? Not much, actually! Even though there has been a good amount written on how to manage the client’s tears within the therapeutic encounter, the therapist’s tears—in the presence of their clients—have until recently been almost entirely ignored in the literature. Could this be because this is such a rare phenomenon that is not even worth investigating? Maybe, but then again, maybe not, as one of the few studies addressing this issue revealed that a large number of the surveyed psychologists and trainees reported having cried at some point with their clients, and almost a third of them had experienced this within the last four weeks.

An interesting related finding was that crying in session did not actually correlate with the therapist’s personality, gender, or with other demographic factors, except for that older and more experienced practitioners seem to become tearful in therapy more often as compared to their younger colleagues. And these more senior therapists exhibited a lower frequency of crying in their daily lives, which discredits the assumption that their in-session tears more likely reflected a generalized increased emotionality, or even psychological instability. In any case, such feelings seem to be important for a great number of therapists, as approximately half of them bring this topic to their supervisors and possibly even more are concerned about but never discuss them, as they are among the “most-avoided” topics in supervision.

So it seems that while many therapists have dealt with this issue of crying in session with their clients, very few actually talk about it, and even fewer researchers and authors write about it. Could this be because we still largely view this phenomenon as a weakness, as an embarrassment for a healing profession, and we would much rather not expose this weakness to others and to the public in general? But is it really a weakness? Does it happen just because we are unable to control our emotions, and does it really harm clients when they witness it? Would it make sense then to ask the clients themselves how they actually perceive it?

As it turns out, a survey was performed on clients, indicating that the way they perceived their therapist’s tears depended on their overall perception of the therapist. For example, a client may already view their therapist as empathetic and sensitive, so would perceive emotional displays such as tears as being related to these qualities of caregiving. But if the clinician spontaneously bursts into tears in response to an otherwise neutral narrative, the client might understandably associate this reaction with something very personal to the therapist which may be largely irrelevant to them. In this latter scenario, this seemingly unrelated emotional display on the part of the therapist could compromise the client’s confidence in their clinician or might even activate feelings of guilt for causing them psychological distress. It seems fair to conclude that clients do not necessarily interpret their therapist’s tears as “this is too much for me to handle,” but may also interpret them as “I can feel how sad this is for you.”

As a therapist, tears rarely come to my eyes in session. Usually I can hold them back, especially if the client is already too emotional. But I may occasionally allow myself to become misty-eyed if I feel they could use some non-verbal encouragement to visit a difficult area of their lives. However, the last time I experienced this, it actually reflected a mix of sadness, release, and contentment—sadness about the painful feelings my client was expressing, release about the arrival of their realization and insight, and contentment for the opportunities for their future that came with this insight.

I had been working therapeutically for some time with a couple. Despite their challenges and their somewhat turbulent relationship history, they did love each other, wanted to live together, and discussed a shared future. However, something invisible was getting in the way that prevented this from happening. Towards the end of one particular session, one of the clients was talking about his persistent worries of being inadequate, should he and his partner decide to live together. I suggested that this worry might be getting in the way of committing to her and that perhaps he believed that no matter what and regardless of how much he tried, he would once again and eventually let her down, that she would never really accept him for who he is, and that he would ultimately be rejected. I wondered aloud if this fear was coming from a different place, perhaps earlier attachments which stopped him from giving himself into this relationship? This client became emotional and began sobbing as his girlfriend embraced him, saying, “I love you and accept you as you are, I don’t expect you to change anything, I know you are not perfect, but I have chosen you.”

In that moment of his emotional release, I experienced a sense of vicarious catharsis as I re-experienced the familiar feeling of letting out a hidden, inner burden from a space deep inside of me, where it had resided for far too long. Once liberated, that painful feeling leaves room for an even deeper sense of trust in the other and openness to merging. As if sitting front row in an ancient Greek drama and experiencing by proxy the protagonist’s catharsis, the essence of drama, according to Aristotle. My eyes welled up with tears, and my clients, upon seeing my emotions laid bare, said, “we better go now, otherwise we will make Nicholas cry, too!” As they said that, I happily left them with each other and said goodnight, closed the lid of my laptop, and stared at the English rain outside of my window.


So, where do therapists’ tears come from? It seems as if they are coming from so many different places that trying to track and trace their roots could just end up in drying up their wellspring… they may not always be so welcomed or comfortable, by either the therapist or client, but they do carry something rich, deep, and ineffable that words possibly cannot express.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections