At today’s meeting we used several chapters of Amy Blume-Marcovici’s book ‘When Therapists Cry’ as a stimulus for this complex topic.
We noted that crying is a spectrum of visible emotion from glistening eyes to sobbing. Most therapists have experienced occasional tears in their work, yet it is surprisingly difficult to know exactly what they signify. The book had three helpful categories – empathic tears, care givers tears and proud parent tears. The suggestion is that each type arouses the therapist’s attachment system. Tears resulting from feeling touched by the client’s humanity and therefore deeply connected sat more easily with us than tears coming from a therapists own losses or feeling of being overwhelmed.
A psychodynamic concern is that the therapist should avoid interactions that gratify the client’s emotional needs. One possibility is that the therapist cries as an unintentional reaction in response to the client’s transferences. The client is unconsciously triggering the therapist to feel and respond in ways that are in line with the client’s hopes or fears. This is called enactment – the therapist’s inadvertent actualization of the client’s fears or fantasies. Enactment might be viewed positively – evidence of an authentic emotionally alive experience, or it might be viewed negatively as a sign that the therapist cannot contain him/herself and is therefore not safe. We were intrigued at the reference to a paper by Slochower postulating that tears are ‘one of the quiet disengagements we make by temporarily and secretly withdrawing our attention away from clients’
Since tears are autonomic, the question arose – can they be controlled? And if so, should they be controlled? There may be no willful control possible. We discussed the difference between crying gently at the same time as a client versus the therapist crying while the client is dry eyed. This lead to a discussion about how we give the client the opportunity to explore how he/she experienced the therapists tears .
The last sub topic was tears in therapy with men. We all felt that men generally find it harder to cry but that when they do cry, it is often a dramatic a release, possibly because they have been constrained from crying for so long. It seemed important to realise that a bigger volume of tears is not an indicator of more distress.
We recognised the importance of being able to explore our tears (and our clients’ reactions to them) with our supervisors. Since tears are spontaneous and unplanned, they can only be reviewed retrospectively. We don’t have a choice about when we cry, but we can think about what the tears signify and how we might use them in the therapeutic setting.