An article at the BBC site looks at a study in San Diego, California which shows that three fourths of therapists admit to crying with a client and, of those, 30% had done so in the last four weeks.
One therapist worried about the effects of her crying on her patient. "I worried mostly that I had harmed her, or that she would feel 'can this person handle what I'm talking about?' And then I also worried that I'd been unprofessional."
A client who was interviewed expressed her concern about a therapist crying,
"If my therapist had cried I'd have never returned. I needed a therapist who was in control of their emotions… at the start I needed to feel that my therapist was a superhuman who could fix me, so seeing any wavering would have demolished my confidence in them. I was terrified of my own emotions and I think I would have felt enormous guilt that I had made them sad."***
I can see both sides of this argument. I can see that there might be times to cry with a client and I can see why some believe it is inappropriate. Some therapists consider it unprofessional and a sign of emotional instability to show emotion. Others consider it a sign of empathy. I would love to know if this differs by gender since men are typically taught that crying is a sign of weakness and women are typically taught it is a sign of caring.
Personally, I could not say that I would never cry. I could say I never have. But I don't hold that as a standard. I would want to be very aware of what my reasons are for crying. Is it in the client's best interest? What would be my reasons for allowing myself to do this? To show them what a compassionate person I am? To meet them where they are? How is it going to effect them if I start crying? Are they going to stop processing their own emotions to comfort me? Are they going to shut down so they won't "hurt" me?
If three fourths of therapists are crying with their clients, and 30% of them cried within the last four weeks, I'm wondering what they are thinking. That seems really high to me and somewhat worrying. Empathy does not require that I feel your feelings with you, just that I understand and have compassion for how you feel.
One of my mentors once addressed this issue with me. I remember the question he put to me:
"If someone is drowning, how do you save them?"
You should not jump into the water with them. In their panic they would latch onto you and pull you under with them. To save a drowning person you stand with your feet firmly planted on the bank and pull them to you - on the bank.
That is typically where I stand. I want to feel where my clients are and empathize with what is going on with them, but not to the point that I forget my job - to be tuned into and aware of them, not myself. I don't know if it would be different if I specialized in working only with grief issues. I specialize in working with trauma where clients are reliving horrific events and I have to keep my feet on firm ground to get the client back to me - on the bank - and safe.
That doesn't mean I would never find it wrong to cry with a client, but it seems to be happening a lot more than I think is appropriate and I have to wonder who that is for - the client or the therapist?
I would love to know what other people think.
***If this article accomplishes nothing else, let me state clearly: Therapists are not superhumans who fix people. We do not have immunity from mental illness, addiction or dysfunction. In fact, a lot of folks go into the field of psychology to learn more about the dysfunction in their families of origin or themselves. If you're lucky, you will find a great therapist who can help you change your life. But don't blindly assume they will be great. Please ask as many questions of a potential therapist during the intake as they ask of you.