When the Counsellor Cries in Psychotherapy

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The Meaning and Impact of the Therapist’s Tears

Crying is fundamental to human emotional life.  The meaning of tears, however, has proven difficult to determine.  A study was recently conducted to further understand adult crying by examining a particular kind of adult tears: the tears of the therapist. Seven experienced psychotherapists (five women and two men), who went through an episode of crying in a therapy session, participated in an interview, and an analysis of the data was done.

 There are two distinct lines of research into human crying:

  1. Adult crying, dominated by the idea of catharsis. This means that tears are involved in the release of psychological tension.
  2. Crying in infancy or attachment theory. The focus here is the communicative role of tears within infant-parent interactions.

Certain findings also suggest a new kind of crying behaviour that emerges later in the human lifecycle – tears of empathy. The current study investigates the existence of attachment themes and empathic processes in adult crying.  A therapy context was chosen because the therapists’ tears offer a useful vehicle for exploring both of these themes at once.

Dr. Anthony Mackie is going to present the results of this study at the Centre for Emotion Focused Practice on Tuesday, November 27, 6.30 pm. Please register for this event online through our events page.

Tears as Catharsis

Freud likened crying to a “safety valve.”  When an excess of negative affect was created by some trauma, relief could be obtained by “discharging” these negative feelings along with tears.  To represent this process Freud utilised the word “catharsis,” drawn from the Greek word Katharsis which means “to purify.” This perception of tears as important to the therapeutic process is evident in psychotherapists’ attitudes towards the tears of their clients.  A majority of therapists felt comfortable with their client’s tears and encouraged clients who appeared on the verge of tears. For some, the very fact that a client is crying is perceived as therapeutic breakthrough.Yet, despite its popularity, the scientific evidence in support of catharsis is mixed and inconclusive.


Research on Catharsis

Naturalistic Studies on Adult Crying

Given the difficulties in observing tears as they naturally emerge in daily life, researchers typically used surveys or diaries which ask participants to self-report on their crying experiences.  These diaries show that participants felt mentally better after shedding tears.

Experimental Studies on Adult Crying

In contrast, experimental studies tend to yield the opposite results.  Studies reveal that after watching a sad film, those who cried took longer to return to their baseline levels than those who didn’t cry.  They also reported experiencing more sadness and pain.


Tears as an Attachment Related Behaviour

Attachment theory is concerned with understanding how attachment bonds are formed between children and their parents.  Infants are born with an instinctive goal of maintaining proximity to caring adults (attachment figures).  Crying provides the infant with a powerful “come-hither” signal which ensures the return of the caregiver and helps to restore feelings of safety in the infant. In an infant, therefore, rather than a mechanism for releasing pent up emotional energy, crying is primarily a method of interpersonal communication.


Research on Infant Tears and Attachment

Physical Proximity and Infant Crying

In a study, it was found that newborns resting on their mother’s body did not cry during the first 90 minutes post birth.  In contrast, all babies placed in a cot cried continuously until reunited with their mothers, at which point the crying ceased.  During the first three months, almost 75% of crying episodes were initiated when the infants were away from their mother.  The cries were also effective in motivating mothers to pick up their infants, and this stopped their crying.

Babies Crying

Crying for Attention

The Developmental Trajectory of Infant Tears

In the first few months of life, crying is a “global distress call” broadcast by the infant to any potential caregiver in the vicinity.  As infants develop and mature, however, these change. At approximately six months of age, crying is directed at the primary caregiver and becomes increasingly synchronised with looking and reaching behaviours.  From around 9-12 months, infants start to cry in reaction to an impending separation from the caregiver, or hold off their tears until the caregiver is nearby and available.  With the emergence of language in toddlerhood, crying also starts to co-occur with verbal protestations. These findings provide strong support for the view that infant crying is an attachment related behaviour. But what of adult crying?


The Situations in which Adult Crying Occurs

Research indicates the situations where adults cry are equivalent to those that cause tears in infancy: separations and difficulties with important attachment figures. The situations that ranked the highest for their tear inducing potential were funerals, loss of relationships, and sad movies.  Interestingly, these same studies identify weddings, music, and reunions as the situations most likely to invoke tears with a positive emotional tenor.

The Social Impact of Crying

Adult Crying | Emotion Focused Practice

Caregiver Response

Tears generally invoke a caregiving response in other people.  Most people stop whatever they were doing and attempt to comfort a crying person.  Doctors and nurses typically respond to crying patients with soothing words and physical contact, such as holding the patient’s hand. These findings support the idea that crying in adults is closely related to crying in infants.  In both, separations and other losses lead to crying.  Just as with infant tears, adult tears can evoke caregiving responses in others.


However, even if the overall findings offers support for attachment framework, they also point to the existence of another kind of crying.


The Tear-Inducing Potential of Movies and TV

Adults rate watching movies or TV as one of their top tear inducing situations.  These tears do not appear to be directly related to the observer’s own attachment system.  There is no personal loss involved here.  In essence, this pattern of crying simply does not fit into the existing attachment framework.


Empathic Tears in Adults

One possible explanation is the developmental pathway of tears over the lifespan.  Crying behaviours in infants develop as the infant matures.  As this process continues, later forms of crying could emerge outside of infancy.  Empathy is one such ability that might impact on adult crying behaviours.


Empathy consists of a cognitive and an affective component.  The cognitive component relates to understanding the feelings of the other person and looking from their perspective.  The affective component relates to experiencing some of the same emotions as the other person, a phenomenon that has been described as “empathic resonance.”  Empathising with a character in a movie can cause the observer’s own attachment system to become vicariously aroused to the point of tears. Adult observers also tend to cry along with a crying person. The idea of empathic crying in adults is interesting because it is a form of crying that has not been described in the infant crying literature.  This means that crying behaviours evolve as a person ages.


The Tears of the Therapists

An area where empathic tears could likely emerge is in the context of psychotherapy.  Not only are empathic responses heightened in this context, but therapists are often exposed to highly distressing material from the lives of their clients.  For these reasons the therapist’s tears may be a key indicator of this kind of adult crying. There is one prior study which examined the tears of the therapist, although in a different context.  Waldman wanted to study therapist neutrality and counter-transference and conducted a qualitative analysis of 10 episodes where the therapist cried during a therapy session.  Her findings suggest links between the therapist’s tears, attachment and empathy.


The Present Study

The aim of the current study was to further the understanding of adult crying behaviours by examining the tears of the therapist in a sample of Australian practitioners.


The current study explored the following three questions:

  1. Can therapists’ tears be understood as an attachment related phenomenon?
  2. Do the therapists’ experiences of their tears suggest that empathic tears emerge in psychotherapy?
  3. What are the implications of the therapists’ experiences of their tears for the theoretical understanding of adult tears in general?

These questions will be answered in a presentation by  Anthony Mackie at the Centre for Emotion Focused Practice on Tuesday, November 27, 6.30 pm. Register for this event via our events page.

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  • Fiona Ferguson

    Interesting , as a trainee Counsellor/Psycotherapist I am in therapy weekly . I have often noticed my therapists eyes welling up during periods when I am relating something very sad or powerful that I have experienced . At first I found it strange but now realise it shows she is really with me in our therapeutic relationship.
    Years ago I also experienced a therapist crying when I described my miscarriages , that was very different and was not right , I never went back .
    Working with my therapist now has made me realise that she is empathic ally truly understanding where I am .

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