Nine out of ten times when a client comes for therapy, the moment that tears well up in her eyes, there is an instant apology for crying. I can imagine the conflict where there is resistance to tears as she says, ‘why am I crying? It’s not a big deal at all,’ and there is an overwhelming need to surrender to the pain as tears gush from her eyes. Some will lean over and grab the tissue from the box that I place at arm’s length for the client, and some will ignore it; the last attempt at denying that they are crying.
As a therapist, I feel conflicted. If I hand over the tissues myself, will it be perceived by the client’s psyche as my discomfort with her crying, and if I don’t, will it be seen as a lack of acknowledgment of her pain? My usual response to the shame around crying is, ‘don’t worry about it. Therapy has officially begun.’ The idea is to normalise the emotion and tears. It’s almost like the wounded child within the client is seeking permission from the parental figure, the therapist, in the session. Tears are a sign of vulnerability and being vulnerable before another human being is one of the hardest things in the world. I remember my first time amongst my peers when I suddenly broke down after doing some personal process. I covered my face with my hands, and when someone tried to push a box of tissue toward me, I suddenly felt angry and threw the box away.
Growing up, I learned that crying is a sign of weakness, so being vulnerable is the same. The defences had to stay up, and showing anyone I was in pain was unimaginable. Years of therapy brought me to a point where I recognised how powerful being vulnerable is, and crying is the most organic and powerful way of honouring a life that has experienced pain and suffering.
Tears come naturally and indicate the defensive walls attempting to lower themselves so a person can start connecting with her felt self and emotional wounds.
Crying provokes a conflict within, though, where one part of us is conditioned to hold in our pain, whereas the other self-state is the natural impulse within that wants to let go of the pain. Tears are associated with many stereotypes, making the shame around crying harder to dissipate. It seems as a sign of weakness inherited from parents, where very commonly parents keep telling a child who is crying to ‘stop crying and be strong.’ So the child grows into an adult who doesn’t want to cry and, if there is no choice, would instead not let anyone see her tears. Or tears are seen as manipulation, ‘crocodile’s tears’ so again judged and considered not a symbol of someone’s genuine hurt.
There is also a gender bias towards crying, where women have greater permission than men. When a female client cries in session, it doesn’t disturb me, but anytime a male client breaks down, there is an unease that I experience at the time, as it is such a rare sight.
Ask yourself, when there is a strong impulse to cry, and you want to resist the urge, ‘if your tears could talk, what would they communicate to you?
The therapy room does feel safe enough for many clients to allow their tears to flow. Primarily because of the empathy and acceptance they receive from their therapist. Maybe that safety doesn’t exist in other spaces for many of us, for example, in our interpersonal relationships. Still, we have to allow ourselves to connect to our emotional wounds and express them however they are presented, crying being one of them.
So let those tears out. Yes, it feels embarrassing and overwhelming as not everyone will be touched by them and stretch a handout but remember that tears are not necessarily a cry for help. They are simply a symbol of a well-lived life expressed through tears of joy and sadness.