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This article has been reviewed for accuracy by John Cottrell, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Medical Disclaimer: The information and recommendations on our site do not constitute a medical consultation. See a certified medical professional for diagnosis.
Tears are mostly a private affair. They are sacred, and many people feel very uncomfortable crying in the presence of others. However, therapy provides a safe space for you to unpack traumatic events with someone you can trust, but what does your therapist think if you break down and start crying?
When clients cry, therapists think they are expressing something deep and meaningful. They also know they have hit a breakthrough and focus more on their clients’ emotional state. They try to identify whether the crying is due to pain, loss, anger, desperation, distress, joy, or an incongruent act.
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Is It Okay for Clients to Cry During Therapy?
It is okay for clients to cry during therapy. Crying is a raw, intense emotion that’s often a reaction to an extensive range of experiences. More often than not, people often feel much better after they’ve had a good cry. In therapy, this catharsis is both healing and therapeutic. What’s more, a client’s crying signifies a breakthrough moment.
When clients cry during therapy, they engage in an attachment and caregiving experience with their therapist. The therapist offers a secure place from which clients experience and further explore their emotions. They also help clients understand that rejecting and denying emotions or failing to express them in appropriate settings is unhealthy.
With time, clients start to appreciate and get comfortable sharing with their therapist about their deepest feelings. They also allow themselves to weep during therapy and accept it as part of the healing process.
Why Do Clients Cry?
A client could cry under various circumstances, such as upon losing a parent, recalling a personal tragedy, or because they have a child with a chronic illness. The crying could be due to a wide range of reasons, too, such as:
- A way to release tension
- An impending loss of someone close
- Tears of laughter, frustration, anger, joy, or protest
- A cry of despair, deep shame, loss, or intense sadness
- A feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, or powerlessness
- An act designed to attract attention—this is theatrical and not genuine
- A sign of trust, relief, an insightful happening, or recovery of repressed material
At times, a sudden unexpected rush of tears can surprise both client and therapist. This is because most people are adept at hiding their emotions. For such clients, tears can be frightening, mortifying, or feel like excessive exposure or vulnerability.
Some clients might also not feel comfortable crying or might go to considerable efforts to avoid weeping because:
- They are afraid to cry.
- They feel self-conscious.
- They don’t like crying in public.
- They believe crying is a sign of weakness or disrespect.
Is Crying in Therapy Beneficial?
Crying in therapy is beneficial to clients because:
- It is a form of catharsis.
- It helps them become insightful and self-aware.
- It helps them feel affirmed, heard, and understood.
- It makes them feel more comfortable with the therapist.
- It enhances and strengthens the therapy relationship.
- It brings about positive emotional or behavioral change.
For therapists, it deepens the therapy work and helps them learn how to deal with their emotions.
What Goes Through a Therapist’s Mind When a Client Cries?
A therapist tends to take crying as a sign that they’ve hit a tender spot that requires more in-depth exploration. They are happy that the client is working hard and connecting deeply with their emotions. In addition to feeling empathetic, the therapist also thinks that:
- The client is sharing something meaningful.
- The client is letting go of an unproductive approach.
- They feel honored to witness such a raw, intense, and powerful moment.
- It’s gratifying to partner with the client to help them process the issues behind the emotions and figure a way out.
- It’s admirable that the client is in touch with their feelings, feels safe enough to display them, and takes the risk to act bravely.
Here is a video that explains this further:
How Should a Therapist Support Clients When They Cry?
While therapists are professionals trained to help people deal with psychological issues, they are all different. Therefore, every therapist thinks, feels, and reacts differently when their client cries. Again, each patient is unique, and so is the therapeutic relationship between a therapist and the patient.
That said, all therapists empathize with their clients. They feel a connection, sympathy, sadness, and some could even tear up as well. They are also very curious to know more about the circumstance that led to the crying. Besides, when a client sees the therapist as human or showing emotion, it allows them to open up more.
The therapist will allow you to cry for as long as you need without interfering. This enables you to learn that it’s okay to suppress your feelings. Good therapists also are well versed in their own emotions. Therefore, they are not afraid, threatened, and made to feel helpless by witnessing deep pain in their clients.
Still, a therapist’s reaction to a crying client depends on:
- Their cultural background: A therapist could react to a patient’s tears according to their cultural upbringing.
- Their theoretical orientation and how they feel about strong emotions: A therapist might opt to sit closer or briefly hold a distressed client’s hand. This can be incredibly empowering and healing.
Nevertheless, a therapist shouldn’t over comfort a client since they need to learn how to comfort themselves. Furthermore, rushing to reassure the client might send the wrong message; they should stop crying, or strong emotions are not welcome. However, they can sit with them during a difficult moment—and have tissues within easy reach.
Note that not all clients appreciate a therapist joining in when they cry. Depending on their relationship, some could view a therapist’s tears as uncomfortable, blurring roles and even boundaries. Others could find this as a welcome confirmation of their pain.
What to Do if a Client Starts Weeping Uncontrollably
When a client starts weeping uncontrollably, the first thing is to determine what the problem is. Endless crying is a natural response to grief, loss, deep pain, or crisis, but it is also healthy. In this case, a therapist will want to normalize and authenticate their client’s experience.
They will also provide a compassionate, relaxed, and safe space for the client to freely express their emotions, assess their feelings and process their thoughts.
Dos and Don’ts for Dealing With Crying Clients
A therapist’s first instinct might be to rush in to help fix a crying patient. This is a normal human reaction. However, this often worsens the situation, and therapists are trained to act in the client’s best interests. Usually, any attempt to offer active comfort disrupts the weeping intensity, which can be counterproductive.
Here are some helpful ways for a therapist to deal with a crying client:
- Listen intently and graciously.
- Stay fully present and attuned with the client.
- Support them as they process difficult emotions.
- Do not discredit the tears or offer false reassurances.
- Avoid crowding the client with anxious hugs or pats.
- Avoid the overwhelming urge to do something and allow recovery to proceed naturally.
Tears are not a sign of weakness but signify immense strength and power. They also indicate overwhelming grief, deep contrition, or distress. Still, therapy offers you the safety you need to express these deep emotions. It allows you to acknowledge traumatic events, gain insight, reflect, and form connections between past trauma, thoughts, and actions.
John Cottrell, Ph.D., is a yoga instructor and certified yoga therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. He has been teaching yoga since 2000. John is originally from Oakland, California, earning his Master of Science and Ph.D. from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in Palo Alto, California. His clinical practice led him to child and adolescent psychotherapy, drug and alcohol treatment, psychological and neuropsychological testing, and group/couples therapy. John continues his devotion to sharing health and well-being through his business, mbody. He offers private and group yoga classes, yoga therapy, workshops, retreats, written yoga articles, and a men’s yoga clothing line.
- APA: Is It Okay To Cry?
- Youtube: What THERAPISTS Really Think When You Cry
- VeryWellMind: Catharsis and Its Role in Psychology
- Safe Sleep Systems: Alternatives to Blahtherapy: 8 Similar and Safe Websites
- Quora: What Do Therapists Think and Feel When Their Clients Cry?
- Quora: How Will My Therapist Comfort Me If I Do Cry in Therapy?
- New Harbinger: What To Do If a Client Is Crying Uncontrollably
- Psychotherapy Networker: The Many Reasons Why Therapy Clients Cry
- E-Publications: Crying in Psychotherapy: The Perspective of Therapists and Clients