Blume-Marcovici, A. C., Stolberg, R. A., & Khademi, M. (2013). Do therapists cry in therapy? The role of experience and other factors in therapists' tears. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0031384
There is almost no research on therapists crying during psychotherapy, and on its correlates and impact. A survey of therapists’ ethical behavior conducted 25 years ago asked a single question about crying, and 56.5% of respondents indicated that they cried in the presence of a client. By contrast there are several such surveys in medicine. Notably, a study of medical students and interns found that 68% medical students and 74% of medical interns had cried with patients. A recent survey by Blume-Marcovici and colleagues is the first of its kind since it was devoted to therapists crying in therapy and associated factors. They defined crying as: “tears in one’s eyes due to emotional reasons”. The authors surveyed U.S. psychologists and had 541 respondents. The sample included 59% graduate students, and 41% licensed clinicians who had an average of 9.6 years experience. Seventy six percent were women, mean age was 36 years, 35% had a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) orientation, and 33% had some psychodynamic orientation (PDT). Respondents reported that 72% had cried in therapy. Those who cried reported crying in 6.6% of their sessions in the past 4 weeks. There were no differences between men and women, and there was no association between therapist crying and therapist personality traits or level of empathy. Therapists who cried more often in their daily life tended to cry more in therapy. PDT and CBT therapists did not differ in the amount they cried in their daily lives, however PDT therapists (88.9%) reported crying more often than CBT therapists (50.1%) in therapy. Further, older and more experienced therapists reported crying more often in therapy in the past month than younger and less experienced therapists. It is possible that older therapists may become more comfortable in using their clinical judgment, and so have fewer restrictions on their own affective displays. Of therapists who cried, 45.7% felt that the therapeutic relationship improved, and 1% reported that the relationship deteriorated due to crying. Patients, however, were not surveyed for their opinion about their therapist’s crying.
Crying among therapists may happen relatively frequently. Although this study is novel, it is the only one of its kind so one should be cautious about drawing practice implication. The challenge of therapists crying in therapy is that it can bend or break the therapeutic frame (e.g., is the therapist crying because of being overwhelmed and acting on his or her own needs, or is the therapist genuinely responding for and with the patient?). The survey suggests that therapist crying can strengthen the therapeutic relationship. This is more likely true when the therapist is attuned to the patient’s needs, and when the crying signals a moment of positive emotional connection in the midst of painful feelings in the client. As with any event in therapy, a genuine and skilful exploration by the therapist and patient of the therapist’s crying has the potential to strengthen the relationship.
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