Tritt, A., Kelly, J., & Waller, G. (2015). Patients’ experiences of clinicians’ crying during psychotherapy for eating disorders. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 373-380.
Psychotherapy can be an emotionally intensive experience for both patients and therapists. In a large survey, more than 70% of therapists reported having cried in therapy, and 30% cried during the past month. Therapists who cried almost always saw the experience as positive or neutral (99.2%) for the patient and the therapeutic relationship. Do clients feel the same way about therapists who cry? In this study, Tritt and colleagues surveyed 188 adult patients with an eating disorder who were recently in psychotherapy. Of those, 107 (56.9%) reported that their therapist had cried during therapy. There was no association between frequency of therapist crying and therapist age, patient diagnosis, or type of psychotherapy (i.e., manual-based or not). Therapists who cried a moderate amount were seen by clients as having a positive demeanor (i.e., happy, firm, consistent), whereas therapists who cried more extremely were rated by clients as having a more negative demeanor (i.e., anxious, angry, bored). If therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a positive demeanor, then therapist crying had a positive impact on therapy. That is, clients reported a greater respect for the therapist, greater willingness to express emotions, and higher willingness to undertake therapy in the future. However, if therapists who cried were generally perceived by clients to have a negative demeanor, then therapist crying had a negative impact on therapy. That is, clients were less willing to express emotions in therapy and to undertake therapy in the future. Further, if the therapist who cried was rated as having a negative demeanor, the client experienced more self blame, assumed that there was something wrong in the therapist’s life, and that the therapist and client did not share the same perspective on the client’s life and treatment.
This small but unique and interesting survey sheds some light on clients’ experiences of therapists who cry during therapy. More than half of clients experienced their therapist crying during therapy. In contrast to surveys of therapists who tend to evaluate therapist crying as exclusively positive or neutral, this survey found that many but not all clients experienced therapist crying as positive. It depends on how the client perceives the therapist as a person. Therapists who are seen by clients as happy, firm, and consistent may assume that patients will experience their crying as a positive indicator of the therapeutic relationship. However, therapists who are seen by clients as anxious, bored, or angry cannot assume that clients will see their tears as being positive for therapy.