Although crying is effective for many people in everyday life, it doesn’t help everyone. In fact, in some cases it might do more harm than good. And while many studies suggest that therapists cry because they are moved by client’s struggles, we actually know relatively little about what therapists communicate when they cry in front of clients or indeed what clients communicate when they cry.

A study in Psychotherapy, has broken new ground by asking 18 counselling and clinical psychology doctoral students to provide feedback on their experience of crying during a therapy session from the perspective of the therapist, the client or the client witnessing their own therapist’s tears.

Crying represents “deep emotion whether felt personally or as an empathic connection with the other person, and thus seems to be experienced quite distinctly depending of the role of the crier”, write Sarah Knox and her colleagues. Using phone interviews, the researchers identified that therapists tend to cry when clients discuss distressing personal events or when confronted with “the impending end of therapy”. On the whole, they worried about how their crying might affect clients, even though many also experienced an empathic connection with clients, which strengthened the therapeutic relationship, and typically said they would talk to clients more about this in future.

The primary message for clients, the researchers said, is that “talking about struggles in interpersonal relationships outside of the therapy” is likely to provide comfort and discomfort in equal measure. Crying helped clients access their pain, gain “greater insight and self-awareness” and feel closer to their therapist. Intriguingly, participants who witnessed the therapist’s tears, particularly towards the end of therapy, typically, saw this as a sign of their emotional connection; “that drew therapist and client closer together, reflected the attachment between therapist and client, and likewise depicted their shared humanity”. They were genuinely touched, and wished they could have discussed this event with their therapist.

While these results are encouraging, research into cultural differences about how crying is experienced is needed, the researchers noted, including with participants from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. We also know that therapists are already concerned about how their crying may affect clients, and so discussion in training and supervision “of the motivations for and the repercussions of such interventions may enable therapists to manage them more effectively”.

Knox, S., Hill, C.E., Knowlton, G., Chui, H., Pruitt, N., & Tate, K. (2017). Crying in psychotherapy: The perspective of therapists and clients. Psychotherapy, 54(3), 292-306. doi: 10.1037/pst0000123