I hope I am not alone when I share this observation. Inside and outside of the therapy office, whenever I see people cry for whatever reason I am (somewhat) perplexed why this perfectly natural behavior is followed with an immediate almost reflexive apology. Has anyone else noticed this?
I have spent an inordinate amount of time processing this at a professional, personal and social level and would like to offer some thoughts.
Professionally, as clients unravel the life, burden or issue that brought them to therapy, it is common to see emotions begin to appear in session. As the trust grows, so does the intimacy and with this, clients often cry as a catharsis and ‘letting go’ of something that they have been holding onto. The tears in effect are part of the release of pent up emotion that has lain ‘stuffed’ and protected for so long. The apology that is attached with this outpouring fascinates me. This is my client’s time, my client’s space - you have no need to apologize for an outward demonstration of an emotion. I actually encourage clients to utilize the relative safe space in therapy to express emotions in whatever way they wish. I sit with them, not rescuing them from the emotion(s) because I have learned this is more of a rescue effort for myself and my own discomfort at seeing another person cry, (which I believe has been socially engrained in me and is challenging at several levels). I stay with them, witness and acknowledge how the revelation is happening. This is not always the easiest course of action. I reassure them it is alright to cry and experience emotions and support them in doing so.
Personally, doing my own work, while wholly challenging, has helped me to grow and understand at a much deeper level than before. Therapy gave me the permission and the power to cry and let emotions flow rather than be hidden inside. This has been especially freeing. Being British (cultural) and a male (gender) I was challenged at many different levels with regard to outward emotional expression. My comfort with crying is twofold, my own experience of letting my body and emotions do what they need to do and secondly in learning to sit with someone who is deeply emotional and crying. This happens a lot at the end of life and during couple’s therapy. Am I really helping them by offering them some tissues? (A most common, almost reflexive response to witnessing someone crying alongside reassuring touch). Does it ease some social discomfort? Or am I rescuing myself from my own discomfort of seeing another cry? It is interesting to ponder.
Socially, I think that crying for the most part in mainstream society is not well endorsed. Why do tears make us uncomfortable and why do we apologize for crying? Crying is a perfectly healthy way to outwardly display emotions just like laughter, while more common, is a perfectly healthy way to express happiness and joy. Does anyone apologize for laughing? Not so far in my experience, and perhaps as an experiment we should all apologize for laughing and see what happens. ’I am so sorry, I found that incredibly amusing and laughed. Forgive me?’ Socially, do we not value both positive and negative emotions equally? There is vulnerability that is shown when we cry and express emotions. We might be deemed inferior and the gender-based message I was given is that crying shows weakness and as a man I must fulfill the role of hunter-gatherer, protector, all mighty and strong. No thanks, not any more. If I want to cry, I will, sorry if that makes society uncomfortable, sorry if you judge me to be unworthy male material.
So next time a client you are working with begins to cry, what will you do? Will you rescue yourself? Will you sit with them? What will you do with the impending apology, because you know it is coming right? What will you do the next time you want to cry? And think of this, how much better does a client feel during processing after emotional expression and how much better do you feel when you have cried? So, is crying really such a negative emotion after all?
Christian Billington is an LPC/LMFT candidate. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, disaster mental health, helping the helpers and the development of training and support to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field. Christian has a modest private practice that can be found here www.patchlanecounseling.com