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Pete Saunders
May 23, 2011

No Emotions Allowed

Very recently, I went to visit a dying friend in the hospital. We have known each other for about 4 years now and have become very close friends in the last year. Our friendship is quite unusual. He is 85 years old, almost 60 years my senior. He makes me think of the relationship I could have experienced with my grandfather if he were still alive. Regrettably, my grandfather died when I was 6 years old.

When I got to my friend’s bed side and saw him, I could not hold back the tears no matter how hard I tried. I have never seen him, or anyone else for that matter, so close to death. His wife was also there with an expression on her face that says, “That is it.”

I was very embarrassed that I cried by my friend’s bed side in the presence of his wife. It was not that my masculinity felt threatened from crying in the presence of a female. Rather, I felt I had let them both down. I usually assume that in these situations, friends are present to provide emotional support by being strong, logical, and emotionally stable. If that was the case, my presence there was not helpful.

I have determined that I am a very emotionally expressive person. A few days ago I was at my son’s school, attending a meeting with his teachers and learning aide sharing how much progress he had made despite his disability and I just felt my eyes getting wet. Interestingly, I was in the presence of all females. Again, I was embarrassed and quickly turned away to avoid unnecessary attention.

These two recent incidents have tme thinking about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of expressing our emotions in the presence of our clients. Truth be told, I am deeply concerned about this. I fear that if a female client reveals to me she was abandoned by her mother, sexually abused by her father, and neglected by her work colleagues, that I would just break down and cry. I do believe that, as counselors, it is highly important to be empathetic towards our clients. I realize that for many of us, expressing deep empathy might come naturally. However, how much empathy is too much? Is crying in the presence of our clients allowed?

Yalom, in The Gift of Therapy, encourages us as counselors to let the clients matter to us. Should this be to the extent that our emotions are intertwined with the client’s condition and experiences? It would seem only natural for us to develop an emotional connection with our clients over time. We may come to know our clients the way we do a friend, a family member, or a student. Consequently, we may feel happy and proud when our clients have accomplished some achievements or sad when they are hurting. The issue for me is, do we express these emotions to our clients or are we suppose to reflect a “blank screen”?

My conclusion is that we are all humans and have our emotions to teach us things about others and ourselves, demonstrate that we care, or don’t care, and to influence the growth of relationships. I am not trying to cover up my howling in the presence of my dying friend and his wife. I am suggesting though, that my actions could have demonstrated how much he means to me as well as possibly irritated his wife.

Do you express your emotions, whether negative or positive, in the presence of your clients? The question itself might suggest that we are capable of switching our emotions on and off at will. If it is possible, is it advisable? I truly desire to know if this is something I need to work on and what steps I can start taking now to address it.

Pete Saunders is a counselor in training at Capella University. He also writes a weekly blog and conducts a weekly video interview on manhood at

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