The Power of Tears: Understanding Why We Cry in Therapy

Vera Hanya Shao, MHC-L, M.A., Ed.M. on Mar 07, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

Therapy can be a rollercoaster of emotions, with moments of breakthrough and progress interspersed with periods of frustration and stagnation. But perhaps one of the most vulnerable and raw moments in therapy is when tears start to flow. For some, crying in therapy can be a cathartic release; for others, it can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing experience. 

In this blog post, we will explore some common reasons behind tears in therapy and how they can be a sign of progress and growth. Understanding the reasons behind tears can create a safe and supportive therapeutic space to explore and process difficult emotions.

Processing Difficult Emotions: One of the most common reasons why people might cry in therapy is to process difficult emotions. Crying can help to reduce feelings of sadness and elevate mood (Gross & Levenson, 1997), and for people who may have difficulty accessing or expressing their emotions, crying in therapy can be a sign of progress as they learn to better identify and communicate their feelings.

Releasing Pent-up Emotions: Many people hold back their emotions in day-to-day life, and therapy can provide a safe outlet for releasing these pent-up emotions, which can often manifest as tears. Crying can be a healthy way to process and move past difficult experiences.

Healing from Past Trauma: Trauma can be stored in the body, and therapy can help clients process and release this pain. Crying can be a natural part of this process as the body releases the emotions and energy associated with the trauma. Crying can be an effective way of reducing the impact of traumatic experiences (Van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 2007).

Letting Go of Control: Crying in therapy can be an opportunity to let go of the need to control everything and allow oneself to be vulnerable and authentic. Crying can be a healthy and natural part of the process of re-engaging with suppressed emotions (Martin & Dahlen, 2005).

Projection and Transference: Crying in therapy can sometimes stem from projection and transference onto the therapist, allowing feelings that may not have felt able to express in other contexts to be released (Safran & Muran, 2000). This can be a productive part of therapy, allowing people to develop effective coping strategies.

Feeling Heard and Understood: For some people, crying in therapy can be a natural response to feeling heard and understood by their therapist. Therapy is a space where people can feel truly heard and validated, which can be particularly powerful for those who may have experienced invalidation or dismissal in other areas of life (Greenberg & Safran, 1987).

Interpersonal Exchange: Sometimes crying in therapy is not necessarily about processing one's own emotions but can be a result of the interpersonal exchange between the client/patient and the therapist.

Frustration or Anger with Therapist: People may become emotional and cry as a result of feeling frustrated or angry with their therapist. This may occur if one perceives the therapist as not understanding or being supportive of their experiences or if one feels judged or criticized by the therapist. This type of crying may be an expression of frustration or disappointment in the therapeutic relationship rather than a processing of one's own emotions.

Traumatic Crying: This can occur in response to the experience of trauma in the therapeutic relationship (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995). This can happen if one feels retraumatized by the therapist's actions or if the therapist's actions trigger traumatic memories or experiences for the client.

Sadness About Therapeutic Relationship: People may become emotional and cry in response to feeling sad about the therapeutic relationship. This type of crying may be an expression of one's feelings of vulnerability or dependence on the therapeutic relationship rather than on the therapeutic process. 

By understanding the reasons behind crying in therapy, we can better navigate our emotions and build a deeper connection with therapists. It's also important to note that not everyone cries in therapy, and that's okay too. Each person's therapeutic journey is unique, and tears are just one aspect of the emotional experience that can arise during therapy.

In conclusion, crying in therapy can be a powerful and transformative experience. Whether it's a release of pent-up emotions, a sign of progress in identifying and processing difficult feelings, or an expression of feeling seen and heard by one's therapist, tears can be a valuable part of the therapeutic process. By understanding the reasons behind crying in therapy, we can create a safe and supportive space to explore and process emotions and work towards therapeutic goals.

Vera Hanya Shao is a Mental Health Counselor in Brooklyn, NY.

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