According to Wikipedia, tears are "the secretions of the glands that clean and lubricate the eyes. Strong emotions, such as sorrow, or elation, along with irritation of eye, may lead to an increased production of tears, or crying."
Furthermore, in nearly all cultures, crying is seen as a specific act associated with tears trickling down the cheeks and accompanied by characteristic sobbing sounds. Emotional triggers are most often sadness and grief, but crying can also be triggered by anger, happiness, fear, laughter or humour, frustration, remorse, or other strong, intense emotions.
"The soul would have no rainbow had the eyes no tears." John Vance Cheney
Tears from the therapist's chair are somewhat of a controversial issue. According to traditional theory a therapist should be empathic but neutral, but as a general rule she should not disclose her feelings. Neutrality serves the purpose of establishing the patient’s independence and self-determination, a boundary that underscores the separateness, so in this sense it is therapeutic. From this stance crying is not ok, being both a breach of neutrality and an act of self-disclosure.
Relational theory has progressed a little further, valuing both empathy and connection above all and taking a rather more permissive stance towards a modicum of self-disclosure, crying is considered ok as long as it favours attachment and communicates the therapist’s attunement (as opposed to neediness or a manifestation of a lack of control).
I have noticed that there are many forums where clients share their stories of crying therapists but – judging from the paucity of literature – it seems that therapists themselves are reluctant to tackle the subject of our own tears. I wonder why?
According to Judith Kay Nelson, author of 'Seeing Through Tears', about two thirds of therapists have on (rare or isolated) occasion been moved to tears in front of their clients, and half of the remaining third is moved in session to the point of wanting to cry, but they actively suppress their tears. For most therapists who cry, tears are usually an isolated episode.
I've found myself shed more than a single tear in the presence of clients. I do not, nor would I, sit there blubbing, nor do I reach for a tissue, but I might find myself drying the corner of my eye. I would be worried if I did not feel the emotions that prompt me to well up from time to time, given the material I am so often a witness to.
Clearly, sobbing uncontrollably is rarely, if ever, appropriate. Most experienced therapists, especially those among us who have been in therapy themselves, have grown to become comfortable with painful places most would rather avoid and, as a result, are well equipped to embody a state of compassion and to not feel overwhelmed or triggered by their clients' issues.
It is, I believe, my job to guide individuals through their own therapeutic process. I am adept at doing this, by virtue of my training, and the fact that I have been in therapy myself. I do not and would not expect a client to anything I have not done, or would not be prepared to do.
My tears are a sign of empathy which I believe to be a normal, healthy and sincere element of the complex human process of relating emotionally to the experience of another. Receiving empathy can help us feel safe and understood, strengthening and later maintaining the bond of trust between therapist and client.