I just cried in front of my client in therapy

I just cried in front of my client in therapy.

First time ever that I did something like this.

I had been emotional in sessions before – frequently, actually – when I felt vicariously the emotions described by clients and was particularly empathetic.

I felt disheartened when clients told me that they were called “useless” and questioned if they could ever amount to anything.

I cringed along with my clients when they shared stories of their awful dates with guys that tried to follow them home.

I could feel the pangs of guilt when I see how clients regret ghosting the people that they care about because they could not bear facing them.

There were other moments that I remember when I felt like crying with my clients when they shared with me the hurt, the pain, and the agony of being betrayed by their parents, partners, or friends.

However, I was not prepared to feel so vulnerable in session just now that my tears started flowing and my voice breaking right when I was trying provide words of encouragement and validation.

To be honest, in the days before that session to say that I was stressed felt like I was likening a volcano eruption to a soup pot boiling over: my period was coming and relentlessly sapping my energy like a parasite. I was staying up until 4 am in the morning working on my paper, preparing for sessions by doing literature search and studying, doing administrative tasks, etc., and the few hours of my precious sleep kept getting interrupted by flareups of my chronic condition. I was dealing with a couple of clients who had misunderstandings and who became upset when they forgot what they had agreed to/discussed in sessions before. I encountered something very frightening with a homeless individual one late evening as I left the office, which spoiled my night and plans thereafter. I had to deal with some unexpected huge expenses. The list can go on. Needless to say, I was drained, both physically and mentally.

It was not my first time seeing clients when I was unwell. In fact, even on my off days, I had always managed to pull through and miraculously had great sessions because I was fuelled by intense feelings that gnawed at my guts. So, on this fateful day I went into the session with the client with those same expectations, all the while I was smiling brightly to ask about their vacation I had horrible feelings that were killing me inside.

The session went as I had expected – at least initially. I was prepared to catch up with the client after their return on a fun trip and to review their homework while sharing with them some stories I had made notes on as examples of inspiration. We had been working on building up confidence to not fall into people-pleasing habits. Then, as we were discussing the challenges in doing the right thing, I found myself saying the very words that I had wanted to hear someone say to me:

“Assertiveness is shown in tough moments. Times when things are easy are not the times we need to be assertive, but it is when we need to set boundaries and to ask for what we know we deserve. These tough moments build character and this strength is required if we want to accomplish great things in the future.”

“When we see people becoming upset and we apologize because we somehow feel guilty for doing the right thing, it does not help either party.”

“Sometimes doing the right thing means that people will be unhappy with us. It can be really, really hard in those times.”

My eyes started burning and my throat became tight as I suddenly remember why I wanted to hear those words. I thought I did my part in helping others, going above and beyond in private; yet, when I set boundaries, those very people who were previously so grateful suddenly turned to become angry and spiteful. I was expected to be perfect and self-sacrificing because of my profession. If I try to assert myself in a way that did not conform to their perception of what a “helper” should behave, even if it was to help them recognize their own responsibility in their healing, it was seen as selfish and greedy. I had been sad seeing how people did not recognize that I was genuine in helping and that it was ultimately not in my own interest that I made some unpleasant decisions. What made it worse was that those people were all much older than me yet I needed to be the one behaving maturely to take care of them.

“I have to admit that I’m a bit emotional right now,” I found myself disclosing to my client. “I’m telling you the very words that I want to hear myself.” I smiled faintly as the water welled up in my eyes, making everything misty.

I thought about excusing myself for a minute and turning off the video, but something stopped me. I was in the presence with one of my oldest long-term clients and with whom I have built a strong alliance. I had the privilege of watching them grow and transition into the next stages of their life and feel very grateful to being a part of each step. I knew at the moment when my emotions came out that it was because I was in a safe space that I had spent years creating with them. I had worked with this person to learn how to set boundaries and to accept their own emotions so that they can accept others’ emotions. I knew that I could have this countertransference experience and make it beneficial therapeutically. So I did – I simply could not hold back the tears any longer.

I did not look away and allowed the drops to slide down my cheek silently. My client looked at me with kind eyes, smiled empathetically, and patiently gave me the few seconds I needed to find my voice again.

“I know you know you don’t have to take care of me,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I wonder what it’s like for you seeing me getting a bit emotional right now.”

“I know I don’t have to take care of you,” they replied calmly. “It felt right and comfortable for me to offer you that [empathy] just now. I know it’s hard. I know you have a hard job, so it felt very human. It would feel very strange if you were unfeeling in tough moments and were robotic all the time.”

I smiled, grateful and relieved that I had built a strong enough emotional connection with this person to make the experience a learning one instead of one in which they felt burdened that they have to offer me support instead. We joked about how I had always been the one to remind them to use tissues and today I was the one needing them instead. We ended the session with me telling them that I was proud of them for their accomplishments so far and was glad to see that they were able to trust me enough to allow me to have a moment instead of feeling that they have to carry my emotions.

I still would have liked to refrain from the tears if possible. It was a negative affect that stemmed from my own issues that I needed to work on myself to provide better care for my clients. I was glad that if I had to cry in session, it was with this client. I’m truly grateful to have the privilege of serving them, as well as many others, who have come to trust me over the years even when I have not been perfect.

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