By Russ Harris
Have you ever had a session where a client just can’t stop crying? Obviously, how we deal with this will vary enormously. For example, we are likely to respond differently to tears of intense shame or despair than to tears of sadness and loss. So, the first thing to consider is: is there actually a problem here? Uncontrollable crying is often a completely natural and healthy response to grief, loss, and crisis—in which case, one of our main aims is to normalize and validate the client’s experience, and create a safe, compassionate holding space where they can freely have and express their emotions.
Indeed, often the “problem” (if there is one) is not that the client is crying—but rather that the therapist is uncomfortable with this. After all, therapists have their own ideas about how long someone “should” or “shouldn’t” cry, and whether or not it is healthy for them to be crying in this or that manner for such a duration. So, we do need to be mindful: to mindfully notice our own reactions, our own thoughts and feelings, our own impulses. If we don’t do this, we run the risk of rushing in to intervene inappropriately—which can then easily invalidate the client.
If the client’s crying is an understandable reaction to loss, grief, or crisis, then here are some possibilities for what we might do (if it seems likely to be helpful).
Normalize and Validate
Normalize and validate the response. Compassionately state that crying is a normal reaction. Let the client know explicitly that it’s okay to cry; there’s no need to hold back the tears. If offering a tissue box, it’s often useful to say, “Please don’t try to hold those tears back. It’s absolutely okay to cry as much as you like.”
We can invite our clients to cry mindfully. Most people have never done this; when they cry, they are lost in their pain. We can, in a calm and grounding voice, suggest, “See if you can really notice what it’s like to cry … notice the feeling of the tears on your cheeks … notice the moving of your shoulders … notice what’s happening in your throat … notice the sound of your voice … notice how you’re breathing … notice the feelings in your body that are linked to these tears …” etc. Often, as you do this, you’ll see the client starting to develop a sense of calmness and peace amidst the tears.
We can, if appropriate, invite (but never coerce!) clients to try something like this: “I notice as you’re crying, you’re looking down, looking away … and this is what our culture tells us to do … we all learn that tears are shameful or a sign of weakness, so we have to hide them away … and I want to invite you, here and now, to try something different … and please don’t do this if you don’t want to … what I’m inviting you to do is to keep crying and also be really present here with me … get a sense of you and me, working here together, as a team … and if you’re up to it, I invite you to actually look at me as you cry …” Many clients—but not all—will take your offer. You can then mindfully coach them through crying and being present and looking at you. When you debrief this, most clients will report it’s the first time they’ve ever been able to look directly at another person when crying
We can invite clients to practice self-compassion as they cry. One of my favorite methods for this is to invite the client to gently lay one hand upon their chest, the other hand upon their abdomen, and to send into their body—through the hands—a sense of warmth and kindness and caring.
Last but not least, I often like to share this quote from the American author Washington Irving:
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
Book Titles: ACT Made Simple, Second Edition
Russ Harris is an internationally acclaimed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and author of the best-selling ACT-based self-help book The Happiness Trap, which has sold over 600,000 copies and been published in thirty languages. He is widely renowned for his ability to teach ACT in a way that is simple, clear, and fun—yet extremely practical.