New research finds the vast majority of clinical psychologists and psychology trainees have cried during therapy sessions with clients.

One study, by San Diego psychologist Amy Blume-Marcovici, PsyD, found 72 percent of the 568 U.S. psychologists, postdoctoral psychology fellows and psychology graduate students she surveyed had cried at least once while with a patient. Of these, 30 percent had cried within the past four weeks (Psychotherapy, 2013).

Another, in-progress study by Catelijne ‘t Lam, a psychology doctoral student at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, suggests that number could be even higher. She found that more than 87 percent of 819 Dutch mental health professionals — psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychological nurses with at least a year's experience — had cried at some point while conducting therapy.

Both researchers discovered two key unexpected results:

  • Male and female clinicians cried in therapy sessions at about the same rate. While women reported crying twice as much as men in their private lives, they were more likely to suppress tears in therapy than were men, Blume-Marcovici says.
  • Older, more professionally established participants were more likely to cry than younger ones. Therapists with less work experience had more negative attitudes about crying and were more likely to report being embarrassed about their tears.
  • Lam says older psychologists and therapists told her that they grew to see crying as a way to bond with patients, and that they felt more comfortable with their own tears as they became more secure in their roles as therapists.

Despite the prevalence of crying, only about one-third of therapists said their training included any discussion of handling such emotions — and almost all thought it should, Blume-Marcovici says.

— Lorna Collier