All I was doing was telling a story about my late friend. I didn't even notice when my therapist started to cry.
I have been seeing my therapist on and off for years, as I drift in and out of psychiatric hospitals and rehabs, my list of disorders seemingly growing every year. Bipolar. Borderline. PTSD. Eating Disorders. Self-Harm. Alcoholism. Endless fun and games, right? So seeing "Cindy" (not her real name) and not having to rehash my history was so refreshing.
Never in the years I had been jumping in and out of her office did I think I would make her cry. But there's a first time for everything — and this go-round in her care I had seen that happen more than once. But it never really registered to me that I had made her... I dunno, break character? Until today.
It all started when I started reading my blog entries to her when they were relevant. Before I knew it, her eyes were shiny and she was sniffling. The latest time, though, I saw it differently. It registered for the first time. I made her CRY. That's not supposed to happen! I should know, I went to social work school, for chrissakes. Never break character in front of your clients. BIG no-no. There's a time and a place for emotion, and session is not that place. It was when I shared on Facebook the tongue-in-cheek "Achievement Unlocked: Made My Therapist Cry" that I realized how weird and out of character it was for a therapist to do this.
Boy howdy, the responses I got. They ran the gamut from "Aw, that's so sweet!" to "OMG what did you SAY?" to "No way. I would have fired her with the quickness."
Now. That last one? Never crossed my mind, not for a millisecond. Why would I fire her for being empathetic? Nope. That was never going to happen. The poster elaborated that their therapist had cried once and they were not comfortable with the feeling that they were now expected to comfort, or cater to the therapist's needs instead of their own. Valid! Absolutely valid! But personally that was not an option.
I, perhaps selfishly, thought that I had gone through so many therapists over the years that I was NOT letting Cindy go, no matter what. She would have to fire ME for me to stop coming to her sessions. Firing by your therapist? Totally a thing. Happened to me, true story. But that story will have to wait until another time. This one was just beginning.
I did a lot of reflection that night and the following day about what had happened and decided what had happened was fine, at least for me. I like empathy in a therapist. I've had some real corkers in my time, and one I called "Vlad the Impaler" immediately comes to mind as the perfect example of lack of empathy. His couch-side manner, let's say, was lacking. No no, it just didn't exist. There was even one time I jumped up, pointed my finger at him and yelled "J'accuse! You, sir, are a cyborg!" He wasn't impressed by my biting wit, which of course made me loathe him more. I spent more time slyly teasing him than working on myself by the time I drifted out of that hospitalization, and that was the opposite of helpful. So I would not for a second complain about Cindy's wet eyes and runny nose. I found it endearing.
Maybe it's because I am, to say the least, empathetic to a fault. Had I continued my social work practice I would have been working with major mental illness in hospital settings, where punch-to-the-gut stories would have been my norm, and I would have slipped up and cried. I don't doubt that for a second. And no matter what my client's response was, I would have understood.
Different clients have different wants and needs, and I need Cindy's empathy. It makes me feel like there is validity to my problems, other than what my ill-tempered brain makes me think about myself. And that feels good. Healthy even. Me, with a laundry list of perceived and proven abnormalities. If a therapist can feel empathy for me, maybe I'm not as broken as I think I am.