As a child I pondered whether or not we had a limited number of tears and if they would ever run out. A couple of years ago I reflected on my theory and decided that it could be accurate and that I'd potentially depleted my quota during the end-of-the-marriage-breast-cancer epoque.
Recalling any occasions on which I've cried since has proven difficult. This means my friends, that I have not cried since 2010.
This week, I should've cried. The pressure valve needed releasing but I couldn't release it, not matter what I tried. It got me thinking - when was the last time I'd had a good cry? Why couldn't I cry now? When I couldn't come up with anything, I started to worry. What if I'd become so desensitised through my work that I'd become incapable of expressing my sadness/exhaustion/fear et cetera, through tears?
My friends joke that I barely respond to their tears. I don't move to physically comfort them, instead, offering the tissue-box and returning to my seat to continue to listen to their stories. If this conditioned professional response has trickled over into my life, has my distress compass been knocked out of equilibrium? I mean, the stories we hear as therapists do come from one end of the broad spectrum of life - people don't often come to see me when life is going well - is it possible that my norm has been skewed?
Racking my brain, surely I'd cried recently. What about a few weeks ago when a man I'd been dating (mildly) bruised my heart (aka ego)... surely the rejection alone had been enough to make my eyes well and have a few tears trickle over the edge... Oh no, that's right, I remembered my neighbour's text messages, "have you cried yet?", no!, "don't worry, it'll come". It never came. In fact, she ended up sending me a care package that included an onion and a note, "Maybe going through the motions will help?" The onion ended up in a stir-fry.
Could it be compassion fatigue (a kind of burnout caused by empathy)? Well, it had been an exceptionally heavy week, for lack of a better word. Psychologists are accustomed to hearing difficult stories and sitting with the uncomfortable emotions and distress of their clients. Empathy is part and parcel of our work and when we do it right, we are feeling what you are feeling, in that room, in that moment. We receive a lot of training around self-care practices and we know how to leave your stuff in the room and not take it home with us. We are also required (thank goodness!) to have regular supervision with a senior psychologist - a space to debrief and discuss the more difficult cases we are working on. A part of all of that professional practice is that we also become very good at regulating our own emotions. Now don't get me wrong, there are times when I have teared up in a session with a client, feeling their sadness or whatever it might be, empathising with them and validating for them that what they are going through is significant. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, many a client has commented that they have felt "less silly" or "better" when they have seen my reaction to their stories.
Note: Let me just point out though, a psychologist should never have an emotional reaction that requires comforting from the client! The therapy session is never about the psychologist, so if you ever feel like the roles have reversed, you're seeing the wrong person!
Anyway, I digress. Clearly crying in session has not been a problem for me. Especially of late. I'd say on average, in a full week of practice where I might sit with around 35 different clients, only one or two of those come in with stories that are very difficult to hear. Usually, this makes the working week very manageable. This week however, I'd say at least 30 of those stories I listened to/sat with/empathised with were massively heavy. Massively massive. Huge. My chest grew tighter and tighter as stressful event after stressful event continued to pile on top of the one before it. Quite incredibly, the reprieve failed to present itself and I worried that something had to give. Crying would have been the perfect antidote. But the tears woud not come.
The more I tried, the more desperate I became and the more cognisant I was that it had been a long, long time between drinks. So desperate was I, that at my regular acupuncture appointment I begged, "Do you have any points for crying." "I sure do," came the reply and soon I was lying supine with needles in the tops of my feet and legs, between my thumbs and forefingers, the lower parts of my arms, and finally, the middle of my forehead. Left alone, I waited. Will I cry straight away? Was that a feeling behind my eyes? Are the tears coming? Nope.
Karen, my acupuncturist, reappeared after 20 minutes. "Any tears yet?"
"No! Should it have happened already?"
"Well, it sometimes does," she replied.
I did feel better, but still no tears.
Acupuncture was closely followed by personal training where I explained my crying dilemma to boxing partner and fabulous friend, Mel. "I think I must be dead inside," I lamented. "Well I don't know about that, but hey, just remember this is me you're punching and not whoever you're thinking about!" Mel smiled, bemused by my passionate and energetic punches.
By the time I got home that night I felt lighter and knew that I'd be okay, but I still hadn't cried.
Non-crying had become a thing.
I noticed after the end-of-marriage-breast-cancer epoque that I did have a new perspective. The gift of no longer having to sweat the small stuff. Or the big stuff, really. Prior to getting sick, I'd wanted to have a family with my husband. But after fighting through breast cancer treatment for more than a year, the privilege of being alive became enough for me. I didn't need anything else really, but to be healthy and live close to my family. No if only's. No wishes. Just acceptance and contentment. So, was this shift in perspective also reflected in my lack of tears. Were tears now only saved for major, major life events like deaths and marriages? Everything else paling in comparison to major losses and facing your mortality...
Am I just experiencing compassion fatigue? Or have I just gotten really super-great at managing stress? These questions ran around in my mind, stopping me from sleeping. I'd still been feeling empathy with all of my clients and my colleagues and my friends and family, so that ruled out the dead inside theory, thank goodness!
Then this happened...
My last client Friday afternoon came in looking more pale and more agitated than usual. We'd planned to start a new therapy that day, but first they said they needed to tell me something. It took some time for them to settle and I reassured them that we didn't have to do anything they weren't ready for that day, or ever. I encouraged them to take some deep breaths, that we were just two people, sitting in a room, having a conversation. After a little while, they settled. They looked me in the eye and told me something that they had never been able to tell another human being, and they cried. What happened next was the most overwhelming sense of gratitude, privilege and relief for me.
"Thank you for trusting me with this. I feel so privileged that you would choose to share this with me. Thank you."
With that raw connection, human-to-human, my eyes filled with tears, and a single one slipped down my cheek, as we sat looking at one another, smiling.
What a privilege. All it takes is one experience like this, every year or so, and it all makes sense. I love my job.
"Live to the point of tears" - Albert Camus
I'd love to hear your thoughts on your own self-care and the strategies you use to avoid burnout. Look for our upcoming article on compassion fatigue in the Coping Toolkit.
Please remember to share our articles with your friends if you enjoy them, and point everyone to our website and Facebook page! Thank you!