Friday, April 16, 2010

After a Crying Client Left My Office

It has been maybe around ten times that clients have cried in my office. Often feeling in return empathy or sadness, I find it hard to imagine what it's like to work in an environment where clients routinely cry. I presume that distancing oneself emotionally from one's job is even more important than the distance I try to keep.*

It was about a year into my job that I was sitting with a client, Ben, and a paper rustled and fell off my desk.  I picked it up and when I looked back at Ben I realized he was crying. After he left my office I sat back in my chair and tears streamed down my face for a few minutes as I gathered my thoughts. It wasn't the first time I had cried because of an interaction or incident relating to a client but it was the first time it happened because another client was crying.

Ben had told me about his childhood, his relationship with his abusive mom and the dad who he had been close to but died when Ben was young. He told me about difficulties in dealing with things now, opening up in a way he had never done before. The way he told his story, with tired body language, along with his vulnerability caught me off guard. I felt so deeply for him. He was a sweet, gentle man who seemed to have constant challenges in his life. At the end of our meeting he thanked me for listening.

Clinical social worker David Markham raised the topic of Crying at Work: Okay or Not? asking whether it was acceptable for people to cry at their jobs and asked what kind of crying is OK. It's hard not to cry in reaction to some of the stories I hear or interactions I have. I value a lot the fact I have a private space (my office) to do that if I need to. It can be a release.

As to crying with a client: It seems to me so intimate to share tears with another person and it's something I wouldn't feel comfortable to do with most people in my personal life. I suppose I also don't see it as part of my role to cry with a client because it would mean a wall or a boundary would crumble. I want to express empathy but feel more comfortable to do it in other ways. Of course I know that if I was on the other side I would want the person I'm talking to to try and reach out or comfort me. It's one of the more compassionate acts people can do to one another.

* Which doesn't mean I act like a robot but that I try not to immerse myself in a client's life story/situation because it can become too emotionally exhausting.


Btrflygl said...

I know exactly what you are talking about. It is so hard to not get emotional in certain situations.

Doris Plaster said...

As a social worker I want to show empathy and support. Crying with the client doesn't look to me quite professional. I would feel like crossing boundaries. Key intervention: listen to your client, let the client know it's OK for him/her to cry, to express their feelings. Offering a glass of water, a tissue, even a pad on the shoulder can help to show our respect and empathy. Now, it's fine for the social worker to cry once the client has left...I've done it!

Anonymous said...

We had this discussion during some incidental counselling training specifically for refugees and survivors of torture and trauma. I was split, even more so because I have once cried with a client after she disclosed some pretty horrific torture she suffered in Burma. It affected me quite deeply, vicarious trauma if you will, and I received some supervision around it.
We didn't come to any conclusion. It depends on the situation, and what your own personal view of professionalism is. By all means, we shouldn't bawl with every client, but in some situations, there is something humanising and empathetic about tears. My client even told me weeks afterwards that seeing me cry made her realise that I *got* how sad her story was. Tears communicate a lot more than words, and in that sense they're risky, but sometimes, they come, and you can't stop them.

Anatolia said...

Thank you all for your comments and thoughts!

Btrflygl: True. It also makes me think about the toll it takes on social workers/case managers if they don't find an outlet to share how *they're* feeling.

Doris Plaster: I agree with you that making a client feel comfortable and safe to express how she's feeling is extremely reassuring.

Avertingmediocrity: Though I tend to be on the side of keeping boundaries by not crying with a client I do understand where you're coming from and I'm not sure how I would've responded in your situation. There is something extremely empathic, and natural about reacting to certain situations (like listening to a client discuss a deeply painful experience) with shedding a tear.