therapy tears felix and sage psychology

“The Land of Tears is so mysterious”

From Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

I have always adored this quote. It comes from one of my favourite books, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The story, first published in French in 1946, tells the fable of a man whose plane got wrecked in the desert, where he chanced upon a tiny creature… the little prince of the title, who had travelled from his minute planet through the galaxies to eventually reach the earth.

At some point the little prince is feeling a deep sense of sadness and homesickness for his planet. (The German word “Heimweh”, or similarly the Dutch and Afrikaans word “heimwee”, is ever so much more nuanced than the English “homesickness”: it depicts the sense of sadness, the pining, for that which is home, emotional safety and easy identity, which is what the little prince was feeling). Tears rolled over his cheeks, and the narrator simply stands and watches silently, “for… (he) did not know what to say to him, did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… for the land of tears is so mysterious”.   

In therapy, tears are not uncommon. After all, clients do not come to chatter about the things that are going great in their lives. Rather, they come to look the sadness, the disappointment, the anxiety, the depression, the helplessness, the grief, the loss in their lives in the eye. Many clients never cry. Sometimes because they do not want to, sometimes, because they cannot do the “letting go” that accompanies crying. Other clients cry fairly often! And when this does happen, I always feel like De Saint-Exupéry’s narrator: as if the land of tears is a form of holy ground where I have to tread softly, as it is so very mysterious.

First, a bit more about tears. Humans have 3 types of tears:

  • Basal tears keep the eyes moist and are basically always in your eyes to keep them lubricated and nourished.
  • Reflex tears have the purpose of cleaning the eyes from irritants or pollutants (like dust, smoke or onions).
  • Emotional tears are cried when we feel big emotions like intense sadness or happiness.

Interestingly, emotional tears differ chemically from basal or reflex tears, containing more and different proteins and hormones. Even just under the “emotional tears” umbrella there are differences in the chemical make-up of tears for different feelings, such as grief or happiness.  Look at the following image: I find it fascinating that tears under a microscope look so vastly different.

Why do we cry? It is quite obvious that basal and reflex tears have a simple function. Namely to lubricate the eye for optimal functioning and vision, and to clean the eye when irritants such as smoke particles need to be flushed out. But is there a function to crying emotional tears at all? The answer is a resounding YES!  

Emotional tears serve the following purposes to:

  • Help people to self-regulate, self-soothe and diminish their distress.
  • Relieve pain and enhance mood (because of the secretion of endorphins and oxytocin when we cry).
  • Encourage others to reach out and support the one who cries – thus providing interpersonal and social benefits.

Tears are fascinating to me in another way too: I think crying is neither fully voluntary, nor fully involuntary. It dances in that beautiful balance between being an “automatic response” (such as instinctively pulling your hand away when you touch a red-hot stove plate) and being a “chosen response” (such as deliberately taking a brush in your hand to comb your hair). Often we’d cry when we don’t want to: we’d suddenly feel our eyes well up when a song full of memory plays on the radio, or we would sob uncontrollably when we get terrible news. This is the part that says – my tears come without me meaning to cry. This is the part where we show to the world – whether we want to or not – that we are hurting deeply. It makes us vulnerable, exposed and fragile, as the people around us can see the unmasked me, the real me.

But then there is another part: the part where crying, or not crying, is more voluntary or controlled. At times a person might, by sheer will, be able to swallow the lump in the throat, stop the tears, or distract themselves sufficiently not to cry. Usually this would be in an attempt to not have the feeling of having lost control, or even to look “weak”. If a tear does manage to sneak out, the person might be highly apologetic about it. They might feel that they are burdening the onlooker unnecessarily, or making a fool of themselves. These people often have the belief that they should be able to function as a strong and independent, and not show any sign of being fragile. Culture might have to take at least part of the blame for this phenomenon, especially where men are concerned (the whole “boys don’t cry” scenario). Additionally, growing up with attachment figures who discourage the display of emotion, or simply do not respond to it, can further this idea. Being in control of our tears does not necessarily have to be a bad thing though. If you are doing a eulogy, or an end-of-year speech at a school, it can be amazingly adaptive to be able to do so without turning into a sobbing mess. Then, indeed, having at least some control over our tears, is highly beneficial. Rather than a sign of diminished emotional connection during our formative and subsequent years. 

There is also the concept of “crocodile tears”. There are two versions of this European legend: (1) that crocodiles would weep for their victim while devouring them, and (2) that crocodiles would fake the sound of human crying in order to lure unsuspecting people to come and look for the person crying, and then catch them unawares. Both these stories indicate the falseness of fake, put-on tears in order to “get what you want”. These type of tears would fall squarely under the “voluntary” umbrella. Using deliberate and somewhat sly and calculated means to get emotional support or sympathy (which is one of the natural and usually positive functions of crying). 

Back to the therapy room: what happens for me when a client cries?

Most importantly, I am aware of how fragile and open the person is making him- or herself. And this asks of me to tread softly, tread gently in a very mysterious land. I would never ask a client to stop crying, or to calm down, as I know how cathartic crying can be. In addition to the functions of self-regulation and eliciting support. Usually I just wait quietly, just like the narrator in The Little Prince. I might pass a tissue box, or, in pre-Covid times, offer a gently, quick touch to the shoulder, always asking first if they would want this. And then I go back to waiting quietly. That is often enough.

I always assume that a client’s tears are real and authentic. Especially if there is nothing to make me suspect that they are “crocodile tears”. Therefore, I will never scorn tears, or ask the client about what they are wanting to get, gain or accomplish by their tears. I always give them the benefit of the doubt. Call me naïve, but I’ll stick to my point that every client’s tears should be contained with much respect and little second-guessing.

A much better question to the client would be: What are these tears telling us? 

Asking this question gives us a pathway into the inner world of the person in front of us, simultaneously modelling to him or her that tears are not to be feared but welcomed, as they are important messengers in helping us get a hold on our own emotional being.

As therapists we need to remember that there is no need to be afraid of a client’s tears. Tears cannot make them feel worse. Tears cannot make them deteriorate. Tears do not indicate that we as therapists are ineffective. Tears are a sign of what is already there – sadness, grief or whatever big emotion our clients are feeling. It is not our job to change that, or fix that. Our job is to give the tears the space in which to do their job. To offer comfort and acceptance, and then, when the tears have been wiped, to look very gently at that which was already there and brought on the tears.

Sometimes, only sometimes, I might even wipe away a tear in my own eye.

After all, I am also a traveller through a land which can sometimes be very mysterious.

Lindie Oppermann
Felix & Sage Psychology

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