The tears are welling up in her eyes; I can see the breaking point unfold in slow motion like a crash test video. She finally breaks down, and like a dam that has been holding a great ocean for years, it comes gushing forth in tremendous fashion.
We had been talking for nearly ten minutes, but as soon as she sat down you could see the struggle to hold back begin within her; the trench war that had gone on seemingly for decades, one where both sides secretly pray for a peace treaty, but are too stubborn and prideful to make any concession.
I had noticed the tears gently sitting in the outer corners of her eyes during this entire period of time, the first ten minutes that is, and wondered how long they might be able to hold this balancing position.
I had been thinking to myself, “surely they must go one way or another sooner or later, rather it be back inside her or rolling down her blushed cheeks.” When these two tears simultaneously broke their position, it was at that very moment of feeling them caress down the side of her cheeks that the dam burst open. I’ve always heard that as soon as the first bit of water spurts from a crack in the dam, that the physics are such that the entire dam is likely to give out at any moment; it would appear this was true here as well.
I’ve seen others like her before, who have tall dams, and I always have a similar reaction in these moments of breach. At once I feel a short-lived sense of gratification and accomplishment for breaking through, quickly accompanied by a feeling of responsibility and anxious regret. When the latter kicks in, my neurons start firing somewhere in the left side of my brain, sending hurried cognitions to the effect of, “shit, what are you going to do now?”, “what was that cool intervention I learned about recently?”, or “what great interpretations could I make to fix this problem?” Of course, this situation is not a problem to be solved, and though I am aware of this, my brain struggles futilely for a while as she sobs. The logical side of my mind loathes this scenario; an ambiguous experiential moment where its talents are useless, and it is forced to go sit with its arms crossed in the corner. I know that it would be best to give her the space and time to cry uninterrupted, so I try my best sit silently with her. As my problem-solving mindset gradually fades into the background of my conscious mind, ebbing like the tide, my empathic side rolls in. I begin to reach out and connect emotionally, without a word being said between us.
I climb into the pit with her, and suddenly I begin to feel the pain and loneliness too. I hope that my company offers relief.
We remain sitting silently across from one another, I have no idea how long it’s been. As she sits crying, occasionally attempting to look up to make eye contact and then breaking again, this part of me so wants to physically embrace her and hold her pain, to offer this sort of comfort. Of course I cannot do this, and so we sit in this moment together without speech, without contact. I wonder if she feels as connected as I do, if she feels less alone in this experience of pain than she would by herself. I know it cannot be the same as if she were alone, that to have a second person there with her must certainly be different; that having a witness see the wounded area is itself healing in some way. I am reminded of getting an injury as a child and grasping the area, not wanting others to see it, or even to acknowledge it fully myself – I think this is a fairly universal experience for children. After concealing the wound for a while, a parent figure will approach the wounded child and say, “let me see it.” The child resists for a fleeting moment, then shows the wound. It’s nothing requiring serious medical attention, but to the child it provokes immense fear and sadness.
When the parent compassionately tends to them, perhaps without even offering any medicinal intervention, the pain miraculously lessens. In this moment of compassionate joining, as a child one feels so reassured that they are alright and are protected, that they feel a sense of safety and comfort. In these moments of breach with clients, I hope that they have similar experience, that they feel held when they expose the wound.
This is not something communicated through verbal language, but through empathic connection. This phenomena is so uniquely human, and something which can never be replaced by technology.
As I remind myself of the importance of this to the client, we remain seated across from each other, mired in our own convoluted thoughts and feelings. I wonder how aware of me she is in this moment, if she is able to accurately guess anything that I am thinking or feeling, if she knows what this is really like for me. The sobs slowly quiet and she wipes her tears, she takes a few deep breaths and is able to look up and meet my gaze. I see this next moment in slow motion again; her subtle expressions conveying relief and preparedness, her lips beginning to open. She is ready to talk.
Benjamin is a therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, currently working with teens and young adults on a variety of mental health concerns at a local university and high school. He has a passion for travel. This is Benjamin’s first article published on TSC, and he would love to hear any feedback that readers may have. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.