How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

We get to see public people expressing private emotions on TV. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Not only on dating shows. Politicians do it on occasion, including George W. Bush, whose voice cracked and eyes moistened more often than any U.S. President I can remember.

Still, most of us try to stay in control. We hesitate to let down our guard for fear someone will reach into our chest and rip out our already wounded heart. In my experience, however, some of the most touching public situations occur when a self-possessed person displays the courage to live so much in the unselfconscious moment that the voice breaks or tears flow a bit. Before I tell you about my own challenge with this, I will relate two other public examples, as well as describing a therapist’s hesitancy to feel too much in session.

Fred Spector, a retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist, told this story in 2001 about an event then three decades old:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that the mother of Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor, died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said ‘They want me to come home (to Italy). What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.’ And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. ‘That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem. … and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none. … We wanted to get that feeling he wanted for his mother.

Giulini was a private, ever-dignified, old world man (born in 1914) for whom this exposure was uncustomary if not unseemly. Indeed, the orchestra and chorus had been instructed by an administrator not to say anything to him about his loss. Such a direction could only have come from Giulini or his wife.

Of course, it’s one thing to be unguarded in an empty hall and another to “lose it” during performance. Indeed, among the greatest sins of public musical or theatrical presentation is to be so moved by the words you can’t do your job: enable the audience to experience emotion while you remain in control. I am aware of one instance alone when the rule was violated, but the artist succeeded anyway.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the passing away of human life, while the world itself blooms anew every spring, “forever.” The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, ever more muted against the fading, shimmering, ethereal consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto soloist, was “unable to enunciate the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier, a 35-year-old woman soon to become an international celebrity, was then new to this composition and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unselfconsciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Where does a therapist fit in our discussion? He is not a public performer, but must empathize with his patient. Unmoved by the human suffering he witnesses, he is of no value. But what if he is moved to the extreme? Were he to experience the same level of emotion as his client, he himself would become the patient. The room would be occupied by two people equally anguished, both needing support and relief with no one available to give it.

Someone must possess a therapeutic (but not unfeeling) distance from the suffering. The therapist must.

My own challenge with public vulnerability came in toasting my first child’s marriage. Tears interfere with an adoring parent’s speech at many such events. A guest’s attention is then drawn to the speaker’s unraveling, however sympathetic or touching, not his words about the newly married couple. I wanted the assembly to know what I had to say about my daughter and son-in-law, the better to appreciate them. The language, properly spoken, would externalize the internal, convey emotion, and move the audience.

The problem was, in practicing I could not get through the speech. Time after time I tried, time after time I failed, overwhelmed. Were I to tell you the number of rehearsals I attempted, starting months in advance, I suspect you would not believe me.

The day came — the moment came — and I still had not a single run-through without the internal tidal wave overwhelming my words. Once on stage, however, — finally, finally — the elusive control arrived and the toast went well. I was not as emotionally “present” as I could have been, but the cost of unconsciously distancing myself from my sentiments was the price for moving the audience by words and delivery, not becoming overwrought and a bit incoherent.

Why am I reminded of all this? I just completed a course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School in which our instructor, near the class’s end, discovered her voice cracking with emotion. Sometimes this happens in intimate conversation, frequently in counseling, but not so often at the U of C, and not from this confident and expert guide to literature. She said (to someone else) after the session, she “didn’t know where that came from.”

But, you know what? It capped a great class discussion of a moving novel with a flourish. Sometimes one needs to go with the flow, even if the flow is both figurative and literal.


The painting at the top of the page is called Tightrope Walker by Jean-Louis Forain(1885). The next image is Australian Artistic Gymnast, Lauren Mitchell at the 41st World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in London, UK, October 14, 2009. The photo was taken by Steven Rasmussen, Explorerdk. The following picture is Gymnast Feet on Beam, January 19, 2008, by Raphael Goetter. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes Tightrope Walker by August Macke (1914), sourced from

17 thoughts on “How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

  1. I am so envious that you can take those U of C classes. I miss them greatly! I’d love the emotion too…


  2. Thank you for stating so eloquently the therapist’s role in caring but remaining at arm’s length. I have worried that I care too much at times, because I’m moved by my patients’ traumas. The validation is appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not at all. I also was touched, sometimes to the point of a tear. As I’m sure you know, it is an honor to be the recipient of such heartbreaking intimacies. Quite a career and, for some, a calling.


      • I hope you don’t mind me asking this as I’ve thought a lot about your comment & what it means. Why do you feel it’s an honour to hear someone’s heartbreaking intimate disclosure? When I eventually told my past story, I thought my counsellor would ‘throw up’. I can’t comprehend him feeling honoured!


      • First, Joanna, you are privileged to hear something perhaps no one else has heard. It comes at a great personal cost and great risk. And they are relying on your kindness and competence to help them beyond the intimacy, the injury, and into the light. Whatever pain the therapist encounters in receiving the heartbreaking package to hold, it costs him much less than the offer of it. Indeed, in this way, it is a bit like someone offering you their love.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.”
    ~ My takeaway from your post is most unexpected. I’ve recently lost a dear friend who loved classical music and the opera. “Abschied” (Farewell) seems such a perfect farewell to her that I’ve added it to my post (to be published tomorrow). Thank you, Doctor.


  4. As I shared on your site, Rosaliene, my condolences. If you come to love some of the music she loved because of her death, that would be a moving irony.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate some of the more popular classical pieces. Her favorite operas are too melancholy for me.


      • Mahler is no lightweight, but usually he takes you from a dark place to something more hopeful. If you can stand less than 10 minutes of darkness, however, you might try “Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” (I am Lost to the World). It is best heard with orchestral accompaniment of the female singer.


  5. I think whether we ‘show’ actual tears or not, our patients can feel the experience of our empathy-by how we sit, truly engage, and by how we listen, and indeed how we breathe. Holding the space is critical. That said, a firm framing is not a wet one-I am a classic-which means, that I maintain that our use of coutertransference must be carefully deployed, if used at all within an actual session. Certainly not open for use until we have figured it out in our own work-within ourselves. In what I would consider ‘good’ treatment, the therapist best hold their tears for their own use later (in their own therapy)-and truly work out and through what their sadness is related to (aside, but often connected to the client’s issue/s) -and how -it specifically is intertwining with their patients’ issues and within the relationship btwn client and therapists itself. Holding someone means we are completely present, and bookend, and how we file our own emotional reactions for an appropriate place…no matter how sad our patients’ situations make us feel, is critical. This is the deepest part of the work-our own therapy. Therapists often take classes (yay for you Dr Stein), but how many are in analysis for their own issues-often distinctly related to the life events of their clients?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr. Harvey Friedson

      Interesting exchange of ideas. I think Freud’s genius even today (especially today) is very much undervalued. That said, psychoanalysis has never been an exact science and responses can not always be predictive. Therapists must always try to understand and manage carefully their feelings and responses. Expression of feeling can be risky. There may be times, however, when a therapist’s authentic expression of emotion can move forward and enrich the therapeutic encounter.


      • Thanks, Harvey, for your insightful and thoughtful consideration of this question, based, I know, on long experience.


  6. I would agree with most of what you say, with this hesitation. Perhaps, too, I have misunderstood you just a bit, Joanne. In any case, I do not assume that every reaction by the therapist is a matter of countertransference. If a therapist is, with some frequency, tearing up, getting angry, or closing down emotionally, then indeed he needs to take a close look at this as you have suggested. The anger, whenever it occurs, surely requires serious attention. But if said therapist does, from time to time, find his eyes becoming momentarily moist, it may mean he is simply human. I am not talking about breaking down, but rather being touched. This may not be a classical approach such as that which follows from the psychoanalytic model, of course. Therapists issues do need work, for sure. How one defines the behavior that betrays those issues is itself an issue of importance. We may differ on the definition question, but your thoughts are much appreciated and should be read carefully by those who are concerned about their therapist’s reactions to them in session.


  7. I was really moved by this post, Dr. G. Now I’m inspired to try listening to Mahler’s magnum opus. I must say, given my experience, I would welcome a moist eye from my therapist, but yes, a breakdown would be startling. I agree with Joanne, one can tell when the therapist empathizes and is present for our pain. How fortunately your patients had someone like you.


  8. Thank you, Evelyn. As great as “Das Lied von der Erde” is, it is not an easy piece to get inside of, in part because the musical language can be challenging for some. I don’t mean to discourage you from giving it a try, but if you don’t find it accessible, you might begin with a song Mahler wrote: “Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” (“I am Lost to the World”), as I mentioned to Rosaliene. Most people begin their Mahler journey with his first or second symphonies. Mahler often travels, in his symphonic works at least, from darkness to light. The same conductor/disciple I mentioned, Bruno Walter, was asked as an old man what was the difference between Bruckner and Mahler, two late romantic composers who wrote large and long symphonies. Bruckner was a Catholic and Mahler a Jew who nominally converted to Catholicism, the state religion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he lived, in order to receive the appointment to the Royal Court as the Director of the Vienna State Opera. In any case, Walter’s answer was that Bruckner had already found God and each symphony was in praise of God, while Mahler was always, in each of his symphonies, searching for God. Good luck as you approach the music of this great composer.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s