My current placement is located in the same town where I live. I like having a shorter commute than last year but I’m worried about seeing my clients outside of our session, when I’m on my own personal time. I think I would feel awkward and wouldn’t know what to do.
The intersection of the personal and professional life of a psychotherapist can happen at any time, but it is more likely when we live and work in the same community. It is also more common when the therapist and client are members of the same cultural community and may have shared interests, activities and acquaintances. Even when we maintain boundaries and refrain from disclosing personal information about ourselves, it is impossible to avoid all situations in which clients view aspects of our personal lives. The experience of myself and my colleagues includes seeing a client while shopping with a spouse or children, working out at the gym, going to back-to-school night, and having dinner with friends or family.
It can feel burdensome and intrusive to be faced with these situations, but it is a reality of being a professional, especially when your community is small geographically or culturally. When you see your client outside of a therapy session, you are still the therapist and your interactions should maintain the same level of professionalism. Since our preferences about the degree of separation we maintain are based in part on our cultural identities, the nature of your conversation and the strategy you use will be different based on the cultural expectations and norms for you and your clients. Discussing this with your supervisor is important, to make sure you are keeping appropriate therapeutic boundaries within the cultural or cross-cultural context of the therapy.
Generally, it is best to keep conversations in a social or public situation short and cordial without disclosing more about yourself than is disclosed by the situation. You also need to maintain confidentiality regarding your role as the client’s therapist if others are present during the conversation. This may mean asking your family members to wait for you to introduce and include them in a conversation with someone unknown to them. It is usually best to not include family members in a client conversation and it is a good idea to explain the reasons for this to them in advance, as a general issue regarding your role as a psychotherapist.
At the beginning of treatment, you can sometimes anticipate that you and the client may see each other outside of your therapy sessions. Examples are when your children attend the same school or when you and the client belong to the same religious, political or professional organization. When you recognize this possibility, it is often useful to have a conversation ahead of time with the client after discussing the issue with your supervisor. I recommend not taking initiative in greeting the client in a public setting, unless there are diagnostic or cultural issues you discuss with your supervisor that make another approach more appropriate. I generally begin this conversation with a statement like “I’m aware that we both attend the same meditation center, so it’s possible we will see each there. If that happens, I won’t acknowledge knowing you unless you approach me. I want you to do whatever is most comfortable to you at the time.” I then respond to the client’s questions or comments.
If you see a client unexpectedly, I still recommend following the client’s lead in acknowledging that you know each other. She/he may choose to simply make eye contact, may greet you with a simple hello or may start a conversation. If there are others with the client, do not make any reference to your therapist/ client relationship unless she/he does so. If the client does introduce you as her/his therapist, stay away from any discussion of the therapy itself. It is also possible she/he doesn’t notice you, which has been my experience at times and is another reason to not initiate contact.
I recommend talking with the client in the next session about any interaction you have outside the therapy. It is helpful to ask the client what it was like to see you and what thoughts and feelings came up during or after your interaction. If you saw the client but she/he didn’t acknowledge seeing you, you can preface your comment by saying “I’m not sure if you’re aware that we were both shopping at Safeway on Saturday.” You can include an explanation of your practice of waiting for the client to acknowledge knowing you, if you haven’t already discussed it.
In your discussion of the client’s reactions, be aware of what the client learned about you and how that knowledge may affect your therapeutic relationship. For example, the client may have seen your spouse, partner or children; may have seen you with a glass of wine at a restaurant; or may know what movie you saw or what purchases you made. These interactions may be relieving, distressing or meaningful in different ways depending on the client.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful in handling interactions with clients in a public or social context. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.