Three days a week, I work as a psychotherapist in a group private practice, downtown in Chicago. The other four days each week, I work as a full time, mom, wife, and friend, in addition to my many other roles. I try my best to appear professional and put together at work. Outside of work, I’m the mom of a toddler – simply brushing my hair can feel like an accomplishment and truthfully, “put together” seems far from reach most days. Many clients often insinuate that they expect therapist’s lives to be perfect or at least smooth and easy. On occasion, my professional life and my personal life collide. I think it can be quite surprising for a client to see their therapist out in the real world.
This past weekend, I was out with my family, and I ran into not one, not two, but three current and former clients of mine in the span of one morning. I have been working as a therapist for several years now, and I can count on one hand the times that I have bumped into clients outside of my office. This weekend was very unusual. Here are some tips on managing these experiences so that as a client, you can feel as comfortable as possible…
Be prepared to bump into each other
During my first session with new clients, we complete some paperwork including basic demographic information. At this time, I take down a client’s address and place of work, amongst other information. There are times when I realize that a client lives in my neighborhood, or in my friend’s building, or they work somewhere I frequent, this kind of thing. In these situations, I take the time to be up front with my client and tell them that I live in the neighborhood, or that I have a friend in their building, or that I frequent their place of work, etc. This gives me the opportunity to tell them that because I frequent the area, I may bump into them. I then ask if the client has a preference as to how we should handle an unexpected meeting. I think it is important early on to be up front about the possibility of seeing each other outside of the office, and to discuss what to do to make the client feel comfortable.
Lead by example
I often tell clients that if I do bump into them outside of my office, I will follow their lead. This means, if they smile, I will smile, if they say, “Hi” I will say, “Hi” back, and also, if they ignore me and keep on walking, I will certainly do the same. It is important for you as the client to lead by example so your therapist can follow your cues in an effort to make you feel as comfortable as possible.
Remember that your therapist is bound by confidentiality
It is worth noting that you as the client, you have the “right of way” in these situations. You can say as much or as little as your like during these outer office encounters. Therapists though, are bound by confidentiality. This means, your therapist probably won’t call you by name or introduce you to whoever they are with, should you run into each other outside of the office. Please do not feel insulted or slighted if you bump into your therapist and they are brief in their communication. Remember, your therapist is only trying to protect your confidentiality.
After an out of office siting, talk to your therapist about the experience. What was it like for you to see your therapist outside of the office? Were you comfortable with how the encounter went? What would you like to change should it happen again? It is important to follow up and discuss the encounter in order to ensure your comfort both inside and outside of the office moving forward.
I hope these tips can be helpful to you so that if/when you do run into your therapist outside of the office, you can manage the situation in a way that is comfortable for you.
Rebecca Wolf LCSW, PCGC is a psychotherapist with Urban Balance. She is passionate about strength-based and solution-focused therapy. She works diligently to build strong, trusting relationships with clients in order to allow for optimal change. Rebecca moved to Chicago in 2009 and she currently lives in Lakeview with her husband and son. You can contact Rebecca at email@example.com with any questions, feedback, or to schedule an appointment.