Sunday, February 19, 2017
Should therapist share personal views with clients?
Shortly after the U.S. presidential election, L.L., a psychotherapist who practices family therapy, writes that she had an unusual experience. While she was used to her clients talking with her about any number of issues, it was rare for them to talk politics.
Two different clients, each with strong feelings about the election, started their sessions by expressing their strong feelings about the election's outcome. Each had different reasons for how they felt, L.L. writes, but each went on for quite a bit of time into their respective sessions, before pausing, looking up at L.L.
"Pretty much identical statements followed," writes L.L., indicating that each said a variation of, "Oops, I'm assuming you feel the same."
Neither client was seeking L.L.'s advice on some therapeutic issues. But, she writes that "both had started talking as though they knew I supported the same candidate they did."
"What if I didn't?" asks L.L. "Should I have told them?"
I am not a psychotherapist. I do not meet with clients each day. But it's fair to observe that the reason clients seek out L.L.'s services is to help them deal with issues they bring to each session, whether these have to do with family, work, or anything else resulting in their need to seek her out. If a client sought out L.L.'s advice on how to sort out conflicting feelings they have about making election decisions, it seems her job would be to help them sort these feelings out, not to tell them who to vote for.
L.L. also makes clear that she sets boundaries with her clients. While she works hard to let them know she is genuinely concerned about them and their mental health, she also works hard not to bring her personal life into the relationship. Her job, she writes, is to work with her clients on their issues, not to burden them with hers.
But here, L.L. found herself in an atypical situation where two of her clients had a strong emotional response to an issue that they expressed to her and then paused when they realized that they might be ranting against a person L.L. supported. So, when the expressed their assumption that L.L. might share their visceral response, should she have told them she voted the same or different from how they did?
That each of the patients paused out of concern that they might be offending L.L. by making an assumption suggests that they likely built a strong bond with her. They feel comfortable speaking with her, but also are concerned about making false assumptions about her seeing the world the same as they do.
Obviously, L.L. shouldn't lie to her clients about which candidate she voted for, but she has no obligation to tell them, unless, for some reason that escapes me (again, not a psychotherapist myself), she believes there is a therapeutic value in doing so.
Instead, the right thing is for L.L. to do as she has always done with her clients and either encourage them to keep talking or to try to direct them to talk about other issues that are relevant to their care. In response, to their "oops" comment, L.L. would simply had to respond "That's OK," and then move on with the discussion that focused on them and their needs.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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