Pura Vida

Life in full circle

What I Want in Professional Relationships

There is a blurry line between professional and personal relationships.

Sabina Spielrein

Freud and Jung's best known patient

Much has been written and debated about professionalism and professional boundaries, especially in psychiatry and psychology. It’s an old debate, with many morphs and changes. Laws have been written, and medical ethics boards routinely deal with “boundary violations” in medical practice. There have been extremes, reactions to the extremes, and variations. For example, Freud saw his patients at his home, smoking a cigar, with his dog at his side. He analyzed his daughter Anna Freud. This would never be allowed today! Jung and Freud both saw the brilliant young woman, Sabina Spielrien, first as a patient and then as a colleague. It is rumored that she was Jung’s lover, and longed to be the birthmother to the uber psychiatrist, with Jung as the father and Freud as her intellectual mentor. I first read about Spielrien in A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud by Aldo Carotenuto, 1982. There was a movie about this situation, David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method. By today’s standard’s, Jung’s behavior had many boundary violations and was unethical. However this brilliant woman’s career was damaged most not by her psychiatric mentors but by a shot in the head by Hitler’s troops on July 27, 1942, because she was Jewish. 

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In the heyday of early psychoanalysis, Anna Freud’s clinic had 2 staircases, one for her child patients and one for their parents. She never wanted to meet the parents. It might “dilute the transference.” 

At any rate, today I want to talk not about psychiatric professionalism, but ordinary professionalism. What do I want or need in a professional relationship with ordinary people? Not doctors or mental health professionals, where a different degree of privacy is warranted. What do I need in a professional relationship with people like realtors, editors, hairdressers, mechanics, travel agents, or my handyman? Do other people want the same?

Let me give some positive examples:

Our plumber, Guy, is one of the nicest people I know. He has been helping us with our complicated farm and house since 1987. Guy maintains our precarious well. He got us our hot tub, which happens to have been the hot tub owned by his famous cousin, Captain Morgan, of Captain Morgan’s Rum. He is friendly, honest, and quick to respond, even in the middle of deep snow or dark night. His prices are not low, but they are fair. We have spent many an afternoon talking with Guy, so we know his wife and his cousin, and he knows our whole family. He is friendly, gregarious, cheerful, helpful, extremely knowledgeable, reliable, and honest. It is a good professional relationship with very friendly overtones.

Our architect and the person who always remodels the house, a work in progress, is Peter. We have known him since about 1983. Peter remodeled our old house, and then our new one, and did the designs for our casita. He removed asbestos, raised the roof, enlarged the house, combined 2 bedrooms into one, and more. Peter comes every year for blueberries and trades us home brew and pie. We know his wife, and have visited them often. Again, Peter is not cheap. We pay a hefty price for his services, but he is utterly honest, open, reliable, friendly, and competent.

Our old dentist is now retired, but he did teeth for Judith, David, and our 2 children. We knew him well, over 20 years, and miss him. We never visited his home and he never visited us, but he knew our family and all its ins and outs. He was friendly, open, reliable, personable, honest, and competent. None of our kids have a single cavity. He responded quickly in emergencies, and could do a root canal in an afternoon. We always knew we could call him, on a weekend or holiday, and he would help us out.

We have had the same accountant since 1980. We know his family and he knows ours. He respects us and helps us, and has advised us for many years, as we have all gone gray. He is efficient, quick, on top of his game, and expensive, but he is also friendly, readily available, affable and clearly we all like one another.

Our lawyer in the US is somebody we don’t see too often now, but he prepared our wills and helped us over the years, since 1982. We also gave him a parrot. He had parrots, and when we had an Amazon that was clearly too loud for our children’s sanity, he came to our home and took the bird. We have had coffee, as well as meetings in his office. He often asks us professional questions and for references, and we ask him professional questions without fees either way. When there is a document to do, it is costly. In other words, he is friendly, respectful, funny, cheerful, helpful, open, honest, also happens to be the major expert in his field.

Here are two recent examples of “nice” recent professional relationships: I consulted for a fee about an online course and website. I put in many hours on the project. The director and I spend literally hours on Skype, talking and sharing and arguing at times and negotiating and in general having a wonderful intellectual give and take. I never met the man in person, but I could feel his warmth, respect, and care. I think he could tell that I went way over the top to fulfill his needs, and he can tell I like and respect him. He pings me pretty often to discuss anything from Confucian theory to Bhutan. Now it is for free, just because we have become friends. If I become more involved in his course, it will not be free, but we can have a dual relationship as colleagues and possibly teachers.

A second example is the letter I just received requesting that David and I write a chapter for a book. I don’t know the people at all, never met them, but they are warm, full of praise for our work, and their request is reasonable and friendly.

In these healthy relationships, the boundary between “professional” and personal is not the thick bright line that is demanded of a psychotherapist. In fact, it is quite different. The tone is warm, friendly, and respectful. In most cases, we are friends as well as clients. We pay for services, or we receive payments, but then chat in general. There is no doubt that respect is a two way street, completely mutual. We greet our helpers with pleasure, and they show us kindness, respect, friendliness, and insight, as well as providing services. We provide services, and receive payments, but we also enjoy our working relationships and the interchange of ideas and communications.

What I want, need, and demand in good “professional” relationships is openness, honesty, transparency, respect, caring, cooperation, friendliness, and compassion. Competence. Quality. Reliability. Mutual Trust. I don’t really care if the guy who pumps gas has a scowl, but even a waitress should be friendly, helpful, and engaged. Professionalism is not an excuse for silence, rudeness, hollow expressions, false smiles, or lies. Professionalism should entail good cooperation, and we have written extensively about cooperation and its alternatives (defections) in our books, especially The Myth of Monogamy, Payback!, and The Survival Game. I don't want to be a "sucker", as a victim is called in game theory. I want to be involved in win-win non-zero sum games with good cooperators, and that entails the positive qualities listed here. 

 

 

 

Judith Eve Lipton, M.D. is a psychiatrist and book author. She and her husband David Barash have written about sex, war, and human nature.

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