Is It OK to Dig Into Your Therapist's History?
Are you breaking a therapy rule if you do?
Posted March 31, 2018
It’s a notorious cat killer. It’s also a natural, healthy human drive. Which prevails where therapy is concerned?
I won't be talking about pathological stalking here, the kind of thing that has been documented in criminal cases like this and this. I’m talking primarily about the Googling that curious clients (read: every client) do when they want to know more about the person with whom they’re sharing their deepest, darkest secrets. The line between the two may become blurry, but for the sake of this post, let’s say I’m just talking to the people who want to do some online searches to learn more about their therapist’s life outside of therapy, not those who want to get all Annie Wilkes on them.
Caveat aside, clients want to know about their therapists, and therapists generally don’t share much. How do we navigate this? I reach into my trusty, dusty mailbag to retrieve a disguised and distorted letter from an unidentifiable and possibly fictional reader:
“I've been going to a great therapist for about four months now. I became very curious about her not long after starting therapy, and what does a modern guy lacking in self-control do but turn to social media ‘research’?
It turns out we have some mutual friends, and I found myself looking at her profile often — not necessarily to find out anything about her, but somehow to ‘relate’ to or connect with her. It's not a romantic thing at all. Maybe it's the envy of her family or just curiosity? I'm not sure, but I feel like a creep for doing it and can't stop.
Is there a way to work through this that doesn't involve bringing it up in therapy? I'm pretty ashamed/embarrassed about it and don't want her to be creeped out. But I also don't want to continue doing it and not know where it's coming from. Any recommendations for how I can deal with this?”
And there we have it. Curiosity about the therapist. Access to information that feeds the curiosity. Guilt about learning information. The desire to alleviate the guilt without communication. It happens all the time.
Let’s back up. What is wrong with knowing more about your therapist? You’re trusting your mental health treatment to her, after all, so of course you’d want to know more about her. You spend hours sharing intimate stories of your life; why not know who you’re spilling to? And hey, if the information is out there, why not access it?
There’s a common belief out there that knowing about your therapist is taboo, and therefore your curiosity is something to be ashamed of. You divulge while your therapist withholds, and that’s how therapy rolls. You're supposed to bury your curiosity and never speak of it in order to become the "World’s Best Therapy Client." But is this true?
Traditionally, therapists have kept their personal information to themselves for three reasons:
1. The blank slate — The early psychoanalytic theory proposed that a therapist who is a “blank slate” may pull for transference, meaning the client would unconsciously merge the therapist with an early caregiver with whom they had some conflict, which becomes a problem that therapy can resolve. Dad withheld his love, which hurt, so now I see the therapist withholding, which becomes our problem to work through. The therapist’s distance pulls for this kind of transference, so it’s a helpful part of the process. Some therapists hold on to this idea, but modern thought posits that transference can happen regardless of the therapist’s distance or closeness. And let's be clear, confidentiality goes one way in this work: It's a rule intended to protect you, not them. Their digital footprint is fair game to you and the rest of the world. If they're embarrassed by old photos online from their sorority days, that's on them.
2. The business of therapy — Clients come to therapy to talk about their own issues, not to learn about the childhood and struggles of someone else. Most therapists are aware of this and want clients to get the most out of their time and money, and therefore keep the focus on the client. A little self-disclosure is helpful at times, but everyone agrees that the client’s story should take center stage.
3. Safety — I said we’re not talking about pathological stalking here, but therapists don’t know from the first session whether or not a client will attach to them in an unhealthy way, so they may want to keep their personal information confidential. If it turns out the client has a kidnapping history, and the therapist has young kids, it's probably best that they don’t offer that information up in the first session.
Therapists tend to keep their personal information personal for these reasons, and most of the time that works just fine. But sometimes clients find this awkward and uncomfortable, and the Internet provides a quick and simple way to find out more about them. Depending on the therapist, there could be minimal material to find or quite a lot.
Of course, there is the website and professional Facebook and Twitter pages, which you’re supposed to find. But what if you also find out about a British comedy career, dabbles in Canadian music festivals, a Northeastern rock climbing program, and troubling legal issues Down Under?
Is there a problem with this? Could this damage the therapy or limit the amount of help the client receives? Is an Internet search a boundary violation? As it is with many therapy related topics, the answer is maybe unsatisfying: It depends.
It could be beneficial if:
- You discover disturbing material about the therapist and are able to protect yourself from potential harm.
- You discover something that helps you feel more connected and safer, allowing you to dive deeper into your own work. You’ll probably want to mention this, though.
It could be harmful if:
- Your searches reveal something that distracts you from your own work, or the act of searching itself distracts you from your own work. You're not paying to explore someone else, but to explore yourself.
- Your searching goes beyond what would seem normal and healthy for any kind of relationship, as this could become a violation. Ask yourself: Would you want to be searched to this degree? Or a loved one?
So let’s turn our attention back to Fictional Reader and his dilemma. He’s found himself curious about his therapist and has become “obsessed” with finding out more information about her. What’s the best course of action?
As difficult as it sounds, talking about it in session is probably the best option. There's really no back door for this — you searched because you were curious, and you found some stuff. Let's talk about it. Need some help? Start with this: “You know, I’ve been very curious about you, and I’ve looked you up online. I’ve found that ___. Can we talk about this?”
You'll most likely find that your therapist is neither surprised nor defensive, but they'll probably wonder why you searched in the first place, so get ready for that question.
If this is you, I hope you don't feel too much guilt for being curious about your therapist. You are trusting them with a great deal of information and influence in your life, so it makes sense to wonder about them a bit. The fact that you're curious means you've allowed them to become an important figure, and you're doing that because you want a better life. There's no shame in that.