Where therapy and parties collide, aka what happened to my social tact?
January 20, 2013 10:27 AM   Subscribe

I ran into someone at a party that I'd previously met briefly in a clinical setting (in a position of authority), but I lacked the social tact to refrain from mentioning this. Is there anything I could have done to right the situation?

I’m a newly out queer person, a natural introvert, and slightly-to-moderately socially awkward, depending on the situation. The other day, I attended a mixer/dance party for queer women/female-bodied people in my city, and I think I committed a major social faux pas. I’ve also historically been extremely hard on myself, so I’m taking that into consideration as I write this; however, it was one of those situations that just never should have happened, and I feel like a total schmuck.

Back in November, I was struggling with suicidal feelings related partly to gender and sexuality stuff, and my private therapist at the time recommended I be let in to a local clinical program for queer people. I stayed for just a couple of days, as I realized that the program was centered more on other issues and so wasn’t quite what I needed. I've been feeling much better these days and have been making efforts to get out and make friends, since I'd been pretty isolated before.

I came by myself to the mixer not knowing many people, being new to the local queer community. After I’d already had a couple of drinks (low alcohol tolerance, so was pretty buzzed by this point) a friendly person came over and started to introduce me to some other people—one of whom I immediately recognized as one of the counselors at the clinical program I'd attended several months back. Normally, I would have kept my mouth shut. But whether it was a combination of lack of tact, social anxiety/awkwardness, or slight drunkenness on my part, I basically told this person that I recognized them (“Oh, hi! I recognize you from [center]", etc.) and that I had briefly attended the program. When I realized they seemed uncomfortable, I immediately understood where I was wrong and decided to move on. I tried my best to stay out of their way for the rest of the night and convinced myself that things would be okay and that I deserved to have a nice evening. I wish that I could have gone up to them and apologized for my utter cluelessness, but it seemed like one of those situations where anything I could have said/done would have made things much worse.

I thought a lot about why I'd said what I said (aside from the aforementioned factors), and I tried to rationalize it by thinking that, when I saw a familiar face, I instantly thought, well, hey, I'm not as alone in this city as I thought! And I remember thinking that this person was smart and seemed cool. I just didn't take the time to think about the implications of my introducing myself to this person. Oh, and lastly, I should mention that though this was a mixer, I intended to approach this person in a platonic fashion only, just in case that might have any bearing on responses.

Was there anything I could have/should have done differently in this situation? I’ve never encountered anyone I’ve known as counselors or therapists outside of therapy, especially not at a mixer, so input from resident MeFi therapists or counselors would also be appreciated. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've always thought it was up to the patient/client to say "hi" or not to therapists in the real world.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2013 [25 favorites]

Hmm. Is it confidential that she works as a counselor there?
posted by salvia at 10:40 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you're making this a bigger deal than it is, and maybe misreading their reaction (?). You didn't out another client/patient - you talked to a counselor, and you had been the patient, and that's generally okay.

I used to run into my therapist a fair amount - she shopped at the bookstore I worked in. She let me make the first approach the first couple of times, but we always just said hi howareya and went about our business.
posted by rtha at 10:41 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Part of becoming a therapist is to realize that stuff like this will happen. In fact, in lots of situations, the therapist will ask you how you would like to handle it if you meet them in public - do you want to pretend you don't know them? Say hello and move on? Chit-chat?

Therapeutic relationships are weird! They can be very caring but they're not friendships, family or romantic stuff...and it's hard to think that stuff through.

You didn't do anything wrong and you don't need to do anything. Even if your therapist seemed uncomfortable, your therapist has been prepared by career stuff to handle these things - probably isn't even the first time it happened!

Also, your therapist is a human being - if you met in shitty circumstances but you're the type of people who might otherwise have met socially, that crosses some wires for the therapist too, just as it does for you! If the therapist was wrong-footed, it was probably because while treating you they were like "this is sort of intense, treating someone who is probably part of my queer community".

But also, queer communities are sort of small, even in big places! One of my good friends works out of my therapist's office in a non-therapeutic capacity; several people I know slightly from activist stuff go to my therapist's practice; and I have some other social connections there. I expect that I will inevitably run into my therapist socially at some point - our scene is too small for this not to happen. It will be a little bit weird! But that's okay.

Another aspect of this: a brief therapeutic encounter with someone is not the same as an ongoing therapeutic relationship - you probably can't be best buds right now, maybe never, but seriously, if we could never negotiate friendships with people we'd met under weird circumstances, who among us would have friends? Queer communities are small, lots of queer folks have some intense stuff in their personal histories, lots of queer folks work in therapeutic roles, social services, community organizations....Also, consider this: as you get to know people, you'll be part of this big, weird alternative-kinship web where people know each other from hook-ups, dating, weird social arrangements....and are still friends. That's how we roll.

Don't worry about it. Concentrate on getting your mind off it , in fact. You're doing fine.
posted by Frowner at 10:41 AM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

My mom's a therapist, and occasionally we'd run into her patients out in the world, and it was always slightly awkward, but it was not anyone's faux pas - it's just awkward to have conversations with people in mixed company when most of what you know about them is bound by confidentiality. Unless it's also confidential that she works/volunteers there, you did nothing wrong, this is just an inherently awkward situation. No harm, no foul.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:43 AM on January 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I agree that you didn't do anything wrong - it's fine for the patient/client to acknowledge the therapist/counselor. It's the therapist who should not acknowledge the client first in public.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:45 AM on January 20, 2013 [27 favorites]

Don't beat yourself up over this -- sure, it was awkward, but I probably would have blurted out the same thing!

The reason the other person was uncomfortable was probably mostly because *your* information is confidential. If you say "Oh hi! I know you from Counseling Center!", there's really nothing they can easily say in response, since your medical information is protected. For example, if you knew them from, say, a book club, you'd have said "Oh hi, I know you from book club!" and they could say "oh yes, book club! to which I can confirm you belong without breaking any rules!" However, in your situation, they really aren't able to say "oh yes, counselling! where you used to be a patient in program X! "

So, like others have said, it's just an inherently awkward situation.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:48 AM on January 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was out at a mall a few years ago and saw my (former) psychiatrist with his family. I said "hey, Dr. X*!" He smiled a bit awkwardly and kept walking. I wondered why he didn't say "hello" or anything like that, then I remembered the whole confidentiality thing and didn't really give it a second thought.

*Not his real name, though that would be awesome
posted by Lucinda at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

They're the therapist and you're the patient? You didn't do anything wrong. I mean, it's not like they're in the CIA but tell everyone they work in "a minor government position." My guess is that any discomfort you saw was because they weren't sure if you meant to out yourself as a participant in the program. Also there's not really a natural conversational place they can go from your remark. If they ask you how you're doing then they're potentially airing your business in front of strangers. But just you saying you recognize them from their job? I don't think that's any more awkward than if I ran into my gastroenterologist somewhere and said where I knew him from. It would be wrong for him to out me as a patient, but if I'm outing myself then no harm no foul.
posted by MsMolly at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could have apologized after you made them feel uncomfortable.

You've wrapped the action pertinent to your question inside layers and layers of excuses for yourself. To the outsider, it looks like this:
1. New to this!
2. Hard on myself!
3. Feel bad!
4. Months ago!
5. Therapist recommendation!
6. Already left the program!
7. Counselor!
8. By myself, and I'm totally new!
9. Drunk and socially awkward!
10. Oops. I said something that made them feel bad.
11. Surely, apologizing would have made them feel worse?

12. Thought about it and rationalized!
13. I deserve nice evenings!
14. Would've said hello anyway!

To me, the bottom line is she looked uncomfortable after you said what you said. Therefore, you apologize for saying what you said that made her feel uncomfortable. Acknowledging where you went wrong, where you made someone else feel bad, and saying you're sorry for making someone else feel bad is never wrong.
posted by Houstonian at 10:51 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure she was more concerned about acknowledging your participation publicly and making you uncomfortable as a result. Likely she was attempting to protect your privacy. I'm a self-flagellator over social interactions too, so I know the urge to beat yourself up, but in this instance there is no need.
posted by cecic at 10:57 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You did nothing wrong. For confidentiality reasons, the patient should initiate any mention of the clinical relationship. It's a HIPAA violation for any medical professional to mention the clinical relationship without explicit patient permission to do so outside of direct care and/or specific legal situations.
posted by quince at 11:04 AM on January 20, 2013

Something you might want to consider is re-adjusting your social expectations -- specifically, that saying something to somebody that makes them possibly* 'seem uncomfortable' is not a MAJOR social faux pas. At most, taking the situation as you read it, coming from you it was minor, and only then because you maybe put her in a position where she didn't know how to react. But by the time you get to that point, you're almost in a meta-version of the rules of polite society that it's not something you should concern yourself with at a casual social mixer and not, say, a State Dinner or royal reception.

* Also, there are other reasons why she might have seemed uncomfortable. Remember that counselors, especially in social situations, are human too. You said you only went there a couple times; maybe she didn't remember you and felt bad. Or maybe she did remember you and was trying to cover her reaction so it didn't read "Oh yeah, you, why'd you quit coming to my group? What was I doing wrong" I'm not saying this to give you even more complexes because I used to be very, very hard on myself in similar ways so I really want to help, but one of the ways I got over it and out of my own head was realizing that unless I knew somebody really well, I had no idea on how my actions were affecting them, so it was best not to obsess unless I got a really clear reading that I had done an actual thing for which I should apologize. Spending energy on and over-apologizing is damaging is exhausting for everyone.

(And if it makes you feel any better, I have a male queer friend to whom this similar thing happened -- bumping into a counselor from a group therapy session. But it was at a sex party and my friend was naked (and probably high) at the time. So, yeah, within smaller communities, especially queer ones, awkward shit happens. Best to grin and bear it and move on.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:27 AM on January 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah, I've got a bunch of therapists in my family (mostly psychologists, also in California, with a MFT thrown in for good measure) and here is the accepted protocol:

The therapist follows the patient's lead. If the patient ignores the therapist, the therapist does nothing to indicate they are acquainted. If the patient is introduced to the therapist, and pretends this is their first time meeting each other, the therapist does the same.

Conversely, if the patient approaches the therapist, the therapist warmly acknowledges them, generally takes a step away from the group to greet them, doesn't talk about ANYTHING work-related (e.g. "See you next Thursday!" or "I've got an opening at 7:30!"), and typically keeps the interaction to <2>
You did nothing wrong, this appears to be widely accepted professional protocol. If she was awkward, that's her problem - and hey, it probably wasn't about you. She was probably having gas/worried about the run in her stockings/wondering if she was coming down with something/concerned about whether she left the stove on. Don't be so hard on yourself. You're doing a good job at being you. Hugs.
posted by arnicae at 11:42 AM on January 20, 2013

At my first real job I once greeted a client in public smilingly when I shouldn't have. Once I made the mistake it was best to not mention the connection, but to continue to politely talk the way unfamiliar people might, and to give them an out to end the conversation early if they wanted, which they basically did. Everything was fine since.
posted by michaelh at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2013

Even if it *was* a faux pas to her, it seems pretty minor. Perhaps she is a young therapist and awkward herself and hasn't been in precisely this situation before. Or maybe she was having a wild night of flirting and drinking and felt uncomfortable at being observed by someone for whom she was an authority figure. Or maybe she had a bad burrito and just wanted to run to the ladies room. Or maybe she's terrible with names and faces and didn't recognize you at first.

Sometimes I get pretty anxious when I think I've made someone else uncomfortable (beyond the normal level of "oops, I apologize" and more towards "OMG they HATE ME I am BAD) but usually if I give it a few days I feel more able to let it go. If I'm correct in thinking that you may have a similar personality bent, then just try to distract yourself for a while and come back to it when you are calmer.
posted by bunderful at 12:07 PM on January 20, 2013

If her participation there, or "everyone's" participation there, is supposed to be confidential, then yeah, maybe it would've been good to have sent her an email apologizing. For instance, if counselors there are volunteers who must have graduated from the program, then maybe you aren't supposed to say something out in the world.

But if you can't remember any specific guidance that everyone there should have their participation remain confidential, then she was probably awkward because of something else.
posted by salvia at 12:18 PM on January 20, 2013

I'm sure it was fine. It's more likely that she just felt awkward because she didn't remember you, hasn't run into former clients very often before, was caught off guard, felt embarrassed because she was drinking too and generally doing not-professionally-oriented activities but then her professional life overlapped it for a sec and she felt weird (um, I can tell you this is pretty awkward, to be a little drunk and on a date or something, and run into a client--or, so much worse, a kid client's parent).

You didn't do anything wrong. I'd like to highlight that your thinking about her response is mostly just stuff coming from how you judged her expression, etc.--but it's only that. She didn't tell you "OMG YOU'RE BEING SO INAPPROPRIATE" or tell you that you made her uncomfortable, and it may not be at all accurate to say that she felt that way, since you don't actually know. I wouldn't worry about it any more, but I would caution you that this is a classic example of something to keep an eye on if it's a regular occurrence, because your assumptions about other people's feelings can be keeping you from being as happy and social as you might like to be, and maybe it's something to look at a bit more. :)
posted by so_gracefully at 12:59 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a Case Manager for people living with HIV. I see my clients fairly regularly at social events in the LGBT community. I would never approach a client or speak first to a client, but when a client initiates a conversation, that's great. I have had the exact situation you describe happen to me. A mutual friend will begin to introduce me to a client. The client then announces, I know hworth, he's my case manager. It always feels a little awkward, because it was the mutual friend, not the client who initiated the interaction, but it is clearly fine with me if the client is comfortable disclosing the relationship. I have also had the interaction when a mutual friend introduces me to a client and we both say "Nice to meet you." Both scenarios are fine with me.

I don't think you did anything wrong.
posted by hworth at 4:01 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
Thanks, folks, for your responses--I appreciate the reality check tremendously. I just want to address Houstonian's comment. I hear what you're saying, but believe me, I'm not trying to cover up for my actions by creating a litany of excuses for myself--I doubt I'd still be obsessing about it 24 hours later if I wasn't thinking about how I should have handled myself better. Unfortunately, I felt that, in this particular situation, there was a tiny window where I could have apologized, and I missed it. Maybe that's not true, but that's how I felt at the time. Hopefully as I get a little bit more experience with people, I'll be able to make more informed assessments in the future.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:17 PM on January 20, 2013

Hi OP. I thought I'd hop back in because I notice that you responded to the one comment in all the list that was accusatory towards you, the one comment which suggests that you are lying to yourself, making excuses, etc etc, and should have apologized. I wasn't going to say this earlier because I felt it was a bit chatty, but:

Look, you are not responsible for hyper-monitoring just in case you accidentally cause someone a tiny flicker of discomfort. If you're already really hard on yourself about this stuff, in fact, it's probably better for you to practice a certain blithe disregard for the feelings of others - oh, not in situations where it matters, just in little tiny interactions on the level of "I took the last cheesy twist and Lisa looked like she wanted it".

Your therapist might possibly have felt a moment's discomfort at a party because you said something that was not Oscar Wilde-level suave. Big honkin' deal. Your therapist is almost certainly a capable and resilient person, and your therapist is responsible for managing her own feelings. You are not your therapist's emotional caretaker, and if your therapist is so fragile that simply hearing that she was recognized by a former client kills her party buzz, that is her problem. (I very much doubt, however, that this is the case.)

We who are hyper-vigilant about hurting other people's feelings in even the tiniest and most accidental degree need to dial that right back. It's part of an elevated sense of responsibility that is unrealistic, draining, silly, impossible. We can't be constantly hyper-aware of our own speech and affect out of anxiety about others' wellbeing - that's a heavy load of worry that we shouldn't be carrying.

There absolutely are situations where we need to be careful about what we say in order to avoid causing pain - any kind of Big Painful Topic (race, inequality, health, ability), of course, and anything where we know the person is liable to be hurt if we bring it up (like if you know your friend is upset about being super-broke and unemployed, you don't bring up work stuff or the new book you just bought in front of her, even though those are neutral topics with most people). That is really true. But getting all twisted up because we were not perfectly flawless accomodators of others - that's a bad scene.

Were you, by chance, socialized female? What in your life makes you so fearful of doing the wrong thing or causing discomfort?

What I'm saying is this: if you cause someone a moment of discomfort at a party in the future through accidentally saying something, ask yourself "what harm did I do to them?" And "just how much discomfort did I cause them?" And "what is my position in relation to them?" If the answer is "just a moment of awkwardness!" and "not that much" and "social equal" or "distant acquaintance"...force yourself to stop thinking about it. Don't even worry about avoiding them all evening. They are responsible for their feelings, and in general if you've accidentally said something trivially awkward, they won't need to avoid you for the very shame or whatever.

And I add that if you are in a room full of queer folks, I absolutely guarantee you that a huge percentage of the people there have been through some sort of therapy, wish they could afford therapy and are familiar with its nature, have either been through a suicidal crisis or are close with someone who has been....or else are therapists! It's sad, I guess, that even in the early 21st century, many GLBTQ folks need therapeutic interventions, but I also feel like the advantage is that many people are more able to be real about stuff and have more language to talk about feelings. Or at least that has been my experience over some years of moving from a majority-straight social circle to a parallel but majority GLBTQ one.

Also, don't let people convince you that "explaining my thought process about how this situation went down" is the same as "making feeble excuses for bad behavior".
posted by Frowner at 7:01 PM on January 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

I am a psychotherapist, and let me say I feel the most uncomfortable when clients approach me when I've had a drink or two myself either at a bar or party. This happened more frequently when I was working at a university counseling center. It sounds like that may have been the case given the type of event it was. The worry is that I may accidentally say something remiss re: confidentiality, professionalism, etc, because I'm not totally in control of my own faculties. I imagine that was probably the source of the counselor's discomfort, and your reference to seeing her in the program was probably secondary. Basically no worries, it happens all the time, but can definitely be a tad awkward.
posted by amileighs at 8:04 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You did nothing wrong. It is fine to say she was a therapist in your program. Who knows why she looked uncomfortable? It may have had nothing to do with you. Maybe her stomach hurt, or maybe like amileighs suggests she was a little drunk and confused about how to socially navigate around a client. But what you did was fine, and you'd do well to relax about it.
posted by feets at 1:08 AM on January 22, 2013

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