I know my counselor experienced a recent loss. What to do?
September 22, 2015 1:43 AM   Subscribe

I saw on social media that my therapist's mother died on Saturday. However, she has confirmed our appointment for the day after tomorrow. I am quite sad about her loss. She doesn't know I look at her social media, and it is probably not appropriate to say anything about her personal life at any rate. How do I go to session two days from now and talk about my petty problems, knowing what she is going through? Is it inappropriate for me to be very upset about this loss in my therapist's life, that I'm not supposed to know about?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I went to a therapist for a (long) while, and a few months in, during the course of our conversation, I asked her if she had children. She said "oh, I don't discuss my personal life with patients". After a while I was grateful that she'd established that boundary with me, because it meant I was completely free to say whatever I needed to say about my own life, without weighing it against what might offend her.

So with that in mind I would say that you've overstepped your therapist's boundaries, by seeking out information about her that she has not chosen to share with you. It's up to you now if you want to come clean (and I think you may need to). It sounds like you may need to seek a way to work through the feelings you now have about her personal life.
posted by vignettist at 2:01 AM on September 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

Is it inappropriate for me to be very upset about this loss in my therapist's life, that I'm not supposed to know about?

No it isn't and if you are this upset about your therapist's loss, you might benefit from some reading on projection and transference in the therapeutic setting. This is not your loss. You have no idea how your therapist feels about it.

Your therapist is an autonomous person. If she did not feel up to going to work and listening to other people's problems, she could have cancelled sessions for the next week or the next month. She didn't. Respect that and get on with it.

Additionally, if you are Facebook stalking your therapist's social media, you probably need to use this as an occasion to re-examine your mental and emotional boundaries with her, as this has crossed the line beyond "mentally healthy behaviour."
posted by DarlingBri at 2:29 AM on September 22, 2015 [21 favorites]

Wow, I couldn't disagree more with your first respondent.

The loss of a mother is huge, emotionally, and I think your therapist's choice to confirm the appointment without telling you what's going on is irresponsible. They almost certainly won't be able to be as fully present as a good therapist needs to be. And they're not even giving you a hint as to why that would be, nor giving you an informed choice to reschedule.

Boundaries are good. Pretending to be an automaton who can function at 100% after a major loss is not. There is some middle ground here. Telling clients about the loss, admitting basic vulnerable humanity, is not a violation of boundaries. It's acknowledging the humanity of the therapist and allowing the client to understand why the therapist seems different ... And reschedule if desired.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 2:30 AM on September 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

She is your therapist, not your friend. Her working life involves you; her personal life does not.

This is a good time to step away from looking up her up on social media.
posted by kariebookish at 4:08 AM on September 22, 2015 [13 favorites]

Your therapist may have personal reasons for being affected less by her parent's death than you imagine. She may be one of those people who prefer to keep busy and working while they grieve. You don't know what's going on in her head and it would be inappropriate for you to know. Trust that she has her own support network and that she is an adult capable of determining her own actions, and that she feels her best course of action is to continue with her planned work. If she felt your problems were too petty for her to listen to right now, she would have cancelled.

You're getting more involved in this than you need to be. Maybe that's something you talk about in therapy, or maybe as suggested above, this is a good chance to put healthier boundaries in place about following your therapist's social media presence. I don't know if that would always be an unhealthy thing to do but it seems clear it's unhealthy for you personally.
posted by Stacey at 4:23 AM on September 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you trust your therapist in general, trust her to know her own ability to cope with this loss appropriately. (Ex therapist, here.) If I were your therapist, I would be ok with your making a statement of condolence, and I wouldn't be surprised that you were aware of my mother's passing, but I practiced in a small town. I was out of the biz before Facebook was really a thing, so I'm honestly not sure how I would feel about how you discovered this info. I do think that I would feel it was on me to keep my account on lock-down if I were uncomfortable with clients having access to such information.

I do feel like everything is grist for the therapy mill--I would be ok with you telling me how you know, and we might discuss YOUR boundaries in that light. But it would probably make me re-think how I handle my FB account in future.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:42 AM on September 22, 2015 [7 favorites]

The benefit to telling her is that she will know that this information is publicly accessible. Many therapists now have policies stating that they do not interact with clients on social media.

I think the word "stalk" might be throwing people into thinking your boundaries are poor. But I'm assuming you mean it as it is commonly phrased to mean, looked at her public profile a time or two. Totally nbd and totally on her to adjust privacy settings if she needs to.

Regarding her grief, if she is going to work she is ok to work. Trust that.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 7:30 AM on September 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

My therapist does discuss his personal life with me to some extent when relevant to the treatment, and there was a time when he was going through a very difficult time with his son. I didn't know about it at the time, but when he told me about it later, he said that he was extremely grateful that he had had his work to focus on when things were really getting difficult with his son.

Some people deal with trouble by diving deeper into their work, and it works well for them. There's nothing wrong with that, and there's nothing irresponsible about your therapist not canceling her appointments. How she deals with her loss is her business, and if she had to cancel appointments, she would. And I agree that you really should stop looking at her profile on social media; that's the only reason this is even a problem in the first place.
posted by holborne at 7:46 AM on September 22, 2015

The thing about death is that there's not anything one can do to fix , solve, or improve it.

The nice thing about being a therapist is that one can actually help others fix, solve, or improve their situations.

She may find working to be a productive way of getting out of her own problems and focusing on something else. And as Stacey said, you (presumably) have no way of knowing how much grief your therapist is actually experiencing. Even with deaths in close relationships, people often do a lot of "pre-grieving" before expected deaths and then come to terms with the loss fairly quickly when the actual death happens.

It's also totally possible that your therapist is horrible at self-care and shouldn't be working right now, but it's not your job to predict the future or to set aside your own needs in order to take care of her. (And if "taking care of others too much" is any sort of pattern that you've been working with her on breaking, it might be very useful to mention all this to her in session.)

And as a therapist in a small town: The super-strict "Nothing about my personal life!" boundary is one that gets harder to maintain the smaller the town in which one practices, and many therapy orientations (including feminist therapy and a number of social-justice/cultural-diversity schools of thought) actively discourage a super-rigid "I am the doctor and I am a blank slate" idea because it can reinforce weird power hierarchies. I would have zero problems with a client saying, "I heard about your mother, and I'm sorry." And, as a client, I in fact said something similar to my own therapist after I learned through the grapevine that her husband had recently died.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on September 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Personally I find listening to other people's problems is a great distraction when I am going through something bad. It is better than doing nothing (time to wallow) or listening to happy things (feels like I am having my nose rubbed in it). It takes my mind off it and there is a sort of "isn't life crap" camaraderie to it. Your therapist possibly feels the same.

Also the thing with death is that however devastating it is, it is meant to happen and is indeed unavoidable, whereas the sort of problems you talk to a therapist are generally the opposite. So I don't think it is helpful to think "my problems are trivial and hers are big" because they are different kinds of problems.

Whether you say anything depends on what sort of social media it was - if it was something like Facebook which is intended for friends and family only, then definitely not (and stop looking at it, it's weird) but if it's somewhere public that she is fully aware that anyone including clients might stumble across, then a "I heard and I am sorry" at the end of your session doesn't sound inappropriate to me.
posted by intensitymultiply at 10:16 AM on September 22, 2015

Don't keep it secret that you know because the keeping secrets will make you feel more closed off and distant. Let her know that you know and expect that her response will be minimal (she doesn't you want trying to take care of her emotional needs - that it not the deal between you) but it will let you get it off your chest and may lead to a genuine and useful conversation about your relationship to each other or you may find that having acknowledged it, it is more comfortable to getting back to talking about your own problems. Either result (looking at your relationship with the therapist or talking about it for a moment and then going back to usual) is fine.

If the therapist spends more than a few minutes talking about her mother that isn't good - probably sign that the death is affecting her more professionally than she realized - in that case, chalk it up to bad day and expect to get back to working together next week.
posted by metahawk at 11:25 AM on September 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My therapist is pretty dang excellent at putting aside her personal dramas during work time. If she wasn't able to do it, she'd cancel.

If yours hasn't canceled, then for now she's feeling like she can deal with having a session. Maybe it helps her to focus on others.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:36 PM on September 22, 2015

Send an email. "While researching therapists I looked up your social media and I noticed your announcement about your mother. I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm happy to reschedule if it helps." Or, "do you mind if we reschedule? Not about you at all, but I'd be able to focus more on my work with you if I knew you'd had a bit of time to recover." Whichever fits your case.
posted by Mistress at 8:12 AM on September 23, 2015

Additionally, if you are Facebook stalking your therapist's social media, you probably need to use this as an occasion to re-examine your mental and emotional boundaries with her, as this has crossed the line beyond "mentally healthy behaviour."

I think this is really unnecessarily harsh, especially if anonymous is relatively young. Many 20-somethings and teenagers, people who grew up with or came of age with social media, look virtually everyone they meet on social media. It's not a specific, boundary crossing behaviour, or if it is, it's one shared by an entire generation.

It might not be the best idea in the world to look at your therapist's twitter or whatever, but maintaining that boundary is something the therapist should be doing (fake names, privacy settings, etc), not something that's on the patient.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:13 PM on September 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

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