Can I ask my therapist...
February 27, 2018 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Since July I've been seeing an amazing therapist whose impact in my life cannot be understated. I am pretty focused on the work in therapy in general, but, hm, I actually also really want to ask her where she gets her shirts.

Potentially relevant context:

1. Previously on askmefi: this was me.

2. I've been working with Amazing Therapist (henceforth AT) since July. The therapeutic alliance is uncanny (to me at least), partly because of very compatible styles of thinking and talking...

3. ...and I suspect it probably largely has to do with the fact that AT is a super dapper queer woman who is kind of small, who is probably around the same age as my parents. And I am a kind of small queer woman trying to dapper, and unsurprisingly I've mostly been working on various traumatic (dis)identifications with my biological parents, where my body/clothes/appearance has been a battleground.

4. so AT is the role model in a dimension of my life that has historically been absent.

All of this is to say...

I REALLY want to ask AT where she gets all her super crisp dress shirts that fit so well. I can never find shirts that fit. I've been holding back for at least a few months now I think.

I am vaguely aware that this question is more than the logistics of buying and wearing clothes. But it's also quite personal, and I don't want to violate boundaries-- what if it makes AT uncomfortable and then ditch me as a client?

I am also maybe scared of asking because the one time we talked about clothes (about my suit for a big interview)-- how nothing fits; about socks matching trousers-- I just felt really intensely attached to her, like a puppy. I simultaneously want that to happen again, and am scared of it.
But mostly I don't want to be prying or break an unspoken rule.

N.B.: Other questions I've been holding back include: how did you become a therapist? You said you write in the morning-- what kind of writing do you do? Where are you from? Do you take the subway? ... but the shirt question is the only one that's burning.

N.B. 2: In writing out this question I think I know the answer is probably that I should talk to AT about exactly all of these things. But if internet strangers wouldn't mind giving me a little boost that'd be really helpful, too. Or if indeed I should't ask, I'd love to know, too.
posted by redwaterman to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I could easily see myself being very nervous about asking these kinds of questions.

I think you should just ask them, possibly with a preface that you're feeling nervous about asking them. You'll get the answers you want and/or you'll get to have a possibly helpful conversation about why you're so nervous about asking such questions in the first place.
posted by rhooke at 6:12 AM on February 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've been in many therapeutic settings and wouldn't think twice about asking a therapist where they got a particular piece of clothing. But I think you'll find if you start to ask a LOT of personal questions (I wouldn't even consider the one about clothing personal), the therapist will draw boundaries, and will likely turn the session back to you. They're actually pretty skilled at this, as you will be no means be the first of her patients to show such an interest.
posted by ubiquity at 6:16 AM on February 27, 2018 [14 favorites]

As an LCSW just ask. And also explore why you are nervous to ask. :)

Your therapist should have good enough boundaries that if a question bothers her or is detrimental to YOUR session she won't answer.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:17 AM on February 27, 2018 [8 favorites]

Transference is a totally normal thing in therapy, and while I'm not sure which modalities your therapist uses, she's definitely had training and experience in dealing with the phenomenon, and the phenomenon may be a part of her process. 'Attached like a puppy' is a stage of feeling that a lot of clients go through with their therapists, especially those clients who didn't get to attach that way with their parents or other parent figures. Broaching the subject is really unlikely to make her uncomfortable! In fact, she may be expecting it, or noticing it herself, but waiting for you to indicate you'd like to discuss it and are ready to do so.

Depending on your comfort level, you could start by asking about the shirts, and use that as a transition into saying 'so the process of therapy can bring up some intense feelings of attachment for me.' Or you could bring up the feelings of attachment and use 'and also I'd love to know where you get your shirts!' to help you defuse any feelings of anxiety you might have after asking. It depends on your conversational style. But however you proceed, it's very unlikely that she'll be freaked out and want to end therapy with you.
posted by halation at 6:18 AM on February 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

Part of therapy is learning to think and feel through hard experiences like this, and you are paying your amazing therapist to help you with that! I think you should definitely ask the shirt question, and probably ask the other questions too, for the reasons rhooke says.

That said, I think there's a qualitative difference between "where do you buy your shirts" (which is really a query for information about a vendor that sells things you want) and "what do you write about?" "do you take the subway?" (which are questions about your therapist's personal life). I'd be extremely comfortable asking the shirt question, and not nearly as comfortable asking the more personal questions, but that's because I find it valuable to have a very professional relationship with my mental healthcare people. That's not necessarily the right answer for you, and to some extent, figuring out what you want and what's appropriate for the therapeutic relationship, with your therapist, is what you pay your therapist for!

Also want to second that they've heard it all before, they're trained to deal with it, and even if you do ask an overly personal question that crosses boundaries, they'll likely see that as an opportunity to do the therapy thing and help you grow, not an excuse to ditch you!
posted by Alterscape at 6:21 AM on February 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

My former therapist (also fantastic!) actually told me a little bit about personal questions and boundaries. I don't know if he was following some, like, national guidelines or something, but he was an awfully good therapist, so:

Basically, personal stuff was off the table - no "so where do you live" or "what kind of writing do you do". "Do you take public transit" or "where do you get your dress shirts, I have a terrible time finding ones that fit and we're sort of the same size" would be fine because those are not identifying and also unlikely to produce a run-in outside of therapy. We did, in fact, chat about the bus once or twice.

I think the idea was to avoid the opportunity for too much attachment - a patient could not be tempted to show up at the doorstep or stalk them online or otherwise extend the relationship in a way that would be counterproductive. On the one hand, I never experienced that kind of attachment, but I've talked to enough other analysands (can you say that if it's just therapy?) to know that those feelings are not uncommon, not especially sinister and still something that needs to be de-escalated if they occur. And it also kept the therapeutic relationship feeling therapeutic - delightful as my therapist was, the information/social asymmetry kept it from feeling like a friendship, which is actually good. It feels weird to be all "this person literally knows almost everything about my daily life and I don't even know if they live in the metro area, but it is what it is.
posted by Frowner at 6:26 AM on February 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

(also if you DO find out where she gets her shirts, please share because I'd love to know)
posted by halation at 6:27 AM on February 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

"I've been meaning to ask you something for a while, but I keep putting it off because although it's a straightforward question, thinking about it brings up some complicated feelings for me. So I wonder if I could ask you the question, and if you're happy to, you could answer it, and then maybe could we talk about the feelings it brings up for me?"

You can do it!

I guess she might want to find out what the feelings are before she answers the question, but if you go into it prepared for her to give any answer, you've nothing to lose, and plenty to possibly gain (sartorially and emotionally!). She's your therapist, so she's on your side, and she'll want to help you get something positive out of the exchange, even if it turns out she doesn't want to tell you where she gets her shirts.
posted by penguin pie at 6:32 AM on February 27, 2018 [14 favorites]

I feel like clothing/accessories are an allowable boundary in part because really good women's clothing is such a damn victory to find. If her answer turns out to be "oh, I buy them from X but then I get them tailored" you will have to go find your own tailor, because that's a much more identifying detail that you shouldn't ask.

I would frame the question the exact same way I would to a stranger in an elevator: "Sorry for the personal question, but can I ask where you get your shirts?" If it's truly something she's not comfortable asking, you've given her a graceful route to say no, you can't ask rather than uhhh, prefer not to state.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:34 AM on February 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

"Where did you get that (article of clothing)?" is one of the few questions it's generally okay to ask strangers - I've been on both ends of it. I think it's fine to ask that, at least.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:44 AM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

If she fired you as a client for asking about her shirts, even if you asked partly due to all sorts of (normal!) transference feelings you're having about her, she'd be a bad therapist. And you say she's an awesome therapist, so, logically, she won't fire you.

It can be suuuuuuuper helpful to talk about all those sorts of transference feelings with the therapist, assuming the therapist is skilled, and I definitely recommend clients with skilled therapists do so. And as others have said, I think it's a reasonable question even if you're not willing to delve into the transference conversation yet. If she deflects for some reason ("Oh, I find them online") then I wouldn't push it, necessarily, but I think it's a reasonable question to ask.
posted by lazuli at 6:54 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yes, ask! I have a therapist who is similarly amazing and on occasion we talk about non-therapy stuff, specifically books. It always seems to come at the very beginning or end of a session, so I'd probably go in and bring it up immediately, and i think admitting that you feel awkward about asking is a totally therapy-appropriate thing to do.

how did you become a therapist? You said you write in the morning-- what kind of writing do you do? Where are you from? Do you take the subway? ... but the shirt question is the only one that's burning.

I think these are normal things to wonder with a therapist. It's such a strange relationship, so one-sided. But it's meant to be! Mine has neatly dodged any questions about deeper personal things about his life and I wouldn't be surprised if yours does, too. But the shirt thing is really not that, not in the same way as "where are you from" and "what is your daily life like?"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:02 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just felt really intensely attached to her, like a puppy. That's transference, the crush you get on your therapist. She is a figure of authority, you trust her, this is how it works, it's fine.

Shirts? Fine. Don't make a big deal of it. I like the shirts you wear; can you tell me where you get them? Thanks.

how did you become a therapist? You said you write in the morning-- what kind of writing do you do? You can ask how she became a therapist; that's part of you asking about credentials, as a stretch, and part of you understanding the therapeutic process. You can ask about the writing as part of getting advice about tools for personal growth.

Where are you from? Do you take the subway? are probably too personal and would be declined.

posted by theora55 at 7:03 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Therapists, much like real people*, vary from one to another. My therapist (and one of the reason's he and I work well together) talk about small stuff like this. His faith, time in school, trips overseas, favorite shoes. When I step over a boundary, sometimes he'll just let me talk ~at him about it, I metaprocess about what feelings I have, why I have those feelings, and why I understand he can't say anything. It makes me feel better and then we can move on. Metaprocessing (thinking about the way you think) with my therapist is really vital to me (because i'm slightly neurotic and do it constantly in my own life and it leads me to doubt almost everything i think).

So I strongly suggest that you talk about all of this with her. Don't just ask her about where she gets her shirts, tell her about how that thought makes you nervous, why it makes you nervous, other questions you wonder about, etc. I think it could help you.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:03 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

While I was in therapy I asked my therapist, in a casual, conversational way, a question about her personal life that was very close to issues that I was discussing (think "what about you - are you married?") She shut me down quick (but in a very kind tone of voice) with "I don't discuss my personal life at all. These sessions are about you." After the fact I could see how it was a kindness, really. It allowed me to be free to say whatever I wanted to say because I wasn't worried about offending her, and I didn't have to worry about her feelings around something.

Given my experience, if I were in your shoes today I wouldn't even ask about the clothes. I agree with the advice above to talk to her about the fact that you've wanted to ask, and about your feelings around that. Just go into it without expecting her to actually give you the information.
posted by vignettist at 7:08 AM on February 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

“I LOVE that shirt! Can I ask where you got it?”
posted by bunderful at 7:34 AM on February 27, 2018

I think it's OK to ask. I also have a therapist at the moment and we occasionally chat about stuff like that, such as the facilities at the local gym we both use, something we both got at the grocery store, etc. I think asking about a shirt is pretty harmless. I'd probably ask as I was getting my coat on to leave, so it would be clear that I was asking a simple "where did you get your shirt" question as opposed to anything that might take longer.
posted by Cygnet at 7:37 AM on February 27, 2018

I don't think that's overly personal -- you're not asking her why she dresses dapper, or what her cup size is, you just want to know where she bought her shirt. I wear a winter coat that stands out from the norm, and I'd say an average of 2 random strangers per week ask me where I bought it, so "I like the thing you're wearing, where did you get it?" is not something most people consider way too personal.

"I'm worried this might be an overly personal question, so you can tell me that if you'd rather not answer, but I'd like to know where you get your shirts. I have trouble finding ones that fit the way I'd like them to, and I think yours may be what I'm looking for."

That gives you a bit of face saving if she does decline to answer, provides context for the question and gives her an opening to talk about what is and isn't appropriate to ask about. It's also very straight forward and non-gushy -- it isn't about how much you love her personal style or whatever (even though you do), it's just about finding good shirts that fit, which is a problem almost every woman understands, even ones who aren't trying to be dapper.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:49 AM on February 27, 2018

I actually had a full conversation about self-disclosure with my therapist. It's also an issue in my line of work (though not to the degree that it is for therapists)--some people disclose nothing, you'd never know they had any life other than work. Some people, like me, disclose a lot, partly from it just being natural for us and partly because it humanizes us. I tend to be extremely uncomfortable working with people who practice very tight non-disclosure, and I told her that. So it's OK to have a meta-conversation about all this, too.
posted by wintersweet at 7:59 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing ask about the shirt ... but maybe not the other stuff

What I think is more interesting – or that i think you should explore with your AT – is your fear that she might ditch you over a small transgression.
posted by criticalbill at 8:29 AM on February 27, 2018

I stressed for hours about whether it was appropriate to give my therapist a small pannetone for Christmas. In the end I realised he was exceptionally capable of dealing with anything I did in therapy, appropriate or inappropriate, and he would do it with tact, and not judge me or make me feel bad at all....because he is an excellent therapist.
So I would say relax, ask politely, and I am sure if for some reason it's not appropriate, she will deal with it brilliantly- that's why you like her.
posted by Heloise9 at 10:07 AM on February 27, 2018

Shared likes/dislikes/experiences I have discussed successfully with therapists or psychiatrists in session:
  • The sensory experience of lipstick vs. its visual impact
  • Running (multiple providers)
  • Ruching: too fancy?
  • Dogs: who doesn't like dogs!
  • Four wheel drive: necessary evil in the snow belt?
I mean, I don't spend my 50 minutes on this stuff, but I've never had the feeling it was boundary-crossing. Even after I ran into my therapist running the other way!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:25 AM on February 27, 2018

She's a good therapist -- she's not going to have any kind of negative reaction. I promise. Anytime I ask my therapist a question about her, she pleasantly says, "Why do you ask." She wants to make it into something therapeutic. If you feel uncomfortable, you could offer it first: "I'm asking because I want something similar." And it's more than fine to say you're uncomfortable asking.

I totally understand why you're uneasy. Your therapy is supposed to be all about helping YOU. Everything that happens in a session is supposed to be for your benefit. If you ask about her writing, she will want to explore what the subject means to you.
posted by wryly at 2:55 PM on February 27, 2018

Ask her, let her know how you feel about asking, and take it from there. Depending on her clinical orientation, she'll answer or not, or answer but after saying "let's talk about how asking this and/or having it answered will make you feel." That's all on her. You can totally ask. In fact you can ask a therapist anything--it's the therapist's job to figure out what to do with the question. But again, if this question does seem to have more to it, for you, than just "where's the shirt from?/thanks", let her know that when you ask.
posted by Smearcase at 3:32 PM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Heck yeah, ask her about the shirt. Ask about her writing and the rest of it. I can offer you a 100% guarantee she will not think it is weird. I don't know whether she'll answer you or not, but she will not fire you. She'll probably want to know about your feelings about asking her. It will be useful if you feel you can tell her your worry about being fired. I swear you are not her first patient to worry about this.
posted by tuesdayschild at 4:27 PM on February 27, 2018

In defining a boundary for what kinds of questions about herself are okay to ask, or less-okay, my criteria would be what portion of her you're hoping will answer the question, professional vs personal. If you're asking her, as a role model and an example of an awesome person who you know, how she handles a challenge in her life (eg choosing shirts, choosing writing topics, transportation, choice of career) so that you can think about handling that type of thing in your life, that's great. If you're asking her as your conversational partner because you want to know her context so that you can frame your stories better that's good too i.e. I am from a state far from where I live, so I would be interested to know where my therapist is from to know if they're likely to relate to my feelings of displacement. If you're asking her as an individual (an awesome person who you like and want to get to know better), that's outside the professional relationship, and I'd back off.
Part of that has to do with what you're going to do with the information. My first two examples are questions "about her" that are actually about you: you're going to take her information and apply it to yourself. But in my third example, it's predominantly about her.
posted by aimedwander at 12:53 PM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

As the client, you should feel free to ask whatever you want. It's your therapist's job to decide what's too personal and to set the boundaries she believes are in your best interest. Your concern that she'll be offended and drop you is definitely worth exploring in your therapy.

As a therapist, I will often respond to personal questions with some self-disclosure. Depending on the question I'll sometimes invite an exploration of why getting an answer is important but generally I think some self-disclosure helps the therapeutic bond (which research shows is the number one influence on positive therapy outcomes) to be a real person as opposed to a blank slate. And I'm always more than happy to share where I get an article of clothing from.
posted by Plafield at 4:04 PM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've seen a therapist only briefly - and aside from helping me enormously with my mental health, she had some kick-ass shoes. Come to think of it, she could also be described as a short dapper queer person. Despite the fact that I'm a 6' tall cis het man, I seriously wanted to ask her where she got those shoes but also felt strange about it.

Here's a suggestion if you want to avoid crossing boundaries: "I have wanted to find a shirt like that for a long time. Can I ask where you got it?"

From the beginning you are expressing this as your preference, not her identity or your curiosity/attachment about same. Second - "for a long time" - This is part of my personal style that goes beyond our relationship as therapist or client, so no crossing boundaries.

Good for you for getting therapy.
posted by sol at 9:55 PM on March 1, 2018

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