This spring when I shared the news with friends and family about my acceptance into a master’s program their response usually comes in two parts. The first, as expected, is some form of congratulations, which is always greatly appreciated and nice to hear. Often following this is some version of, “So you’ll be able to help me” or “Free counselling for family members/friends right?”
In most cases these responses are so outlandish or humorously delivered that it’s easy to share a laugh about it and move on. Every so often I get a comment that has a hint of seriousness and in a few cases the people are genuinely asking to meet with me once my training in complete. These conversations are a little more awkward than when it’s all just a joke.
Psychotherapists are in a bit of a unique position where the very nature of our professional role prevents us from ethically offering our professional services to close friends and family. In many professions this wouldn’t be a problem. Hiring your son-in law who’s a landscape architect to help you with your garden or enlisting the services of your accountant friend to help file your taxes are both common and acceptable scenarios.
It’s true that whenever you enter into a professional relationship with someone that you have another relationship with that it can complicate things. For instance when there are disagreements over quality of work or fees, being invested in another relationship can cause additional stress. For psychotherapists however the dual relationships created are, for good reason, prevented from counselling people with whom they have other relationships with already.
The flip side of this situation is also a potential issue when friends are involved. I can’t think of how many times, when a friend or a acquaintance that knows I’m in the psychology field discloses something, that they have made the assumption that I’m “analyzing them”. This can create both expectations and insecurities in the discussion that are not based on actual actions or thoughts but pre-conceived notions.
Outside of therapy in one’s ordinary life, friends are often the people that you turn to in order to vent or seek sympathy or comfort when things aren’t working out right. In these situations it’s not really an issue of professional conduct because there’s no professional relationship but at the same time, as a psychotherapist, there are perspectives that you have and approaches that are a part of your professional self, which can come out in these casual supportive relationships. This can both make you an excellent and supportive friend as well as potentially making your friends feel uncomfortable coming to you for support. While you might be trying to help, they may not be looking for that level of support and be turned away by the intensity.
I haven’t even started my graduate program and am still a fair ways away from seeing clients or being able to think of myself as a professional so at this point the situations where I have dealt with these sentiments have still been quite mild. That being said, the more involved in the profession I get the more theses issues start coming up. How do you maintain the same supportive and positive friendships with people outside of your practice while maintaining the necessary division between your personal and professional life. Our profession is dealing with people’s personal life and yet we have to ensure that ours is kept sufficiently separate. I guess this is one of the many things to explore once I start school in the fall.