A point of clarification: The title of this post is not a direct quote from myself or anyone else in particular, though I am fairly certain that these words have been uttered before, in a paraphrase if not verbatim. I bring up this idea because the potential for crossing paths with your therapist, or your client if you’re a therapist, is something that you tend to think about and perhaps anticipate when both of you run in relatively small circles. I mentioned in the GO Magazine interview that outing myself was a conscious decision for several reasons, but one of the reasons that I did not happen to mention in that interview was that I am active in the communities connected with my intersecting identifications, and therefore chances are very likely that I will run into people I’m doing therapy with. When your own identifications result in something reminiscent of the rainbow Venn diagram below, and you find value in interacting socially with others who share those intersections, you just might see your therapist in leather, or they might see you in latex, or you might notice them interacting with a partner or partners.
And then what happens? What do you do? What would you expect your therapist to do?
There’s no one correct answer to the above questions, because the answer will depend on both the therapist’s and the client’s comfort levels, though the agreed upon answer should go in the more conservative direction, the one that most protects the therapeutic relationship and most allows for progress back in the therapeutic environment. Because I tend to work with people who run in some or all of the same circles that I do, I like to address the issue of a potential path-crossing at some point in our work together, as early on as makes sense.
The conversation might go something like this: I bring up the potential of running into each other outside of our usual meeting place, check in with them to see how they feel about that potential, and let them know I have a uniform code of conduct when I find myself in that situation. Which is, if I happen to inadvertently make eye contact, I might smile and nod, but I will not approach someone to speak to them out of respect for their privacy and discretion, and I will likely move to another area, or make a decision to leave if that seems more appropriate and protective of the therapeutic process. If someone approaches me, I will certainly say hello, but I will not engage in prolonged conversation, and in our next session together, we would discuss thoughts and feelings that came up around meeting in a different context. Finally, I would check in with them to see how they feel about that process, see what their specific preferences might be, and come to a mutually consensual agreement. This is a fairly standard way of handling such situations, according to what I’ve heard from colleagues and supervisors.
There are therapists who would avoid engaging with clients outside of the therapeutic environment at all costs, and in more mainstream communities, it is much easier to accomplish this. When there are limited venues in which to interact socially with like-minded people however, I don’t see the need to avoid engagement. In fact, I feel as though being an active part of the community is a form of autoethnography, a process in which “you use your own experiences to garner insights into the larger culture or subculture of which you are a part” (Patton, 2014, Kindle Locations 3895-3896). Understanding yourself and understanding the community/ies you’re a part of is an active and ongoing process, as is therapy. Likewise, therapy is an active collaboration, as is community, and I encourage my clients to take an active role in their process, just as I do in mine.