How do therapists handle chance encounters with clients outside the office?
Such boundary-related decisions are regularly confronted. How we proceed, though, is likely to be unique to each particular therapist and client, as there’s a lack of hard-and-fast rules about this.
On the other hand, there’s no lack of guidelines. For example, social work ethics include avoiding dual relationships whenever possible and not becoming friends with or otherwise consorting with a client after a therapy episode. Regarding the latter, “Once a client, always a client” means being prepared for the possibility that a former client who’s not currently seeing you may want to return someday for additional help.
What informs our boundary-making other than the code of ethics? Resources might include reading, consulting with others, and taking courses and workshops—such as one I recently attended titled “OMG…Didn’t We Go to High School Together?” led by social worker Rachel Legend.
As I’m not originally from the state in which I practice, that kind of OMG is less likely to happen to me than to many others. More pertinent to me are those out-of-the-office unexpected sightings of each other, which Legend got us thinking more about.
Although most of my own instances of running into clients outside the office have felt relatively comfortable, I often can’t know for sure if the same is true for them (unless it’s someone who’s actively seeing me in therapy and we can therefore discuss it in a following session). And some situations have decidedly proven less than comfortable.
Some examples of circumstances I’ve encountered:
- At a social gathering, a store, an event like a concert, or anywhere around town. My View: In this situation, it helps if this kind of potential occurrence has already been addressed in the office so I’ll know how a particular client wants to respond. Some would prefer not interacting, for instance; others will gladly wave or say hi. But if I don’t already know, I try to follow a client’s cues in the moment.
- The gym. My View: It helps that this isn’t a social place for me—I’m always plugged into my music and focused on my tasks. And, unlike another participant at the workshop, I’ve never been naked in the locker room with anyone—because I go home to shower.
- Community activities/clubs. Many years ago a client who’d seen me at a gay club noted in her next session that I “must’ve been drinking a lot” to be dancing the way I was. Oops. Caught. Not drinking a lot. Dancing. (Badly?) My View: I do my best to avoid certain places and circumstances. It’s probably just as weird for me to be in the “fishbowl” as it is for a client to feel that way. Which leads me to the next one…
- I once showed up to a small house party at which there were the two hosts and, besides the three I came with, only a few other guests—unexpectedly, one was a recent but past short-term client. Everyone sat in the same room, and interactions felt laden with tension (at least for me); but the ethic of confidentiality, of course, meant being unable to share with anyone else what only I (and my client) knew. Years later I was invited to another little gathering with totally different hosts. Also totally different guests— except, that is, for that same client. Same dilemma, as I hadn’t seen this person since the previous time. My View: I try to avoid dinner-party kinds of situations if I don’t know the guest list.
- A short-term client chose to go to the same hairdresser as me; although she told the hairdresser she knew me, she didn’t say how. When my hairdresser then wanted on various occasions to talk to me about my “friend,” I was unable to respond, which I imagine was pretty puzzling for her and felt terrible to me. My View: If a client now asks where I receive certain kinds of services, I might first explain the potential for awkwardness. In a recent example of this, a client opted for trying to get a “second opinion” from my dentist—but without mentioning my name.
- One particularly memorable and positive experience involved a twentysomething client greeting me at a deli near my office. She then turned and saw my partner—whom, to the surprise of all three of us, she recognized. Turns out my partner, also a therapist, had seen the same client years earlier in a children’s unit. Our client was thrilled to see her—as well as us together! My View: Although unlikely to ever happen again in my lifetime, I wish it would—it was a hoot!