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Can I follow my ex therapist?

A letter writer really misses her former therapist and is wondering if she should follow her on Instagram.

Bad idea, says our elder. Bad. Idea.

Dear EWC

I saw a therapist weekly at my college’s health center from the very first week of my freshman year until about now, the end of my fall semester of sophomore year. I’ve been in and out of therapy for years (with little real success in finding someone that I actually liked and could talk to) until I found this one. It was different from other times in therapy for so many reasons. Our sessions, even in the beginning, were never impersonal and clinical. She was always so open with me and, for the time in my life, I was able to to begin working through some of my problems. Even from the very start, I felt like I connected with her as a person, not just as a therapist, and that was endlessly helpful in being able to talk things through and be comfortable. She found out she got another job and then, about a month before our last session, let me know that she would be leaving. I was devastated and we both spent our last few sessions crying and talking about how intense this therapy was.

Before all of this happened, I ended up accidentally finding her personal Instagram account last March and suddenly knew all about her personal life. I knew it was wrong and an invasion of privacy, but I regularly checked it to see what she was up to. What hurts the most is at our last session she said that I reminded her of herself, and that “while I don’t know much about her and the relationship is one-sided” I could probably assume the type of person she was and I could probably assume how similar we were. In reality, I’d been looking at her Instagram for months and had a pretty good idea of who she was — and that, if she wasn’t my therapist, we would have made good friends. I know I probably shouldn’t, and I know this would definitely put her in a conflicting situation with ethics and boundaries with therapy, but I really want to follow her on Instagram. It’s not like we’ll ever see each other again (she’s taking a job on the other side of the country), so I don’t necessarily see the harm. Also (maybe this is bad, but…) I can’t bear the thought of someone I’ve connected with so much, even a therapist, just vanish from my life. (She gave me her personal email to send her updates about my life if I wanted to, so I guess it’s not like she’s “vanished,” but… I don’t know). I don’t know if I should let this go (although I’m worried I can’t) or if I should just press the follow button and see what happens.

Sage replies

While it is not a common or frequent occurrence, a friendship can develop between therapist and client when you are finished with therapy. However, as you stated in your request there are ethical guidelines to consider in such a situation.

I believe that the fact that you are questioning whether you should follow her on Instagram is a sign that you have reservations about it and should not be doing it. You may have conflicted feelings about needing and wanting a close friendship with your ex therapist. (Is it OK with you that you need and want a reciprocal friendship with her?)

I do not think it is a good idea to follow her on Instagram and/or seek a friendship because of the following reasons:
· If you are still in therapy this could create a problem with your new therapist.
· You are correct when you say that it could be considered a breach of her privacy and you should have told her that you were following her while in treatment.
· I do not understand your motivation to follow your ex therapist. What does that do for you. I would suggest that you thoroughly analyze your reasons for needing to continue to know what she is doing.

I understand that your ex therapist was very friendly and easy to talk to. However, you must remember that therapy is not the same as friendship. It seems as if the therapy relationship was good in that you gained therapeutic benefit from the interaction. According to your letter, she helped you a great deal.

If you were to contact her as a friend, you may find that her friend persona is quite different from her therapist persona. She may interact with you one way as a therapist and quite differently as a friend. There is a possibility that as a friend she may not be as compassionate, understanding, selfless, kind, caring, etc.

Understand that there is an inherent power differential between therapist and client. You, as the client, revealed so much about yourself yet you learn very little about your therapist. The relationship was one sided by design.

Realize that the therapeutic relationship is not a symmetrical relationship where there is mutual sharing on both sides. There is a natural imbalance. Although she was a caring and empathetic therapist who you feel became a friend, she is also an authority figure to whom you chose to turn for professional help and support.

The problem here is that is that no matter how much your former therapist discloses to you as a friend, she will always have that knowledge that you might not have shared had you two not had a therapeutic relationship.

While I do not think you should follow her on Instagram or try to be friends with your ex therapist, of course, the decision is yours, but from my perspective it would not be in your best interest.

If you do decide to follow your ex therapist on Instagram and/or pursue a possible friendship, you should let her know. Even if the conversation is a bit uncomfortable I would suggest going forward with letting her know. The only way to know how she feels is to ask her directly.
I believe that most good therapists generally care about their clients tremendously and want to genuinely see them get better. To do so, they will keep the therapeutic boundaries clear and intact.

I must warn you that there is a strong possibility that what you want is not possible and the process of talking with your ex therapist and letting her know what you have done may not yield results that are most beneficial for mental well-being in the long run. If you are currently in therapy, you might discuss this with your new therapist. I wish much success.

Letter #: 416543
Category: Friendship

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