Friending Your Shrink: When You Find Your Therapist on Social Media

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A few weeks ago, bored and more than a little curious, I began Googling the new therapist I'd recently started seeing. I dug into a beyond-the-basics deep search that included email address, alma mater, and nickname combinations when I stumbled across his Instagram. I blinked, transfixed. There was Dr. S., grinning over cocktails with a hot blonde. Surfing on some beach trip. Skateboarding. I felt creepy, but I kept clicking. I knew, obviously, therapists have lives outside the office — but seeing him sucking in his gut in one photo or choosing a Toaster filter in another made him seem way less suave and all-knowing than he did in his dark mahogany office. Of course, I kept my discovery secret at my next session. But I couldn’t stop checking his feed. Finally I gave in and liked just one photo — just to see what would happen.

The next time I checked, his account was private. And even though that made sense, part of me felt betrayed. Why couldn’t he share his food-porn pictures with everyone, like the rest of us? And what were the rules about therapists and social media, anyway?

That’s a question a lot of therapists in New York City are asking themselves as well, especially since the current ethics code of the American Psychological Association dates back to 2002. In 2010, APA ethics director Stephen Behnke advised therapists to “be thoughtful” about the place of social media in their practices and “educate [themselves] about privacy settings.” He added: “Probably in the next two to three years, APA will begin the process of drafting the next code. I can say with a very high degree of confidence that when APA does draft the next code, the drafters will be very mindful of many issues being raised by social media.”

But while we wait, it’s pretty likely that at some point, a therapist will get matched with a former patient on Tinder or see her 4 o’clock appointment’s opinion retweeted in her feed. And when that happens? Like so much else in therapy, it gets complicated.

“We do see social-media visibility as a potentially slippery slope that may undermine the psychotherapeutic process,” says Christine Grounds, LCSW, clinical director of the Training Institute for Mental Health, an advanced training program for psychoanalytic psychotherapy based in Chelsea. “That’s because, in psychotherapeutic work, part of the core beliefs is to maintain the same treatment frame: to meet at the same time, in the same place, and to have as few variables as possible. Having contact outside the session, even if it’s through reading a Twitter feed, changes that dynamic.”

To some degree, perhaps that’s inevitable. “The tabula rasa Freudian ideal simply can’t happen in a digital age,” counters Rob Dobrenski, PhD, a Murray Hill–based psychologist and author of Crazy, a memoir about what it’s really like to be a shrink. “Some therapists will go further trying to maintain the illusion, but a lot of therapists won’t hide the fact that tech is as much a part of their lives as their patients.” Dobrenski has a policy of not to following any clients, former or current, on Twitter, even though some may follow him. “There are some clients I’d love to follow, since I think they’re fascinating,” he says. “But that would set an odd precedent.”

Still, some therapists — especially ones who work with clients with strong internet presences — find that Twitter in particular can be a useful tool. “I would never Google a client or follow them if they didn’t follow me, but if they do follow me, I’ll follow them back for sure,” says Chloe Carmichael, PhD, a midtown therapist and life coach. “I consider it a way for me to see another side of my client, and also, for clients to see a different side of me. Because a therapist isn’t sharing her own difficulties in session, sometimes a client can sort of idealize a therapist as a perfect person. Twitter can make them see that they’re just living their lives.”

While some therapists do use Twitter as a professional platform, it can be disconcerting when clients find their “private” accounts — which was of course what happened when I found Dr. S. on Instagram. “I have my Facebook locked down because I was always turning down clients who friended me,” explains Melody Wilding, LMSW, a therapist who specializes in working with female entrepreneurs and millennials. “My entire practice is virtual, so having an online presence is a necessity for me. But my clients don’t need to see what I did over the weekend or pictures of my cat.”

And every therapist I spoke to stressed that the best thing to do if you spot your therapist on Tinder is to just swipe left and pretend it didn’t happen. “Therapists are looking online for relationships and that’s fine, and it only crosses a line if they engage with you,” says Dobrenski. In that case — or if you see some other side of your therapist that concerns you — social-media snooping could reveal important red flags. But, if what you find is basically benign, then bringing it up could provide some valuable insight into (you guessed it) your own psyche. “If you’re, say, coming to me because you have a panic disorder and you happened to see a photo of me tagged on Facebook, then it’s probably not that helpful to bring that up,” says Dobrenski.  “But if you can’t stop thinking about it, then there might be something there about how you see authority figures or what place the therapist fills in your life.”

In other words, sounds like Dr. S. and I have plenty to talk about next session.