Is It Weird to See Your Therapist IRL?
When I was 21 years old, I told my therapist about a guy I was dating. It turns out, they knew each other and had mutual friends. I didn't think much of it (the Jewish New York scene is pretty small), until the guy told me his friend's wife was having a birthday party. As we were driving there, I absentmindedly asked who his friend's wife was. It turned out to be none other than my therapist. Right away, I made an excuse to skip out.
At the time, I wasn't public about going to therapy and instead chose to hide it. But now I'm more open about my mental health and definitely wouldn't have the same reaction if I saw my therapist in public. I even follow my new therapist on Instagram and communicate with her via DM.
However, my response when I was 21 wasn't without reason. Turns out, it's a sentiment shared by many.
Keeping it separate
Therapy may not be taboo anymore, but patients still forget therapists have lives outside of their office. In a popular "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode, Larry David no longer feels comfortable going to his psychiatrist after he sees him wearing a thong at the beach. While it's rare to see your therapist in a thong (probably?), it's pretty common to run into your therapist if you live in a small city or town.
For Jen Simon, a writer and mother of two, this happened to take place at her child's school, a setting she thought was just too close to home.
"Her son went to school with my son. She should have never taken me on as a client," Simon said. "It's not like I thought she'd blab my secrets everywhere. But every time I saw her, it'd bring up emotions from our last session. Like, I'd just cried on her couch and now I had to see her at my son's school play."
Simon said she felt it was her therapist's responsibility to refer her to another therapist and cut ties. Still, if she ran into her current therapist in the grocery store, that would be a different story.
"That would be unplanned," Simon said. "Everyone gets groceries. It wouldn't feel like someone is in my personal space."
The "weird" factor of seeing a therapist in public may also depend on the type of therapy.
"If it's trauma work, something more deep and intense, it might feel a little more weird for the client," therapist Aviva Waxler suggested.
Another woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, shared similar feelings to Simon, but on the other end: As a therapist, it's just as awkward to see a client out and about.
"I didn't know whether to say hi," she said, of seeing a patient in a local park. "My theoretical approach has always been to smile politely, as I would with any stranger who looks at me, but not say anything unless the client initiates, for the sake of the client's privacy and comfort. I had never spoken with her about what community I'm from, or what ages my kids are (or if I have any kids), so I felt like she was being let in on my private life."
Keeping it social
Lisa Prolman, the assistant director at Greenfield Public Library, has a different perspective.
"I used to bump into my therapist on a regular basis while grocery shopping," Prolman said. "I ran into him several times at different grocery stores and once at a pet food store with his younger daughter. We would say hello, chat about the weather, then say something along the lines of, 'See you on (day of next appointment).' I was working my way through a divorce, which wasn't a secret, and some self-esteem issues—also not a secret," she explained. Lisa's son and her friends knew she was seeing a therapist, so it wasn't weird to bump into him while she was with them.
What happens, though, if you're married to a therapist and bump into your spouse's patients while you're out together? According to author Farrah Alexander, wife of a therapist, it's up to the patient to initiate conversation.
"I am very used to brief exchanges in which I'm not introduced," she said. "He always takes the patient's lead to respect their privacy and won't say hi unless they initiate."
Molly Pascal, whose mother, father and sister-in-law are all psychologists, knows this feeling all too well.
"I grew up knowing not to ask who someone was if they came up to chat with my parents," Pascal said.
When publicly seeing each other is planned in advance, it might not feel as awkward for some patients.
"Years ago, my therapist was attending the same anniversary event, but he told me in advance. It was so interesting because I met his family," therapy patient Jen Gubitz recounted.
Some therapists genuinely enjoy taking part in their patients' personal lives.
"I've run into a former therapist several times. She is always very happy to see me," said Stephanie Wellen Levine. "She even went to a talk I gave many years ago because she saw it listed somewhere. We discussed it, and she said she just enjoys being friendly to clients. If someone seems immediately uncomfortable when they see her, she says nothing and ignores them."
With so many different opinions and preferences about the appropriate response, it's best to bring up the issue of public meetings early on in your time with a new therapist. But if you accidentally, and unfortunately, spot your therapist in only a thong, it might be time to ask for a referral.