You are having a night out on the town or maybe you are grocery shopping or maybe you are even trying to wrangle your toddler who is pitching a fit in the middle of a shopping mall and it happens; your therapist is right there in front of you. The person, who you have invested time and money with, pouring out your deepest, darkest fears and secrets, is there in public and completely out of context. What do you do? Do you say “hello”? Do you pretend not to see him or her? How will your therapist react? Have you even thought this would actually happen? You most likely are caught off guard and a million thoughts are rushing through your head. Rest assured as this does not have to ruin or day nor do you have to necessarily find a new therapist as there are many different ways to deal with this potentially uncomfortable encounter.
Confidentiality is the most important factor
As it turns out, your therapist may be just as surprised to see you as you are to see him or her but the most important aspect of this potentially awkward encounter is maintaining confidentiality. Therapists, and all healthcare professionals for that matter, are obligated to respect your confidentiality meaning that they cannot share any information with non-health professionals regarding your current or past psychological history nor are they allowed to disclose that they are your therapist and you are undergoing therapy. The main reason for this is to ensure your trust and safety so therefore your therapist may actually ignore you in public out of fear that they may break confidentiality. Your encounter in public with your therapist will also depend on whom you are with. What if you are with someone who does not know you are in therapy? Acknowledging your therapist in public might make you feel exposed or embarrassed. Whether this is a new dating partner, a friend, your son or daughter or your mother; many individuals do not disclose they are seeing a therapist; after all this is a private matter and it is up to you whether you feel comfortable sharing these details with others in your life. For these reasons, your therapist will most likely wait for you to signal that you are ready for a public acknowledgment and only then, they may respond. In other words, you can ignore your therapist without any fear that he or she will approach you. If you do not feel comfortable with this encounter then simply continue with your day; you do not have any obligation to acknowledge your therapist in public. There will be no hurt feelings.
Your therapist has a private life as well
Your therapist has his or her own personal life, and to a greater or lesser degree, keeps this part of their life private from you during therapy sessions. Although you may be very curious about your therapist and may be fascinated to see him or her out of context, the encounter may be uncomfortable for your therapist, as well. What if your therapist is on a date? Or out with family? What if they are also trying to wrangle their screaming toddler in public? Many clients forget that this unfamiliar encounter is a two way street.
Keep it simple with small talk
If you do feel comfortable and decide to interact with your therapist, out of context, and in a public setting then it is best to keep it simple, casual and professional. Exchange simple pleasantries and if you feel comfortable introducing them to your significant other or family member, then you may do so, however it is important to respect all boundaries and do not discuss anything in regards to your therapeutic sessions. And who knows, you may even live in the same small town as your therapist and run into him or her on a weekly basis and you may be comfortable with that; however it is still important to respect the client-therapist boundaries in a public setting.
Debriefing in your next session is important
Will your therapist bring this up during your next session? Probably as debriefing this public encounter can help you understand and overcome any lingering concerns. It is best to discuss this together so there are no repressed feelings and to discuss a plan if this happens again. If your therapist does live in the same town as you or if both of your kids attend the same school and these situations make you uncomfortable then it may be wise to find a therapist out of the area. Your therapist will understand this decision as your emotional and mental health are the most important factors.