I know we have all been taught about boundaries in therapy and keeping a professional detachment to our clients in which we are warm, compassionate, empathetic but do not get too close to our clients; they are not our friends and they are not our children. We know that such an attachment can interfere with judgment and open us up to litigation. I get that. I also get that there are different levels of boundaries based on treatment setting. For instance, in a not for profit community based program model it is not uncommon to have volunteers help with many non clinical projects. Most of us have come into such programs on our days off, or have been asked to cancel clinical appointments for a day to assist with community projects that find us elbows deep working with clients. To me, once you have broken bread with or built a room with volunteers there is a certain bond that may develop that you would not see otherwise. You are still professional and keep your boundaries but it is akin to Dorothy peeking behind the curtain in OZ, after she saw the bells and whistles she realized that behind the façade was just another person. Years ago I was repairing the office on the weekend and needed a part. I went to the local hardware where I have gone for decades and started walking the isle to find what I needed. I was dressed in my repair clothes- sweat pants and t shirt that had paint splatters, bleach stain and the works and an old beat up hat. Being a weekend I had not been close to a razor in a few days. As this was not a “big box” store I was approached quickly by an employee who would do their best to assist. A voice from behind called out to offer assistance and caused me to turn around. As he saw who I was he said something akin to “Can I help you with any….DDDDDDOOOOOOOOOOCCCCCCC?????” It seemed that a client had started working at the store. He stood there half frozen for a second and then looking at me confused. I said hello as I would to anyone and did not acknowledge any clinical relationship and held out the part I needed and asked him where I could find a new one. He stammered for a second and I leaned to him slightly and whispered “relax, I’m a person too.” He responded with “ahh of course, yeah the part is in the next isle, follow me.” He did a good job in assisting me before going on to help the next customer. In our next session we talked about the encounter. He told me that he was shocked at first because he had never pictured me in a setting other than my office and never imagined me in anything but dress slacks and a button down collared shirt. I advised him that I was indeed a regular person and in fact did the majority of the office repairs and had built or rebuilt most of the office. This led him down a road of exploring his preconceived ideas of people. Though we had been trying to do so previously with marked success, this new “enlightenment” on his part seemed to really grease the wheels. He started exploring how his preconceived ideas and prejudices had hurt many relationships and how his own limiting definition of himself had been holding him back. The next several sessions proved powerful in terms of challenging irrational beliefs. Another time I was up at the WIP (Pillwillop Farm) and was in my jeans, jacket, boots etc. when some volunteers who were clients came by to work for the day. I climbed off the tractor to great them, as I do all volunteers when one of them said “boy, you don’t dress like that at the office. You look so much more comfortable and natural here. And so happy; maybe you should do your sessions at the farm from now on.” She was right of course in that I do feel more at home when I do not have a button down shirt with a collar etc on. We proceeded to spend the day clearing trails for the passive recreation area, having rides on the tractor and enjoying water, soda and snacks during breaks. A large group of people working together on a community project, some were clients or former clients, some volunteers from the community. There are times when such encounters may prove troublesome. Some clients do want their “shrinks” to be sterile and kept in their offices. There may be some who cannot think of the person they receive treatment from as a real person but for the most part I have found that when clients see us as people, bonds can come faster. Years ago there was a troubled teen who had been removed from several programs, or had simply stopped attending sessions. He came into my office with a smudged face, dirty stained hands and chip on his shoulder the size of our state. I introduced myself and began a very cold session. A few minutes into the session I asked him what he had been working on. He advised me that I wouldn’t understand and I replied “try me.” It seems he was trying to teach himself how to weld. I asked him if he was using stick, MIG or TIG and he looked amazed. “How do you know about those?” he asked, and I advised him that I was a certified welder “about a hundred years ago.” He told me he was using MIG (Metallic Inert Gas) and was welding 1/8 inch metal. I said “let me guess, you are getting loud popping noises and an inconsistent weld with burn out.” He was shocked and answered in the affirmative before I proffered some humble suggestions on how to fix the issues and ways he can practice on scrap before going back to that repair. Here too we talked about what he thought a doctor of counseling was like, why he had been resistant to go to treatment etc. He no longer saw me as a threat but instead as someone who was “real.” Over the next year or two treatment progressed well, though I did have to decline several invitations to “weld and stuff” during sessions. We all bring a lot of life into our work. While we should never try to make our clients like us, it is ok to add some flavor. Make your office a bit of a reflection of you (though I would avoid politics, sports teams, or other potentially dividing items). It can be simple: I have an old bust of President Kennedy(though political in the sense that he was a president, most people see him as a fallen hero and not as any particular party, though there are exceptions) that I bought at an antique store years ago that I often decorate with silly hats. That simple technique helped set some of the kids I work with at ease. After all, a clinical office with all the framed certificates and such can be a scary place but adding a bit of humor even subtly through hats, can start people on the road to comfort. At times it can even inspire them to share a memory or adventure. Sometimes when people get a tiny glimpse behind the curtain they find that the OZ of therapy is a little less scary and increases the chances that they will discover for themselves that the answers were in them all the time. Then, perhaps with the right words and foot work they will return to or find the happiness that had eluded them.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).