BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am an out gay man in my late 20s. Last weekend, while scrolling through Grindr, I came across my therapist's profile. Although his profile pictures don’t show his face, I was able to tell that the profile belonged to him from some contextual clues and a distinctive tattoo I recognized from his publicly available Facebook pictures.

What really threw me for a loop was my therapist's “About Me” section: In it, he described in explicit detail the kinds of sexual encounters he was searching for, as well as the kind of person he hoped would fulfill a particular desire. While I understand that my therapist, also an out gay man, is an adult with his own life outside of his office, I was deeply unnerved by learning so much explicit information about a person whom I try not to think of in a sexual context. My sudden exposure to this intimate knowledge feels acutely unsettling given that a lot of our work together focuses on my anxieties and vulnerabilities regarding sex and relationships.

I know I need to address this issue with him, as I won't be able to conduct a single further session without acknowledging having seen his profile. I am at a complete loss as to how, though. Do I write an email or wait until our next face-to-face session? And even then, what can I possibly say? Part of me is terrified that he'll have an adverse reaction, or decide that we can no longer continue our therapeutic relationship. How do I approach this difficult situation?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Let’s begin with a straightforward truth: Many people have a natural curiosity about their therapists. Who is this person with whom I’m sharing my most vulnerable self? Generally, patients know very little about their therapists’ outside lives, though sometimes therapists make intentional disclosures in the therapy room. For instance, depending on the circumstance, I might answer a question about whether I’m a parent, or even offer that information unsolicited if I feel it’s clinically relevant for a particular patient in a particular context.

But often patients want to know more, so they search for information online. I’m guessing that your therapist’s Facebook photos didn’t magically appear on your screen—you had to search for them. And that’s important, because your desire to know more about him will become part of the larger conversation you want to have about the Grindr profile, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Of course, you didn’t go searching for the Grindr profile—that was purely accidental. Unintended encounters between therapists and patients happen out in the world, too. I’ve run into patients everywhere from the checkout line at Target to bookstores and restaurants to Lakers games. What patients may not realize is that these unexpected encounters, as innocuous as they may seem, can be uncomfortable for the therapist as well. We aren’t used to being seen by our patients when we’re with our family or significant other—or, as happened to me, while wearing a bikini at the beach and, another time, in the dressing-room area of the bra section at a department store. In these cases, I generally ask in the next session what the experience was like for the patient. Some therapists wait for the patient to bring it up, but I’ve found that often not mentioning it makes it bigger, an elephant in the room, and acknowledging the encounter can feel like a relief—for both of us.

In your situation, though, your therapist isn’t aware of the encounter (and therefore won’t bring it up), and also it’s qualitatively different from the usual out-in-the-world encounter. You didn’t just see your therapist buying paper towels at Target, or even wearing a Speedo at the beach. You ran into him on Grindr and got a glimpse into his sexual psyche.

That’s a deeper level of disclosure and, yes, it’s awkward, and would be even if he weren’t your therapist. If that profile were your dentist’s or your boss’s, or if you were in college and it belonged to your professor, you’d probably still feel uncomfortable having seen it—maybe even so uncomfortable that you’d avoid this person as much as possible, switching to another dentist, for example.

That may seem like bad news, but in fact it’s the opposite. Since this is your therapist and not your dentist or your boss, you have the opportunity to address it in a way you probably wouldn’t with other people. In fact, the best therapy often happens when things get uncomfortable, because the discomfort can surface important material that may have been buried (as I have written about before). You might open this conversation by walking into your next session, plopping down on the couch, and saying something like: “So, this very awkward thing happened and I feel like we should talk about it.”

Yes, you’ll talk about Grindr, but what I suspect you’ll find is that the conversation will quickly shift its focus to the most fundamental aspect of your therapy: your relationship with your therapist. All the things that haven’t been said—that you searched and saw his Facebook photos (because you’re curious about him?), or that you “try not to think of him in a sexual context” (because you’re afraid that if you do, something bad might happen?), or that you’re worried he’ll get rid of you because of what you found (are you confusing your sexual shame with his?)—will be discussed in the context of the work you say you’re there to do: understanding more about your own sexuality and relationships. Part of that understanding will come from how you handle this moment in the therapeutic relationship, in all its glorious awkwardness.

The most likely outcome is that this conversation takes you to a new level in your own work, reducing your anxiety and increasing your tolerance for being vulnerable about sex and relationships. It’s also possible that even after having this conversation, you will find that you can’t get past this and ultimately decide to see another therapist. I doubt that will happen, but if it does, that’s okay. Either way, the experience of talking about sex in such a courageous way will push you forward—both in therapy and in life.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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