Shrinks Need to Lie…It’s for the Best

Unlike Dr. Pete, I’m very fortunate that I’m not frazzled when clients approach me outside of the office. Even though I live and work in New York City, an island with millions of people, the odds of running into a client on the street are not as astronomical as you might think. Because I both live in work in midtown, as do many of my clients, it’s not unheard of to bump into them in the grocery store, the local pub or the bus.

Recently a client told me that she had seen me on the subway – I was probably reading this unusual book about the sex lives of the great dictators – and considered saying hello. However, she didn’t know what the “rules” were regarding shrink/client contact. “Is it gauche to come up and say hi?” she asked.

I explained to her my personal take on such a scenario: I never approach clients when I see them in public. They have enlisted me for a service and when I’m not providing that I really have no business walking up to them and disrupting whatever it is they are doing. And even though I write and speak and rail against the unnecessary stigma associated with seeing a therapist, the reality is that it’s still present, and no client should be forced to explain who I am to anyone who might see our interaction.

All that said, if a client chooses to approach me I have no problem whatsoever saying hello. Extended conversations are not a good idea because our relationship is not a social one, but a client shouldn’t feel that she can’t give a quick greeting and wish me a nice day. In fact, after being called a “Dripping Way God,” that would make for a nice change of pace.


However, what happens if I am not alone? And what if that person wants to know how the client and I know each other? Per the rules of confidentiality, if a client says “oh, Rob is my shrink,” that is her prerogative. But under no circumstances am I allowed to tell whoever I am with the nature of our relationship. In short, I have to lie. Or at least dodge the question altogether.

Let the record show that I’m not a fan of brutal honesty simply for honesty’s sake. The cold, hard truth can sometimes damage a person’s feeling, and many times people will be truthful for personal reasons (e.g., because they will feel guilty for withholding the truth or because they assume that because they would want to hear the truth then others must want that too*). Many times I’ve told Dr. John that he looked quite dashing with his popped collars and ridiculous neck bling simply because he loves those outfits and feels “badass” in them. Sadly, the women he dates feel the same way.

Over the years I’ve tried to be as vague as possible when I leave an interaction with a client and the person I’m with says, “Who was that? How do you know him/her?” The response “I can’t say” is a dead giveaway, so I move just outside of that:

“Oh, it’s someone who works in the building,” or “you know? I can’t remember for sure, it’s been such a long time,” usually do the trick. However, when I’m feeling mischievous – which is often – sometimes I’ll get a little more creative:

-That’s someone I met at a Guitar Hero competition. Yes, of course I won, what kind of a question is that?

-We met at a Best-Looking People in the World seminar.

-She’s my dead fiance’s sister. Yes, I know I’ve never mentioned that I had a dead fiancĂ©. It’s too painful to talk about, so thanks for opening up that wound.

-He and I met at Fight Club.

-She owns the local sweat shop where I get my clothes.

-She’s an ex-lover. She hides her intense grief and rejection under the guise of casual friendliness.

-I’d tell you the truth, but the reality is that you’d never understand the complexities of such an intense interpersonal connection. You’re simply not smart enough.

No one said that you can’t have a little fun while sticking to your professional guidelines. So unless you’ve got a problem with following the rules and protecting clients’ right to privacy, feel free to let me know if you’ve got some additional things I can tell my friends in spots like these.

* This is known as the False Consensus Bias.

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18 Responses to “Shrinks Need to Lie…It’s for the Best”

  1. Dave says:

    ‘She’s my dead fiance’s sister. Yes, I know I’ve never mentioned that I had a dead fiancĂ©. It’s too painful to talk about, so thanks for opening up that wound.’
    Haha, nice. Did you actually use that one?
    Dr Rob: I say dumb things all the time. So yes.

  2. Patrick says:

    I’m drunk and bored, which is why I’m commenting (especially this stupid point), but isn’t assuming people don’t want to hear the hard honest truth a False Consensus Bias too?

  3. Maren says:

    You should say that he or she is an international diamond smuggler, and that you’re in cahoots.

  4. John Kimbert says:

    She/he is my shrink. I’ve been feeling depressed for the past 6 months. (Do shrinks use shrinks?)

  5. Anonymous says:

    DR. ROB! You forgot the first rule of Fight Club!

  6. Anonymous says:

    This isn’t necessarily a comment on this particular post but another comment prompts to ask: do therapists commonly have therapists themselves?
    Dr. Rob: All the time.

  7. Anonymous says:

    1. I stalked her in College… you know I had multiple restraining warrants in multiple counties? Ahhh good times.
    2. When I got abducted by aliens he ran the anal probe machine… to be clear he’s not an alien, its just in these ecinomics even the aliens are outsourcing.
    3. Did I ever tell you about the bully that beat me up every day and made school a living hell for me? No? Well anyway that’s her… worst 2 yrs of College ever!
    4. She teaches my belly dancing class.
    5. He was one of my cell mates in prison… (in a hushed tone) not rapey one,(normal voice) that was a different guy… he had more tats and oddly smooth hands.
    6. Thats always akward. He/she is dating on of my other personalities.
    7. Well I went to him for a while until I realized he wasn’t a therapist, but he is actually The Rapist…
    A. I mean his hipnotherapy always seemed to really work, but I never understood why it always made my butt hurt.
    B. I mean who hangs out a shingle for that?

  8. John says:

    That Fight Club line is gold. I might start using it to introduce people.

  9. Blinky says:

    “-That’s someone I met at a Guitar Hero competition. Yes, of course I won, what kind of a question is that?”
    It’s the second line that killed me. OF COURSE I won! LOL!
    “2. When I got abducted by aliens he ran the anal probe machine… to be clear he’s not an alien, its just in these economics even the aliens are outsourcing.
    4. She teaches my belly dancing class.
    5. He was one of my cell mates in prison… (in a hushed tone) not rapey one,(normal voice) that was a different guy… he had more tats and oddly smooth hands.”
    Awesome! I love the absurd ones!
    1. That’s my second cousin twice removed. She used to put yarn in her hair and eat cheerios for dinner. No, not a bowl! It was like a casserole.
    2. Remember that time when we got way too drunk at Steve’s?
    3. I met her on the subway not three days ago. She solved my rubik’s cube for me!
    4. He beat up a woman who was trying to mug me with a slinky and a razor blade. New York, man. What can you do?
    5. Oh him? We were tag-team champions in a local wrestling federation back when I was in college.
    6. She told me not to tell. She’s my special bestest friend!
    The alien one is my fave though. Sorry Dr. Rob.

  10. This has happened to me more often than I expected, and I toe the party line (don’t acknowledge unless they do). I’ve never had a problem with it, as most of the time it is a, “Hey. How’s it going? Good. Thanks.” etc. I think people are finally becoming a bit more comfortable with the role of MH…..slowly.

  11. dante says:

    What is the title of the book regarding the sex lives of great dictators?
    Dr. Rob: You nailed it: Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.

  12. CManson says:

    Oh her? Don’t worry about her, she just likes Cheese

  13. Anonymous says:

    I was with my husband and kids at a festival. I recognized a client of mine giving a political presentation after we were in the midst of participating. My husband started questioning him and some of his proposals (yikes!) They moved to one side and continued their somewhat heated discussion, with me sweating and gulping nearby.
    As we left the site, the client called out to me by name, “See you Tuesday at noon!” My husband turned and stared at me.
    But of course, he knows where I am on Tuesdays. Not necessarily at the lunch hour, of course.
    And funny enough, when approached by a client and my companion asks, “how do you know her?” I, too, say “She works in my building.” (And here I thought I was being so clever).

  14. sandy says:

    Funny enough, when approached by a client and my companion asks, “how do you know her?” I, too, say “She works in my building.” (And here I thought I was on only clever Clara).
    But here’s one for ya. I was with my husband and kids at a festival. I recognized a client of mine (rather attractive) giving a political presentation only after we were in the midst of participating. My husband started questioning him and some of his proposals (yikes!). They moved to one side and continued their somewhat heated discussion, with me sweating and gulping nearby.
    As we left the site, the client called out to me by name, “See you Tuesday at noon!” My husband turned and stared at me.
    Of course, he knows where I am on Tuesdays. Not necessarily at the lunch hour, though.

  15. Pace says:

    False Attribution Bias… the technical name for the usual error!
    I had been erroneously calling it “projection bias” up until now. Thanks for the informative footnote!

  16. Child Psych says:

    I always take my cue from the client, but since I see children & adolescents, there are occasionally extra wrinkles as in:
    -the 8-year-old with parent in tow who asks me who the person I’m with is (my husband), or even worse, the parent asks making it very difficult not to introduce them to each other.
    -the former client (seen at age 11) who at probably age 15, sees me outside the grocery store & brings her friends over to meet me as her former therapist & wants to chat & I don’t know what to say because I don’t remember who she is (until later of course!)

  17. Milo says:

    I usually give a smile and a really quick nod…

  18. Robert De Niro says:

    Substantially, the article is actually the best on this worthw hile topic.