Boo! I Got Spooked By My Counsellor!

It happens. You’re out and about doing your thing and out of the corner of your eye you spot….your counsellor!

Aaack! Doh! Err! Awkward.

What do you do? How should your counsellor behave? I get into this in this article.

Everyday Life

While it may seem like an obvious point that counsellors are people too, sometimes it’s just hard to reconcile that mentally. Although going into a counsellor’s bricks and mortar office has changed a lot with the pandemic, where more of us than ever have opted for phone or video counselling appointments, sometimes it’s hard to imagine a counsellor existing in any other environment than a counselling room.

Where might you run into a counsellor? Anywhere, really, although COVID-19 has made sightings more rare, as access to public spaces is more restricted and many of us are keeping our physical distance from one another.

And, I would also argue that the ‘boo factor’ may even be amplified during the pandemic: many of us are in pubic spaces primarily for taking care of essential matters, not expecting to run into anyone, especially our counsellors! Regardless, sightings happen.

Let’s look at some places you may run into a therapist:

Present Day:

  • On the street
  • Getting takeout
  • Grocery stores
  • Liquor stores
  • Transit
  • Pharmacies
  • Children’s schools (if open)
  • Hospitals and medical clinics
  • Beaches, parks and trails
  • Online courses, workshops, forums

Pre-Pandemic (or in some jurisdictions):

  • At coffee shops, restaurants, pubs
  • In gift shops and boutiques
  • Shopping malls
  • Clothing stores
  • Movie theatres and live performances
  • Seminars or workshops
  • Festivals
  • Public washrooms
  • Gyms, swimming pools, rec centres
  • Libraries
  • Churches, temples, synagogues, mosques or religious/spiritual centres

Client Reactions

How might a counselling client react when they encounter their therapist in public?

Everyone is different. Reactions may (or may not) include the following, and may be expressed either internally or externally:

  • Surprise ——> Shock
  • Puzzlement ——> Confusion
  • Shyness ——> Embarrassment
  • Happiness ——> Excitement
  • Awkwardness ——> Mortification
  • Curiosity —— > Fascination
  • Anxiousness ——> Panic
  • Concern ——> Worry
  • Neutral

Some of us might also feel a response that feels more stereotypically “Canadian”: experiencing extreme discomfort but not showing it.

Client reactions are also influenced by the setting that the ‘counsellor sighting’ takes place in, as well as whether the counsellor and client are proximal to one another when they see each other and whether or not the counselling client is with another person or group.

Counsellor Reaction and Response

Yes, counsellors have reactions too, and because therapists are human, any reaction is technically possible. Unlike client reactions, however, a therapist bears significantly more responsibility in the situation: the responsibility to mentally prepare for this eventuality as well as to follow professional standards of practice, when this happens.

The responsibility around encountering a client in public rests primarily on the therapist. While a counsellor cannot control how a client reacts to seeing them, the counsellor must act with care.

Sometimes when you first meet with a counsellor, or included in their consent forms, is the message that if you and the counsellor were to see each other in public, the therapist will not approach you, in order to protect your confidentiality. Sometimes the counsellor’s message is expressed a little differently, as in, they will not acknowledge you unless you approach them.

Let’s look at reasons why counsellors respond the way they do.

Respecting Confidentiality

Confidentiality is a huge deal in counselling and falls under most counsellors’ codes of ethics and standards of practice, providing they are registered, and is also governed by legislation, such as British Columbia’s Privacy Act.

Valuing Privacy

Clients’ right—as is true with any citizen—to enjoy their public space freely.

Reducing Pressure and Awkwardness

Sometimes clients will feel the pressure to “be polite” and have a conversation with their counsellor when it feels weird to do so, outside of the counselling office. Are clients supposed to socialize? Ask the counsellor about themselves? The short answer is no. You are under no obligation to approach your therapist, make conversation or ask them about themselves.

Sometimes a client may even feel that they have to introduce the person they’re with—if they’re with someone—to their counsellor. Alternatively, clients may feel like they need to tell anyone they’re with that they just saw their counsellor, particularly if the counsellor were to stop or walk by and say hi.  So yes, even “hi’s” can be compromising.

Address It In The Counselling Office

If the client is a current client, I usually like to bring up the public encounter in the next session, just to see if the client has any feelings about this and to express that if they felt ignored, it was only to preserve their confidentiality and privacy and to not contribute to an awkward situation. This has nothing to do with counsellors’ feelings about clients!

Therapist Subterfuge

And full disclosure, I have been known to hide behind shelves in stores, if I’m unable to leave without detection, in an effort to avoid startling a client or making things awkward or un-confidential for them. This may be weird but it’s honest.

Q and A

In summary, let’s touch on some common questions.

What do I do if I see my therapist in public?
The simplest response is to do nothing. This is your best way to protect your privacy and confidentiality. Clients are not prohibited from approaching their counsellor but keep in mind that your confidentiality and privacy could be at stake.

This is awkward. How do I manage my feelings?
You are correct. It is awkward and I urge you to recognize that there is nothing wrong with feeling that way! If your’e still bothered by the encounter, bring it up with your therapist in the next session or try coping strategies that are right for you.

What about the counsellor’s feelings?
While counsellors are human, we expect that chance public encounters can happen and we are prepared to deal with them. We are responsible for managing our own feelings.

What if I’m a past client? Does confidentially apply?
While there are variations depending on what professional college or association your counsellor comes from and where their practice is located, as a registered clinical social worker (RCSW), I am required to maintain confidentiality over the course of my lifetime. This means that if clients die before me, I have a professional and ethical responsibility to maintain their confidentiality after their death.

Do I need to stop going places if I think my counsellor will be there?
No. Continue to go to the places that are important to you unless you decide that this is not right for you. If you’re worried about encountering your therapist, bring it up with them in session or contact them to discuss your concerns, even if you are a previous client.