The Ethicist: Must I Tell My Therapist About My Other Therapist?

September 17, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “Must I Tell My Therapist About My Other Therapist?

I’ve been in and out of therapy for seven years, and I recently had to find a new therapist because of a move. It’s important to find a therapist who is the right fit, so I figured I’d “try out” a few and see whether we meshed or not. Fast-forward a few months: I have been consistently seeing two therapists because I can’t decide on just one.

The therapist I see on Mondays is close to my age and tends to probe specific statements I make, forcing me to do some deep (and very helpful) introspection. The therapist I see on Thursdays is much older, with decades of experience. The therapy sessions with her involve relating issues back to my past and understanding the why of it, as well as giving me a more top-level perspective, which is also extremely helpful. They have two different styles that are helping me immensely in different areas of my life.

However, neither of them knows about the other. Initially, I thought I would drop one, but now I don’t want to. Some of my friends think I am obligated to at least tell them I am two-timing. I don’t see why. They almost offer a different service, in my mind, and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable knowing I might be comparing one with the other, or thinking I still might drop one of them. Am I obligated to tell them? Name Withheld, New York City

My response: There is no book in the sky that determines obligation in any absolute way. I would ask yourself why you’re asking about your potential actions as obligations. I suspect you want someone to tell you you’re obliged to remove your concerns about your feeling of responsibility. That is, if someone with authority tells you something is your obligation, if things go some way you don’t like, you can say, “It’s not my fault. The New York Times told me it was my obligation.”

I recommend taking responsibility to decide your actions yourself. You’ll make mistakes. That’s how we learn to think and act for ourselves. You’ll no longer have to ask third parties for basic life decisions. You’ll learn more about yourself, your values, how to act on your values, your relationships, and so on.

The New York Times response:

Negotiating the terms of a therapeutic relationship can clearly be challenging. You don’t say anything about what kind of therapy this is; there may be conventions here that I don’t know about. But there isn’t a general moral objection to your withholding information from a professional with whom you are working. It’s your time, to use in ways you judge will benefit you. If these were two doctors prescribing drugs, you’d certainly need to tell them about each other, in order to avoid unfortunate drug interactions, say. And perhaps it would help your therapists do their jobs to know some of what the other one was up to. Then, too, some theories of the therapeutic relationship suggest that keeping something significant from your therapist is bad for the therapy. If that were so, you’d be harming yourself. These are all matters of prudence, however, not of what you owe your therapists.

Still, the fact that you haven’t told them about each other suggests that you think they might not approve. They have an expectation, you seem to think, that clients will tell them if they are working with other therapists. This would mean you were betraying a sort of implicit contract, which is a wrong in human relationships, even professional ones that you’re paying for. Your relationship with your therapist — or your lawyer, your doctor or your accountant — is an interpersonal interaction, and as such, it makes moral demands on you.

But only up to a point. If the cost of revealing your double-dipping is that they’d drop you, the wrong might be outweighed by the benefit to you of having two therapists. A professional relationship is very different from a relationship of love or friendship: It’s largely instrumental. This is not like keeping two lovers in the dark about each other. So truthfulness — revealing all the facts that the other party might care about — isn’t owed to the other party.

I am a freelancer in a creative industry that has been in pretty dire financial straits for the last several years. A few months ago I entered a short-term contract to complete a project with a major, prestigious, name-brand company in my field (at below my usual rate, but the exposure was so good that I was willing to make the sacrifice). After I signed on, I learned that a 23-year-old unpaid intern was assigned to work with me. She was exceedingly professional and pleasant, and her work was impeccable. I would estimate that she put about 100 unpaid hours into my project, and she made it shine.

Like all the other interns, she holds a master’s degree and was doing an unpaid internship for a three-month term. This internship is on a regular cycle throughout the year, ensuring the company has an endless supply of free labor. This is legal — or at least not illegal — where I live, and the company makes some token gestures to differentiate interns from employees, like allowing them to set some of their own hours. The company aggressively recruits high-achieving young people. But as far as I can tell, they’ve been hiring hardly any new people, especially not full time, in recent years. The internship is not a foot in the door.

I think this practice is unethical and takes advantage of ambitious and talented young people with big dreams. When I was this intern’s age, I had a full-time job doing almost exactly the same tasks, but at an entry-level salary of $50,000 per year with benefits. After we completed the project, I mailed the intern a thank-you with $70 worth of Visa and grocery gift cards. She called me to say thanks and was so emphatic that I thought she was going to cry. This just made me feel worse.

I will soon have an opportunity to work with this company, and another intern, again. What is the ethical thing to do here? Should I make another pitiful gesture of compensation? Refuse the contract on principle? Or is the company’s internship policy not my business? I can’t decide whether my beliefs about unpaid internships are a personal stance, or if what this company is doing is just plain wrong. What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: “I think this practice is unethical” … “What is the ethical thing to do here?” … “I can’t decide … if what this company is doing is just plain wrong.” If you believe the practice is unethical, as you clearly state, why do you ask the New York Times what is ethical? Why can’t you decide later if it’s wrong?

Is the difference that you want to do your project? If she, a sane adult, comes to an agreement with the company, what business is that of yours?

If you consider their agreement your business, I suggest a more important consideration for you is not how to label it but what you do about it, which I suggest you approach with a problem-solving perspective: what resources do you have, what results can you create, and so on. These open-ended questions will give you more options, more likely to lead to outcomes you consider successful than closed questions like “Refuse the contract on principle?“.

As for what I think, I can’t understand why you’re writing the New York Times about abstract philosophical concepts instead of talking to the people involved, whom you know and care about, whom you’re working with, and who know the situation. You could do something that affects people, maybe even help them. You could learn to manage your emotions.

The New York Times response:

Unpaid internships can provide opportunities for people whose level of preparation doesn’t make paying them a salary worthwhile. So people really can learn from them. But the practice also lends itself to abuse, as you report. The interns you would be working with are highly qualified, trained people. If their time with you doesn’t improve their skills or their job prospects, they’re being exploited. Is this the case here? You say that the interns are highly unlikely to be hired at this particular company; the question is whether they have made themselves more employable in the industry at large.

However you answer that question, there’s another issue to consider. You don’t seem to think that raising your concerns will change how the company operates. That intern will be working with someone, you can bet. So I’d stick with what you did before. Treat your interns well, make sure that they do learn as much as you can teach them, provide them with the strong recommendations they deserve and, yes, show your personal gratitude for good work by giving them a parting gift.

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