Dear Amy: I’m a young professional, working as a banker at a local branch. I have been going to the same therapist for nearly three years, and I absolutely adore her. She has helped me beyond words. I treasure our wonderful connection and relationship.
Here lies the issue: I am technically stalking her.
My therapist banks where I work. I have access to her accounts and check daily, observing her spending habits. I am also privy to her personal information; address, date of birth and Social Security number, although I have not searched for her home.
I am mortified with my behavior, yet I find myself unable to stop. It gives me insight into who she is as a person, which makes me feel closer to her.
I would be absolutely devastated if she knew — and I can only assume she would terminate our relationship. I can’t talk to anyone about this. I feel it’s truly abhorrent behavior, and I don’t want to be judged. Help!Secretive Searcher
Secretive Searcher: Stop. Don’t search today. Breathe through your impulse. And then don’t search tomorrow.
This is highly unethical. Your employer has entrusted you with this vital and important information. You are abusing this trust.
I shared your question with Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and author of the memoir: “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed” (2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
She responds: “It’s natural to be curious about your therapist, especially because it can feel like such a one-sided relationship. Most of us wonder, ‘Who is this person who knows so much about me?’ I once Googled my therapist, only to realize that while I thought learning about him would bridge that gap, it instead created a bigger one, because now I had to edit myself in therapy — a space where we’re supposed to feel free to talk about absolutely anything — because I was worried I might give away what I knew.
“Your daily monitoring of her accounts, though, goes beyond simple curiosity. It might be a way to feel close to her between sessions — a way of comforting yourself with her virtual presence — but it might also be pointing to what’s missing in your own life.”
“So many of our destructive behaviors take root in an emotional void, an emptiness that calls out for something to fill it. This void is what you should be talking to your therapist about — what it is and how you cope with it by focusing on her life instead of yours. If you keep this a secret, not only will you be wasting your time in therapy, but you’ll remain stuck in what has become a dangerous obsession that could cost you not just your therapist, but your job. It’s possible that you’ll need to find a new therapist, but at least you’ll be working on what’s causing you to do something that, though soothing in the moment, will leave you feeling guilty, isolated and empty in the long run.” (c) Ask Amy
This really intrigued me. I have to thank Ask Amy for posting and answering this really interesting, thought-provoking question.
Personally, I hate therapists, but on an intuitive level, I think I can understand this. Honestly, it breaks my heart a little, and I feel sad for the letter writer. It sounds like a case of transference. That’s where you fall in love with your therapist or psychiatrist. I learned about transference by watching reruns of Frasier. There’s this great episode where the two psychiatrist brothers, Frasier and Niles, try to one-up each other with the numbers of their patients who’ve experienced transference. (“Well, I’ve had five patients fall in love with me.” And, “Ha! I’ve had eleven.” And, “Oh, you have not.”)
For this letter writer, knowing there’s a word for it could help her address the issue with her therapist. “Um, you know what transference is, right? I… think I might be suffering from it.” That could get the talk rolling.
I don’t think this person has a clear-cut case of transference–not exactly–because I don’t think this woman has romantic feelings for her therapist. But maybe that’s not the point of transference. This woman is projecting her relationship desires (closeness, empathy, compassion, etc.) onto her therapist and getting a bit swoony over it. [Ooh, hey, Ashley Leia, I see a blog post here about what is… transference!!]
Then, after addressing the transference issue, if I were the letter writer, I’d play dumb about what I’ve done (with the stalking) and focus on the feelings. “I just feel so captivated by your life, because I feel connected to you, and it’s a big feeling. You seem bigger than life, and I guess I just sort of think you seem perfect.”
In this manner, the issue can be worked through without the letter writer having to cop to the stalking; and if she quits the stalking upon working through the issue, I don’t think anyone needs to be the wiser.
If the letter writer is out there reading this, I understand. But I’d also like to warn you that your employers might notice your selective use of the bank’s database. You’d better quit doing that, because you could get in serious trouble.
To recap, tell the therapist about the feelings, but not the actions.
Really? You might be asking me. Lie to your therapist? Well, yeah. I think it would be good to eliminate the stalking from the conversation, because the letter writer is right–it could end their relationship. But, if sharing and working through the feelings can end the stalking, then that would be the better path.