One of the cool things about social media for me has been the way it has allowed me to connect with other therapists. I’ve tweeted articles and humor with some. I’ve explored the worlds of Telara and Azeroth with others. I’ve had dinner in Laguna Beach with colleagues I’d only met before on Facebook. I’ve had both fun and networked, and I’ve learned that not only can networking be fun, but that experiencing that social form of fun makes for better and more productive networking. I’ve had invitations to travel and do workshops, requests for supervision, interviews, and dessert, entirely due to social media. Yes, dessert.
One promising first step I’ve seen therapists take is LinkedIn. When I first joined LinkedIn, there were only a handful of psychotherapists using it. Now there are thousands. LinkedIn seemed to be a safe entry point into Web 2.0 for my colleagues, because it focussed on the “professional” aspects of their human being and online presence.
And then things got stuck. And here’s why.
Psychotherapists in private practice are a lot like old-school kindergarden teachers. You know, the ones who always kept their class doors closed, parents and administrators out, and carved out their own space and laws of physics. We push ourselves through grad school, work for years in public settings, and then finally we strike out on our own to build our private practice. And boy do we take the private part seriously! Not in the way I wish we did, as in a privately-owned and privately-held business concern, but as a top secret laboratory where we practice our craft shrouded in mystery.
Private practice psychotherapy has become, and maybe always was, not unlike feudal Europe in the Middle Ages. We each have our own little barony with rules and culture, and we rarely talk to each other. And the common idea bandied about is that “psychotherapy is a lonely profession,” as if that is a necessary evil rather than a potential occupational hazard. Many people try to deal with this by joining professional organizations, attending workshops, and supervision groups. And these are useful for our professional development, so when we burn out we can be up to date on the latest in the field that has driven us crazy.
In short, we are afraid to be social in a more personal way beyond the safety of professional boundaries. And one of the biggest concerns I hear about social media is the danger of crossing boundaries from professional to personal. I think in fact that when people talk about being afraid of social media technology they are as afraid of the “social” part as they are the “technology” part.
The term “boundaries” is perhaps one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in psychotherapy. Yes boundaries are important things. France has a boundary, as does Germany. That doesn’t mean no one from France should ever go to Germany and vice verse! You don’t usually hear U.S. citizens saying, “I wanted to go to the Winter Olympics in Canada, but that would be crossing a boundary so I can’t.” We have gotten this bizarre idea in our heads that transgression is equal to violation, rather than a word for the concept of crossing over. If you’re house is on fire you better be prepared to transgress your door threshold, or you’re going to experience another kind of burn-out.
Therapists need to learn how to have some permeability in our boundaries, and technology can help break down our social isolation from our colleagues. One great example of this is Twitter. Twitter is designed for short bursts of dialogue, which is excellent for me when I want to have a little social connection in the 15 mins between patients. I may not have a chance for a cup of coffee with my friend Susan, but I can send her a Youtube video spoofing Adele and Angry Birds. And the only reason I know that Susan would enjoy this is because she allows herself to disclose on Twitter that she enjoys the music of Adele. She did that some time ago, and from what I can tell no ethics charges have been brought against her from disclosing that.
Disclosure is another word that gets misused by the way. Our patients have suspected that we are humans for some time, and if they follow our Tweets and find out that I am enjoying Portal 2 that may mean something to them about my humanity. But it is not the same as mooning someone in my office, and it is time we understood the difference. The first humanizes me, the second is inappropriate. But using social media is not some sort of inevitable slippery slope towards debasing myself and violating someone else. That is just a thought we use to terrorize ourselves into solitude.
Gamers have understood the importance of socializing for years, despite the stereotypes we level against them for being asocial. Guilds are an excellent example of this. For those who aren’t in the know, guilds are voluntary groups of players who join up with each other in the game world. There are raiding guilds that focus mostly on progressing in the game, casual guilds that balance progress with more fun and social activity, and a variety of degrees between the two. And through the use of Ventrilo and other software, people can actually talk and listen to each other as they play. One of my fondest guild memories is a Christmas party we had in Dun Morogh. Dozens of players in our guild, from all over the US, UK and Australia showed up at a frozen lake for a guild picture and dancing around a bonfire. There were snowball fights, there was a gift exchange, virtual mead was drunk. It was a blast. And this social activity strengthened our bond as a guild and I think improved our ability to play together as well.
And yesterday and today on Twitter I have been joking about our forming a posse of therapists. I think everyone needs a good posse, partners in crime to plot world domination with. We need to have some playful interactions with colleagues if we want to succeed in our professional lives. At least I think we do, and I’m not going to refer anyone to see a dour therapist. So good business networking is personal as well as professional. You can take your work seriously, but if the only way you have of interacting with people is serious and somber, sign up with the Pilgrims.
Epic therapists need a guild. We can’t solo quest forever. We need to share with each other the victories and the setbacks in our businesses, not maintain this constant pokerface to give the impression that we have the perfect, full private practice. Who are people you can brag to safely? Who are the people you can tell when you’ve had a slowdown in referrals and are afraid? Who can you talk to when you need to be challenged to rethink how you’re doing things? For me, those people are the people that I can also laugh with, play with, and meet for coffee. If you are carrying around your office in your life and bearing outside the office, I’m not going to want to connect with you that much. Learn to shift gears. Try lurking online, share a link on Facebook that you found meaningful. Comment on other people’s blogs even if you don’t have one of your own. It’s good business to be human, and it’s often fun as well. What kind of guild would you like to join?