It’s a feature of the power of modern technology that we have much more information available to us than any previous generation. I have written previously on the ethical, and professional reasons why therapists should not google their clients. Just as reading a private diary would cross a line, so does searching for information they have chosen not to share with us.
Owen Redehan recently wrote for welldoing.org about the reasons why clients shouldn't google their therapist. For a number of reasons, I not only think they should, but in some circumstances it can prove to be very helpful.
One of the first reasons someone considering any of the talking therapies should Google is one which I wish did not exist, but just as clients must confront reality, so must we. Not all therapists are ethical, some are even dangerous, abusive and still practicing, seeing people in a vulnerable state and exploiting them. Many people will recommend checking that someone is on a professional register, and that is indeed a good step. It is important that organisations like welldoing.org check the credentials of those listed, but it seems to me that given the fact all regulation currently in the UK is voluntary, then a quick check, particularly in private practice, seems wise.
Assuming that your chosen therapist is ethical, and has no complaints against them, should you stop there? I believe not. In our listings on sites such as welldoing, the BACP website, or more specialist organisations such as Pink Therapy, we introduce themselves, but with all the will in the world, they are just a few words, an attempt to distill an entire person into what is, bluntly, an advert. Fortunately many therapists have themselves realised the limitations of a brief biography and listing of qualifications and have started their own blogs, or write on their own websites. I would recommend a potential client spend time reading these, getting a feel for the person behind the words. Congruence and authenticity lie at the heart of the therapeutic relationship, and as a writer as well as a therapist I know how hard it is to hide your authentic self when you write. Remember if you are paying for a service, it is acceptable to pick, and choose, who provides that service.
For some clients getting a sense of the therapist's values is vital. I work with a number of client groups, from victims of abuse to gender and sexual minorities who have had previously negative experiences of therapy. GSD clients in particular have faced conversion therapy and pathologization of who they are. There are far more identities than male or female in the world, more ways of being, and of viewing others than might seem important to someone who has never had to assert their right to be respected for who and what they are.
Checking out a potential therapists attitudes isn’t for many about idle curiosity, but ensuring they will be safe to work with. Some people seek out a therapist who shares their identities, for others it is enough to know they have an understanding, that they will not have to educate their therapist. For yet others it is about attitude, rather than any specific knowledge or experience. Whichever feels right for you, spending time with what a potential therapist has written is a way to discover if they may (and of course it is just may, since words are just a shadow of the person) be the right therapist for you.
Which brings us to the thorny topic of social media. We live in an age where everyone seems to tweet, snapchat, share and like. My personal opinion is that it is up to a therapist to protect their own privacy, not for a client, or potential client to avert their eyes. A good, pre-Internet comparison might be with the casual client encounter. It’s often discussed in an initial contracting session: What would the client like the response to be if client and therapist bump into each other in the street? The options usually are: ignore the client or respond to a hello. This choice is always client led, and to ensure the client's confidentiality is respected.
Many people, from fear, or perhaps unfamiliarity, separate off social media as an area where new rules apply. In fact it's no different from that casual encounter. If a therapist is on social media then they should consider it to be the equivalent of the street. I have a social media policy which all new clients sign, where the only private space is Facebook, to ask to friend me would be seen as “knocking on my front door” and just as that would be explored in session, so would any boundary concerns about social media. Maintaining good boundaries is not only something therapists can demonstrate but is something many clients struggle with. The therapeutic space is a rehearsal for the world outside, and by showing how we maintain boundaries, we allow a client to rehearse how their boundaries could be.
For this piece I have focused on potential clients, but of course once counselling is entered into a client may feel that desire to learn more about the professional who sits in the other chair. This is, for some, a perfectly normal reaction to sharing their intimate hopes and fears each week. It has to be said that others prefer to know nothing, to have a blank slate whose thoughts and feelings they do not need to worry about. This isn't about right and wrong, but about the best therapeutic outcomes. If you feel the need to know more about your therapist, bring this to session. It can be invaluable work, looking at things such as self-worth, intimacy, loneliness, jealousy, attachment, even how you manage relationships. If a therapist is managing their boundaries well, there should be nothing you could learn from Googling they would not want you to know. However discussing the desire might be a far more valuable process, even if it means admitting feelings you might find it hard to be honest about.
You can read other welldoing.org therapist views on this topic, as well as those of therapy clients, in The Guardian