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News - Politics

Must I Tell My Therapist About My Other Therapist?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on whether having two shrinks is the same as two-timing and whether unpaid internships are ever fair.

Illustration by Tomi Um

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

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

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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