I work at a nonprofit and am the only staff member who manages our +1,200 volunteers.
My ex-husband worked with a therapist for years prior to our divorce. The ex was violent, cheated on me, and was verbally abusive. At one point when things were really messy his therapist sought me out at a public event to encourage me to get STI testing because of my ex’s unprotected contact with sex workers.
3 years later, his therapist has just begun volunteering at my place of work. I feel sickened at the thought of working with someone who reminds me so much of this ex and knows so many personal things about me. What, if anything, can I do? Should I disclose this situation to my boss?
Hi there, I can understand why seeing this therapist’s name again, especially in a place where you are safe/in charge/that has nothing to do with your ex is sending you reeling after all this time.
Maybe one thing you can do is try to be more specific – with yourself – about the nature & source of your worry?
- Is it that this person knows private stuff about you and your ex, and you hate being reminded of the whole thing, even if they never say or do anything about it?
- Is it that you’re reasonably worried they will bring it up with you or tell other people?
- Is the incident where they told you about your ex’s bad behavior something that gives you pause about their work as a volunteer, like, you are worried about how they’ll handle confidential information or represent the organization?
From your letter, I strongly suspect that it’s more about their association with your ex than anything else, and if so, I suspect your path of least resistance is probably to treat them exactly like you would any new volunteer. It’s most likely a giant coincidence, your ex was just one of their many patients, they are just one of your 1200 volunteers, they most likely haven’t spent this whole time thinking about you, and they may not even immediately remember who you are. Here’s hoping!
Therapists need to keep client information confidential, but may break confidentiality in some circumstances to prevent danger to the client and others. In some places they are obligated to do this, in some it’s up to them. Seeking you out at at a public event three years ago may have not been the best way to go about it (and I will 100% believe you if you say it was awkward as hell and you wished they’d tried something else!), but was it possible that the person was working within some pretty serious professional and ethical constraints and still tried to make sure you had information you needed to protect your safety and maybe your life? (i.e. Is this a bad therapist problem or a bad-ex problem?)
If your instinct is “based on past interactions, I think this particular therapist is generally untrustworthy and bad at boundaries,” listen to that and make some contingency plans (list at the end of the post). But if they’ve never tried to contact you again, and it really was just one extreme situation, the most likely thing that will happen is that it never comes up at all unless you bring it up.
If they do remember you, it’s still not the end of the world. Therapists have lives and community connections outside their practice, and they do have ways of handling it when they run into a client or someone they know from a professional context. In my experience, the therapist will not greet the client/associated party unless greeted first, and if it is a situation where they must interact, the therapist will not explain how they know each other or bring up anything related to therapy or confidential information.
Most of these boundaries are as much about protecting the therapists as they are about anyone else. They don’t want to accidentally out the fact that a client is in therapy, they also want to eat sandwiches/do yoga/take in a symphony/volunteer/move around in the world outside their offices in relative peace. This is so ingrained in their training that if this particular therapist is cool or ethical AT ALL, there is NO WAY IN HELL they are going to roll up to your work and be like “Me & LW go way back, I therapized their shitty ex, how’s it going with all the rebuilding your faith in humanity stuff?”
If they remember you at all, they will leave it 100% in your hands to bring it up, and 200% be hoping you won’t bring it up, like,“Oh god, not here, this was just going to be my nice volunteer gig away from the office.” At most, this is Sympathetic, Regretful Nod territory, like, “I know that you know that I know that you just figured out how we know each other, please let us never speak of it.” The nod? Or wince? Is an okay outcome,“Yep, this is awkward, sorry about that, you can trust me not to make it weird(er).” You’re professionals, not robots.
If your ex’s therapist fails to respect this line, if they have sought you out at other times, displayed poor professional ethics or boundaries in other ways, or if they do bring any of this history up in the context of volunteering, they are behaving unethically and pretty far outside any professional norms. If that is the case (the person is malicious or dangerously oblivious), or you’re still nervous and you want some strategies at your fingertips, here are some contingencies:
1. As noted, probably your best bet by far is to start out by treating this person as you would any other volunteer. You’re a professional at what you do, they’re a professional at what they do, those boundaries exist to protect everyone in uncomfortable situations!
2. If you could say something about your discomfort and what happened in the past to this volunteer, what would you say? Like, forget professionalism for a second and think like a human, and script out that conversation. One version might be:
“I was so uncomfortable when I saw your name on the volunteer roster and realized where we know each other from. I’m doing so much better than I was the last time we ran into each other, but I still feel so much dread about anything involved with my ex. Is it uncomfortable for you when you run into clients and people you know a lot about in other contexts? We don’t have to talk about it more, and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, I just couldn’t decide if it was weirder to say something than it was to pretend it never happened.”
I like to think that a good, ethical therapist would be able to say some version of “Please don’t trouble yourself, I try never to mix client stuff and other parts of my life, and hopefully we can put it all behind us and start fresh. I’m just glad to know you’re doing well.” + “So, about that volunteer assignment/other subject change…”
Am I definitely recommending you say this to this person? Is this the Most Professional Path available to you and what I think you should do? Newp! Just like you want to be free of having personal crap follow you to work, the therapist just wants to volunteer without having their other work follow them here. But if it helps your fear to know, “wait, I could rip this bandaid off any time, I don’t have to dread this all the time,” then do this thought exercise and see what you come up with. You’re professionals, not robots.
3. Do your homework. What policies does your organization have to vet volunteers and, if necessary, fire someone for inappropriate behavior? Do you screen by checking references? If there’s a pattern of sketchy behavior, your process of reference checks might reveal that on its own. If you have doubts about this person’s discretion, it might affect what kind of work you assign them. There might be policies that remind you where your professional ethics & duties lie. Your organizations’s policies might not help you out all that much, and you hopefully will never need to invoke them, but if you’re feeling anxious, double-checking them is something you can do. Better to know than not know.
4. Alerting your boss might not be so much about getting rid of this person as a volunteer (especially if they don’t do anything wrong or creepy) as it is an informal “I have a weird personal history with this person b/c of my ex, would you mind being their point person?” favor, or safety net. Though you should absolutely report it to your boss if they do something squicky. Otherwise, your dread is that past confidential information will come to work with you, so think twice about whether you want to be the person who introduces that information at work. In your boss’s shoes, I’d pretty much say “Thanks for telling me, please do come to me if they do anything strange or aggressive or are breaking volunteer rules and you need some backup, otherwise, they’re just one more volunteer and I know you’re a pro who can handle it!”
5. If they bring up the past in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you are allowed to shut it all down, directly and bluntly. “Please, let’s change the subject, I am not comfortable talking about that.” “I was dreading having this conversation, let’s keep it professional.” “Why would you think it’s okay to mention that to me?” “I am very uncomfortable discussing confidential personal matters at my job.” “How completely inappropriate. I can’t imagine why you would want to bring that up with me.” “Please stop talking about that. If you can’t behave ethically, it’s time for you to find another volunteer assignment.”
6. If they do something really out of line, and/or persist, you probably also have the option of reporting them to their state licensing or professional board. Hopefully it won’t come anywhere near this, but the option exists if this person does something really extreme.
I hope it will go fine. I think that is the most likely scenario. If it doesn’t, you have options, and I hope that makes you feel more in control. I’m glad you are free of your ex. I hope this is just one of those little aftershocks that happens sometimes after a bad breakup, and not its own whole-ass earthquake.
Readers, especially those of you who work as counselors or therapists, can you help reassure the Letter Writer?