#1164: “My ex’s therapist wants to volunteer where I work!”

Dear Awkward,

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?

59 thoughts on “#1164: “My ex’s therapist wants to volunteer where I work!”

  1. Good luck! Hopefully it’s best-case scenario and not worst for you and this all moves along smoothly! I did have a therapist once where I mentioned going to local burlesque shows and she then stated: “Full disclosure, I sometimes also go to burlesque shows. If I see you I will not acknowledge you unless you come up to me.” and that was that.

    May your healing continue LW as you get on with your badass life!

    1. That’s exactly what my therapists have said “I will not acknowledge you unless you come up to me.”
      And even so, they will not reveal how they know you.

      1. That’s what my girlfriend’s therapist told her, since she sometimes brings her daughter to my girlfriend’s work (library).

        I hope I do this right when it’s my turn!

    2. Yeah, I’m a youth counselor, and this is our explicit policy. We tell it to all young people directly when they start working with us–we will never acknowledge you outside of the space, we will never repeat anything you say here outside of the space, and if you greet us first, we’ll say a quick hello and then move on.

  2. I have a similar though not identical situation. A few years ago I went to see a psychiatrist for treatment-resistant depression. We reviewed my entire, pretty terrible psychiatric history and all of the diagnoses I had received at one point or another. This person has since become one of my not-so-close colleagues, so I see them a few times a year. They have never, ever let on to anyone else that they have seen me as a patient, nor have they ever brought it up when we see each other in a professional context. (Neither have I.) I have to admit, it was incredibly awkward at first (for me) and I hated being reminded of the worst time in my life every time I saw them, but when we run into each other we both act like professionals and it is basically fine. The awkwardness and the memories have faded with time. Hopefully the same will happen for you, LW.

  3. Several years ago, my mother was in the ICU for about a week, dealing with some serious pneumonia complications. I work in connection with the hospital, and often run in to the doctors who cared for her during the time, including the physician who was in charge of her. That doctor would see me at seminars, but would either only nod and look away, or ignore me entirely. Finally one day we ended up sitting next to each other, and I brought up my mother’s care, and thanked him for what a great job he did. He was very friendly, but also told me “That’s great to hear. I’ve seen you around, but I never approach former patients or their family members on my own.” When I asked him about it, he said that seeing an ICU doctor can bring back traumatic memories and associations, even if the outcome was ultimately good, and the docs are trained never to re-open those wounds by initiating contact. So even non-therapists are taught to be sensitive to this – I would really hope this therapist is even better at handling the situation appropriately.

    1. Yup. I’m a pediatrician and I always leave it up to patients to approach me in public. We have very strict confidentiality rules so I don’t want to reveal something. I also don’t want to seem overly familiar/want to keep it a professional relationship. I also work with a doctor I used to see and this has never come up during work.

      1. I’m a veterinarian and I prefer to never, ever run into my clients outside of work; I have deliberately chosen jobs that were a 30 minute drive from home partly for that reason. If I do, I am fine with “hi, how are you?” just like with anyone else I know, but OMG please do not start talking to me about Fluffy’s medical care…I’m available many hours per week for that. (I’m not bound by HIPAA laws, but we do have a code of ethics). Worse still, I have prosopagnosia (face blindness), so I pretty much walk around in public surrounded by faces I don’t recognize, so if a pet owner did start talking to me about Fluffy I probably would not know who they were. So I’m the one that comes across as scatty and uncaring.

        1. I’m a psychiatrist and I feel like I’m continually saved from prosopagnosia embarrassment by HIPPA and professional ethics! I always warn people that I won’t acknowledge them in public when the truth is that I couldn’t if I wanted to.

    2. A family member ran into their optometrist at a party and was ignored until they went over to say hello. Family member is a social worker and knew the reason why, but it’s still weird when you get ignored by someone who is so friendly in their workplace. It does prove that competent professionals are very clear on these rules.

      As a reassurance to the LW : all therapists, social workers, nurses, etc that I know view the anonimity as a fundamental rule. Also, hopefully with 1200+ volunteers there will be a few layers between you.

  4. Generally good advice from the captain but not a lot of mention here of possible PTSD. As an abuse survivor I can imagine having simmering that close to my ex in my work life would be very very triggering, could lead to panic attacks etc. If you feel that might be the case I would disclose it to your boss and see what the options are for helping you through that.

    1. THANK YOU.

      If the company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or the LW can access counseling/support, that is also something to take advantage of!

    2. I came here to say this!! I am also an abuse survivor (and LW describes their ex as violent and abusive) and I’ve been dealing with major PTSD issues this past year since escaping my bad ex. If I had to work with his former therapist (after I broke up with him and he was spamming me with emails and messages he said I should come to a session so she can reassure me how much he cares about me and how much he’s changed… but I didn’t, so I never met her!! But if I had, hypothetically) or the couples counselor we went to for a while, I would not be able to do it. It would be too triggering and being professional be damned I’d probably be hiding under my desk having a panic attack!!

      If this is the case for LW, if it is a trauma/PTSD issue then (I’m not in the US, but have read lots of Ask a Manager, etc) they could see if they’re covered by the Disabilities Act thing and if not working with this person could be a reasonable accommodation…
      So not only yes to EAP and all the therapy you have access to, but if you don’t have to work with them, and can talk to your boss about it, I absolutely would!!!

  5. I’m a resident in counseling (I have my mental health degree and am working on my license). If I were in this position and recognized my coordinator as someone who I had intimate professional knowledge of, I would 1000% never speak of it to anyone except my clinical supervisor (my professional mentor who gives me practice and ethical guidance), my ethical board, or my own therapist. In fact, I would probably bow out of the volunteer position and find a different opportunity. The exception to this would be if my coordinator brought it up first, in which case I’d inform them of the above and follow their lead. I also would be bound not to violate the confidentiality of the ex since the safety issues are no longer imminent, so I would have to deflect if my coordinator asked me anything about them, and I could best avoid that by finding another position. This is in no way something you should feel bad about, it would be my choice for my own comfort and protection, and there isn’t much you could do to mitigate that. Other therapists may be more comfortable with continuing in the position and maintaining professional silence on the matter, but I’m relatively new and thus very cautious.

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience with meeting this person in a public place, it sounds very uncomfortable to say the least. Therapists have an ethical/legal duty to warn others at imminent risk of being hurt or killed by someone else, so I really think this person meant to behave ethically and wasn’t seeking to gossip or humiliate you. I hope the therapist sought guidance on whether and how best to warn you about your safety, and found that this was the best and only possible solution. My understanding of best practices when there is an abusive situation is that bringing both the abuser and the abused into a therapy session can set up the abused person for additional harm, so therapists should avoid that. Otherwise the therapist might have asked you into a session with your ex so there could be a more private conversation.

    Not all therapists are good or ethical therapists. If you feel like this person is not respecting your boundaries or is violating confidentiality, this is absolutely something their licensing board will take seriously and will take action to correct them on. Examples of violations would include telling you/anyone anything about your ex from therapy or discussing the nature of your relationship with/in the hearing of anyone else, or identifying current or former clients or their cases to you. If you choose to make a report their disciplinary proceedings will become public record, but your name and identifying details will be redacted. Policing this person’s professional behavior is not your responsibility and you shouldn’t have to go to work feeling like you need to protect yourself from them; if they do something you think is truly out of line, let the licensing board investigate and figure it out.

  6. I am not a therapist, but I am a nurse. Sometimes I see people I’ve cared for in public; that’s par for the course. I would never in a million trillion years approach a former patient or give any indication that I know them if we were to find ourselves interacting, unless they were the ones to say “hey I remember you, this was my nurse when I cut my finger off!” It wouldn’t even be a big deal to me; despite what TV shows do to move the plot along, HIPAA compliance is a usual part of our working lives. And here’s the thing: I recognize that for patients, getting undressed and showing me their bodies and telling me of their personal health concerns *is* a big deal, but for me? I’ve seen a lot of bodies and the things that happen to them. It is truly not likely that I am bothered/surprised/scared/weirded out by anything you are going to show me, in the way that you (understandably) are.
    I mention this because I suspect it is not all that different for therapists. So even though what you went through is a major life event for you, it may not been so significant for the therapist, and they’re not as emotionally invested in it. To violate HIPAA by approaching you and bringing it up would be WILDLY inappropriate and unlikely. The event you mentioned wherein they approached you to tell you to get tested could be framed as the prevention of harm to others (your physical health being at risk), which would be an exception.
    Good luck; this sounds like an emotionally weird and complicated situation!

    1. On the patient side of things, a few years back, my dad was in a real bad way for a good half a year. I’ll leave out details, but my mom and I have some pretty heavy PTSD from that time. I was out at a barcade with some friends when one of his nurses came up to me and started chatting. She was a great nurse, but to be brought back to when my dad was so sick, especially in such a surprising context was NOT GREAT. As nice as almost all of the staff taking care of him was, I would have definitely preferred the ” leave it up to the patients or family to approach first” idea.

      I feel for LW having a reminder of a difficult time from their life popping back up, especially in what they considered a safe space. Not a heck of a lot of advice, but plenty of empathy.

      1. Oh yes. There is a movie about cheating that came out when I was going through the implosion of a hellish abusive relationship with cheating involved, that produces a nasty visceral twinge even now just from that association, and it was just passively existing at that time, not being directly involved in my life. I definitely get the discomfort.

        If that nurse initiated contact with you without it being explicitly understood already that this would be okay to do, that was a seriously unacceptable thing to do. It’s something that I would consider bringing up to the facility, in fact, it’s so not okay. (I am sorry your family went through that and I hope your dad is doing better!)

        1. Associations run deep. I still can’t stand Bradley Cooper because I watched He’s Just Not Into You and the behaviour of his character so closely matched what I was going through at that time with my (now ex) boyfriend.

          Which really sucks because I wanted to see A Star is Born but there’s no way I can sit through a film of his without being incredibly triggered.

          I suffered a miscarriage right after watching La La Land at the cinema, I had horrible pains during the film and I literally got home as I lost the baby. The whole hype surrounding that film and awards season was horrible for me. It’s not Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s fault my baby died, but they’re a part of the story in my head that I can’t separate from what happened to me.

  7. OP, my suspicion (assuming that your qualms about this person are in fact about their old association with your ex, and not more broadly that they’re unethical and lacking in boundaries) is that this will be less of an issue than you’re imagining it will be. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way–I understand completely where your feelings are coming from on this! They’re absolutely reasonable feelings to have.

    But I think the most likely impact of their volunteering is going to be more minimal than the worst case scenario your gut is imagining. You’ll probably see them occasionally while at work (but likely not in a close-coworker kind of way–they’re one of 1,200+ volunteers, after all, I imagine there’s no way you work closely with every one of those people). You might talk briefly on occasion (but probably mostly about the work they’re volunteering to help with–odds are you won’t do much personal talk, much any discussion of your past or your ex). You might feel a rush of ex-memories the first couple times you run into them, and that may be hard to deal with–but that will likely fade as you overwrite those associations with new memories and impressions about them (like the work they’re now doing with your organization).

    If they do overstep, or if you find that your lingering ex-trauma is impacting you severely enough that you really can’t work with them, that might be worth bringing up with your boss. But I think if you give it a little while of pretending you see them as just another volunteer, the odds are good that over time, they’ll actually become just another volunteer to you.

  8. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and Cap is spot on: your ex’s therapist can’t ethically mention anything to you. If you start the conversation, they can talk to you, but if you don’t bring it up, they aren’t supposed to either.

    A therapist needs a signed release of information to discuss any aspect with a client case with someone who isn’t the client. In California where I work, public ambush aside, I would have needed a release to discuss the STI status of your ex with you, so I’m assuming your ex’s therapist had a release to do that. Releases expire at the end of treatment, or a year after the client signs them. So if it’s been over a year and your ex isn’t seeing that therapist anymore, they CAN’T talk to you about his shenanigans, even if they might want to. If they did, that’s a violation of HIPAA, and that’s a big ol’ mess for that therapist.

    As a therapist, I serve members of my own small community, so running into folks in non-therapeutic settings is common for me. When I teach psychology graduate students, we talk about how to handle the stilted, awkward moments when you see your client in public, or discover your BFF is dating a client, or when you run into a client who skipped out on their last bill at the grocery store. In general, we therapists might smile or make eye contact and give a small nod to say “Yes, hello fellow human, I acknowledge that I see you over there,” but it doesn’t go beyond that. For what it’s worth, most of the time, my internal narrative when I run into a client, former client, or someone from their network in public is “Ugghhhhhhh, awkwarrrrrrrrd” for about 5 seconds and then “Oh well, onward and upward!” right after that. It can be just as irritating for us as professionals to feel like we can’t do non-work things without our work life getting in the way as it is for a client or someone they know to feel like they’re being assessed for therapized in a community setting.

    I wish the LW lots of luck in having this therapist just fade into the background of their work life.

    1. I’m not a therapist, but I am a doctor, and MMS and the other healthcare professionals are right – the therapist cannot ethically talk to you about things related to your ex. It would be a violation of HIPAA, which s/he could be reported for (and s/he knows that).

      We are taught to not acknowledge patients outside of the office unless they initiate contact to avoid revealing any details, like the fact that you are even a patient. So s/he will most likely not bring it up. My office has a very happy, casual atmosphere, so when I see patients out, they tend to acknowledge me and then we can be friendly. (Honestly though, when I see patients outside of the office, I sometimes do not recognize them due to the lack of context).

      Good luck, LW!

  9. So, I’m a therapist and have been on the other side of this equation a few times. My training, experience, and personal preference is that when I see a former patient/patient-adjunct I treat them as a regular stranger unless they approach me (in which case I say hello and leave the situation as quickly as possible). There is absolutely zero desire to break confidentiality, and in fact I’m mostly nervous about hurting people’s feelings by ignoring them after the emotionally intense connection of therapy. OP, this therapist probably won’t even interact with you. I’m wondering, though, if having your memories of the past stirred up is disturbing enough that you could benefit from some Team You support to continue your own healing from that traumatic time in your life?

  10. I’m not a mental health professional but have run a local task force on a mental health issue in our community for a number of years so I work closely with about 20 providers in our community. As you might imagine, when we’re doing outreach work it is not uncommon for these folks to run into current and former patients and/or their family members. My experience echos what others are saying: they will not acknowledge they know you unless you do it first, and if that happens, they will not reveal how they know the person. Protecting both the confidentiality and mental well-being of patients is of paramount importance to any good mental health pro so I think it is very likely that your ex’s former therapist will handle this professionally.

    I hope for your sake that this ends up being a non-event and the awkwardness is very limited and short lived. Congratulations on moving on and building a healthier, happier life without your toxic ex!

  11. My read on that the LW is that they’re not so much afraid that therapist will behave inappropriately, as the therapist is an unwelcome reminder of a really bad time. They read the therapists name on a list of volunteers and all the bad memories came flooding back. (I may also be projecting like crazy in which I suggest everyone move along to the next comment.)

    If this is the case, techniques that are useful for dealing with PTSD might be helpful (as might a screening for PTSD and/or discussion with a mental health professional). (I don’t know if the LW has PTSD, but the techniques are generally useful for dealing with memories of past trauma.)

    Techniques that help with intrusive thoughts and feelings basically involve two steps: feeling safe and then regrounding in the present moment. For this situation, that could look like locking the door to the office (or a bathroom stall, or hiding in your car). It can take the brain awhile to feel safe, so feel free to check the locks 5-6 times if that’s helpful to you. Things like wrapping yourself in a blanket can also help. Then, slow your breathing if it’s fast and do some exercises to reground. That could mean describing the situation to yourself: I just saw X’s name and it reminded me of everything that happened with Y. I haven’t seen Y in Z years. It is now 2019 and I’m safe in my office. Another technique is to look around and make some observations, “the lamp on my desk is red, my coffee cup is white, I can smell the coffee and hear the cars outside”. The idea is to get your brain to let go of the past and reengage with what’s happening now. There are lots of different exercises. You might try googling “PTSD grounding exercises” to find more. The techniques were developed for PTSD treatment, but they are useful more generally. You don’t need a diagnosis to use them and if they’re helpful it doesn’t mean you have PTSD. It might be a useful bag of tricks for you to dip into.

    If this is having severe impacts on your life (you cry in the bathroom everytime you see or hear about the therapist, you’re not sleeping/sleeping all the time, you’re eating less/eating more, you feel anxious all the time, it’s hard to concentrate), that’s a good indication that you should discuss this with a mental health practitioner or your primary care doctor.

    1. Thistledown, you perfectly encapsulated what I was going to suggest. I am sure seeing the therapist’s name on the volunteer list at minimum made the LW’s stomach churn. In the absence of unprofessional behavior on the therapist’s part, coping strategies and techniques are the first steps that should be attempted.

    2. Thank you for this! I couldn’t tell whether the LW’s question was an HR question or a mental health question, this is very valuable.

    3. Thank you Thistledown. You just helped me reframe a very upsetting incident that happened to me recently. I won’t go into details since it is way off topic but your description brought me some peace.

  12. My therapist is someone I found through a dance studio we both go to, so we run into each other kind of a lot. At our first session, she was like “I know we’ll see each other at the studio from time to time – please don’t be offended that I’m ignoring you, it’s just my standard practice when I see my clients in public.” She studiously does not acknowledge me unless I acknowledge her first. It was a bit weird at first but I really appreciate it. OP, I don’t think this will be an issue at all! Any competent therapist will have dealt with this before and will be professional about it.

  13. I dropped out of grad school before finishing my therapy degree, but I would guess that the therapist agonized over what to tell you/how to tell you about the sex workers — breaking confidentiality is a very big deal but they might have been concerned about your safety on other levels as well, since you mention that your ex was violent. But therapists have many clients, while clients have but one (or a few) therapists. I’m sure they remember your ex, given that it was a relationship of many years, but they’re not going to be looking at you thinking about all the things they know about you and judging you or feeling sorry for you or whatever it is you fear that they’re thinking. They’re going to be thinking about their volunteer job and how it’s going for them. And they’re certainly not going to share information about you with anyone — therapists can’t be gossips, they’d lose their licenses way too fast. Or get sued, or both. If that therapist is thinking about their clients outside of work, it’s their current clients, and if they do too much of that anyway, they’re likely to get burned out and give up. Hating the reminder is totally understandable, but I’d guess that within a few encounters, you’ll be able to start viewing the therapist as themself, their own person, not as an extension as your ex. And — although I could be wrong, they might be evil therapist incarnate — I suspect they deserve that. The person volunteering for your organization is not the person who harmed you.

  14. I had to locate a therapist who was at least aware enough of polyamory to not automatically view it as a negative element in my life (I was also dealing with ex trauma). The first practitioner I absolutely knew I could trust around this was also someone I already knew socially, though not closely, and we exchanged a few emails about the ethics and boundaries around separating the relationships, if I had ended up seeing her professionally. She presented me with names of other therapists she felt might meet my needs as options as well. I ended up finding someone else, but through the entire process, everyone I interacted with was completely dedicated to confidentiality and professional conduct. I had no concerns about info from my therapy appointments creeping into my personal life.

    To me, it feels plausible that the ex’s therapist breached confidentiality (in a sadly disruptive way) because of genuine concern that LW’s health was at risk. Also, with LW’s ex being violent and abusive, the therapist may have believed it was not safe to contact LW in any other manner than in person and in public. Dealing with an abuser, phone and email can’t be assumed to be safe. With so little other information about any other past bad behavior by the therapist, my inclination is to move forward as positively as possible following the Captain’s advice. I don’t see anything that immediately makes me think the therapist is a bad egg.

  15. I’m a therapist, and yes, running into clients can be pretty awkward. Our code of professional ethics (and HIPAA privacy laws) makes it very clear that this person can NOT mention things to you other than perhaps a quick checkin of her saying “Well, this is awkward. Is it okay that I’m here?” She contacted you before only because your safety was in question.

    The ethical code says that if you were in treatment with her, she would have to get your permission to volunteer at your place of work — but you weren’t the patient, your ex was. Still, if it’s going to be a real emotional burden on you and you’ll have frequent contact with her, it’s worth telling her you’re not comfortable with it and seeing if she’s willing to find a different volunteer gig. Most of us in the profession would not want to know we were causing someone upset by doing volunteer work! As therapists, we have all navigated awkward conversations like this; if she’s at all competent, she will be able to have a civil conversation with you about it.

  16. My therapist has given me his ground rules about what might happen if we encounter each other in public. In short, he won’t initiate conversation, and if I do, he’ll give no hint to anyone hearing us about the circumstances behind our acquaintance. Hopefully your ex’s therapist is as professional, but I know even that that won’t mitigate the anxiety associated with their sudden presence in your life. Best wishes.

  17. I have had numerous therapists at uni and otherwise. I have been in a situation – multiple times – where I have ran into them IRL, or have had them recognise people from details that I have disclosed in my stories. I have also worked as a volunteer counsellor for a telephone crisis line.

    Professional counsellors or therapists would not break your confidentiality if they ran into you at a public event. I have known of some who opt out of associating themselves with events that have anything even tangential to do with their current clients, and I know for sure confidentiality is only broken in extreme circumstances.

    My take, LW, is that it sounds like this therapist only did what she thought was appropriate to protect you and your health, and that she will not acknowledge your association otherwise, unless you acknowledge it first. So this is completely up to you.

    I would also like to add that while approaching you in public back then may not have been ideal, or the best way to speak to you, it may well have been that this therapist thought it was the safest way to divulge the information (they may have had legitimate concerns about your phone or email being monitored, for example) and they may well have thought that the complications from untreated STIs were presenting a risk that warranted breaking confidentiality. Alternatively, they may have thought that testing for STIs was the only aspect of your ex’s behaviour they could legitimately warn you about.

    They may well have poor boundaries and it would be up to you to assess them, but as far as reasons for breaking confidentiality, “unprotected contact with sex workers that might lead to the intentional infection of a partner” is not one that I would ignore.

  18. I’m a Therapist, and I can 100% confirm due to experience and taught in school. As a therapist, you don’t acknowledge or respond to patients in a public setting unless they speak first. Not only that, but what is said in the office, unless a hazzard to others – specifically children-, stays in the office.

  19. I am a therapist, I can confirm that the “I won’t acknowledge I know you unless you acknowledge me first” is the standard procedure for therapists seeing current/former clients and/or family members out in the wild.

    Also I can understand it’s upsetting that this person knows so many personal things from such a terrible time in your life. But it’s literally in their job description not to be judgmental, not to mention that this person has probably had many clients in the 3 years since they worked with your ex. I’m not saying they won’t remember you, but I can guarantee that the personal details of your situation are just a drop in the bucket of all the things this person has dealt with, and unless your situation was something really egregious and crazy (REALLY CRAZY, because therapists hear regular crazy things on a daily basis) it won’t have stood out particularly to them.

  20. I hope this will be a little more reassurance re. ingrained professional discretion in healthcare. My friend works as a nurse in a doctor’s office. She is forbidden to initiate contact if she recognizes a client in public. If the client says hi, she is forbidden to reveal to bystanders anything at all about the client, including how she knows her. Even my kid who had a part-time, summer, retail job in a drugstore was trained to be, and was, entirely secret about customers. These are the two people I talk with most in the world and they never reveal anyone else’s business, even in anonymous anecdotes.

  21. I’m a psychologist. I can say with 93.7% certainty that this therapist will look at you and think, “Oh fer crying out loud, how do I know this person? Previous contact with this nonprofit? Grad school? That coffee shop I frequent? Just in case it’s clinically related, I’ll nod noncommitally and wait for her to bring it up (or not).” I personally would not remember anyone who was not a regular part of treatment with someone I saw three years ago. Especially if treating men with violent tendencies is this therapist’s stock in trade, she’s had contact with many individuals in your position, and you won’t stand out except as a somewhat familiar face.

    1. Oh, and if your ex was an outlier in her practice and she doesn’t specialize in treating abusers, she may remember you. But, even aside from ethics, she doesn’t want to bring it up because SHE doesn’t want to relive it.

  22. I’m a therapist and one of my former patients is now a distant colleague (unrelated to me, we both happen to work at the same huge employer). We see each other every so often, and I’ve never said anything to him about our past therapy relationship, nor would I dream of ever doing so. He has attended talks I’ve given, and I acknowledge him in the same way that I acknowledge everyone else in the room, and that’s it. All that to say, this therapist can almost certainly be counted on to keep her distance.

  23. I have a degree in social work, and currently work in a very similar job. (Don’t actually have the title of social worker, so not a member of my professional order, but basically the same work.)

    Best practices around confidentiality and ethics were a big part of my training, both at school and at my job. We had a class specifically on ethics. One of the first examples/thought experiments we were given was very similar to yours: a patient you are treating reveals they are HIV positive and they haven’t told their partner, who they do have sex with. Initially, most of the class thought they should let the partner know, but the more it was discussed the less people saw it that straightforwardly. Lots of factors to consider, including what constitutes a great enough danger to break confidentiality, what I know/don’t know about the situation, laws around disclosure where I practice, etc.

    The point being, in this therapist’s position, I would have thought long and hard about whether or not to contact you, and if I’d made the same call, it would not have been done lightly (and certainly wouldn’t be something I did regularly).

  24. I don’t know any therapists, but it is similar in medical fields and my Dad is a dentist. The big secret things he often knows about patients is if they are pregnant (or potentially pregnant) and he says he continues to keep the secret even once the kid is born and beyond. Patient confidentiality is a big deal and the therapist will likely ignore you or treat you like a stranger unless you acknowledge that you know them. I can definitely understand why it is bringing up a mix of confusing and bad feeling for you. I think the Captain gave some great advice!

  25. HIPAA laws are for serious — so they shouldn’t mention knowing you, and you have some definite recourse if they do. I was once in a room, alone, with two other people (volunteering), and I said to the one I didn’t know, “Wow, you look familiar to me!”, to which she just smiled. When I finally put it together and said “Oh, you’re the hygienist who last cleaned my teeth,” she told me she’s not even allowed to say that we met in that capacity if I don’t say it first. The fact that I just visit a dentist for cleanings is that private. Therapy should be next level stuff.

  26. I’m a social worker in a small city. Because of the size of the city, my years in my profession, and the size of social workers’ caseloads, I see clients/ former clients/clients’ families in the community very frequentntly. Just wanted to add my voice in agreement to the Captain and other commentators.

    It’s standard procedure to pretend the client is a total stranger, or to acknowledge them with a nod at most.

    I always have the same thoughts when I run into former clients—“I hope I’m not making them feel awkward”, and honestly, “I wish I could just buy this toilet paper without having to see this guy! I hope he doesn’t try to have a conversation.” It’s an awkward situation for us too. Which is not to say you can’t have the conversation! If clearing the air will help put you at ease, go for it. The therapist will have been in that situation before too.

    If you’re worried she’s judging you or focused on your mutual history, don’t. I often recognize clients without remembering their exact cases.

    But even if she does remember your case, it doesn’t matter!! She knows your ex is sleazy. She knows how often good people are the victims of users and abusers. The fact that you hold a job with such responsibilities (1200 volunteers! Wow!) is a testament to your resiliency and professionalism. If she remembers anything, she admires you.

    I was in a situation once when I violated a confidentiality requirement, and it was because I knew someone had been exposed to HIV. I wasn’t legally allowed to tell the person they needed to get tested, but I did because I truly felt that they had the right to know, and that their health was more important than my client’s privacy. I really struggled with that decision, and I’m sure your ex’s therapist did too. That incident isn’t necessarily indicative of poor professional ethics or poor boundaries. She probably didn’t want to see your life torn apart by your ex any more than necessary.

    It’s not pleasant for us as professionals to have to sit across the desk from scummy people. I’d bet she didn’t like your ex either. Is it possible for you to re-frame this mentally? To re-frame her as someone who also came into contact with the same loathsome man you married, and who also knows the truth about him? Maybe it would help you to realize you two were on the same side those years ago.

    1. I was thinking something similar. She was the ex’s therapist: a professional paid for counseling services. Not his best friend. Whatever obligations she had to him were professional, not based on any personal like or dislike of him. He sure doesn’t sound likeable, though, and I would bet dollars to donuts she didn’t enjoy having him as a client. I would also bet that advising a client’s spouse to get tested for STIs at a public event was at the top of the list of “Things I really don’t want to do today”, but felt it was a necessary and right thing to do.

      Of course, the one who has made all of this difficult and awkward is the violent, abusive ex, but thankfully he’s out of the picture now, so I hope both LW and the therapist can move on positively in work for the non-profit.

  27. All of the responses so far are mostly along the lines of “what if Therapist brings up The Issues.” There’s not much here about what to do if Therapist’s very presence causes trauma or strain for the LW. On that, I’d like to point out a few things.
    * The Therapist would be a volunteer. The LW is a paid employee. To me, LW’s need to continue to earn a living trumps Therapist’s desire to support an organization. If LW’s ability to perform their job successfully would be impacted by Therapist’s presence, she should be able to reject him or push back with her boss somehow on that basis.
    * This shouldn’t be a problem because the organization has 1200 volunteers. Losing this one to save the LW’s sanity shouldn’t evne be a blip on the radar and any boss that would give a volunteer more influence then an employee is a pretty horrible boss.
    * Because the Therapist is a volunteer, the laws pertaining to discrimination in hiring don’t apply. LW should be able to be pretty arbirtrary here.

  28. Just a word of sympathy, it’s entirely understandable that you’re having All The Feels here. It sounds like you went through a really awful time in your life, and it hurt. A lot. And now that all just got brought to the front of your mind again, and you feel like you’ve been dumped back into a too-familiar survival mode. Please give yourself some extra time and space this week if you can? Hopefully the new volunteer turns out to be a non-issue, but your feelings and fear and oh-god-I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-this-again are entirely real regardless of what happens. This is a good time to pull out your self-care bag of tricks, and I 100% support the suggestions upthread for calming and grounding yourself. Good luck, and I hope all turns out well.

  29. Therapist here. I agree with some other commenters: OP sounds more like they got emotionally slammed back in time, and don’t want to have to interact with this reminder. That’s an awful feeling. Hopefully with 1200 volunteers this will be rare.
    On the professional side, in all likelihood, the therapist will at most give a nod of recognition because it’s hard to not acknowledge people we recognize. Ideally we pretend we’ve never seen you, but that’s hard to do caught off guard.
    It’s also pretty possible the therapist will not remember you, or will know your name or face but not remember the details. This was a huge event in your life, but not in the therapist’s. We see a lot of people, and they talk about A LOT of people.

  30. LW, ex’s therapist cannot talk about ex with you. The confidentiality privilege is held by the client and only the client can waive it. You were not her client, so you cannot waive it. She cannot even reveal how she knows you without breaching the duty she owes your ex.

    So even if you were to start talking to her about it, she should refuse to talk about it. Even if your ex told her that it was okay to discuss anything with you, if she’s smart she won’t unless she has that in writing (doubtful), given what you’ve said about ex.

  31. I ran into my former therapist at a contra dance a couple years ago. Contra involves dancing with everyone in your line, so we kept encountering each other, and I kept saying “I know I’ve seen you somewhere.” I honestly couldn’t remember where I’d seen her, even though she was an excellent therapist; it had been several years since we’d terminated therapy. She said “We’ll talk later” and when I finally caught up with her at break, said something like “You were my client,” which was enough to make the connection. I haven’t seen her at a dance since, and I hope that’s just because I only get out once a month or so and not that she thought she had to stop attending on my account.

  32. I’m just a longtime therapy recipient, so I might be completely off:

    My questions for the LW would be: is it clear that the therapist even knows that you work there? Has this person met you yet in your work capacity, seen your name on a welcome email (is it a common name), etc? (Was the “public event” work-related, in which case yikes?)

    If it seems objectively unlikely that the therapist actually knows that you work there, or knows that you’re essentially becoming their boss: I’m not sure I’m _recommending_ this course of action, but what I’d probably _do_ myself would be to send an email from my personal to the therapist’s professional account saying “Hi, I wanted to reach out and let you know that I’m the direct supervisor for this volunteer position. I’m not sure how to best handle this dual relationship while respecting everyone’s professional boundaries. I’d be happy to refer you to [other fine opportunities with similar organizations] where I’m not the direct supervisor.”

    Again, I’m not sure it’s the best thing, it’s just the thing I’d probably do.

    If this is, for instance, a huge state food pantry and most people volunteer for 3 hours once a year, it might be worth investigating whether you can deal with your distress (maybe with the help of your own therapist!) and genuinely avoid this person while still doing your job. On the other hand, if you’re required to meaningfully supervise this person and they’re going to be around a lot, I’d say it’s verging into an inappropriate dual relationship from their side and it might in fact be wise to warn them that it’s about to happen.

    Also, I don’t think “I’m not sure what to do about this volunteer, I’m sure they’re very qualified but they’re also my ex’s therapist” is a particularly high-drama thing to say to your boss. Depending on your organization’s sector and mission, they might already have to deal with dual-relationship ethics and might have a process to help you work out what you should do. (I’ve worked in small nonprofits and we had… a worksheet, but at least we had the worksheet!)

  33. I’m a physician in a mental-health adjacent field. I am known at work for having an unusually good memory for names. If I saw the name of a patient I hadn’t seen in 3 years, I may or may not recognize it. If I saw the name of someone who wasn’t even my specific patient 3 years later, I would almost definitely not recognize it. I suppose the likelihood this therapist would remember you is slightly higher because talking to a patient’s SO at a public event should be a really unusual thing. But it seems very likely to me that the therapist would not recognize you by name or sight, so her feelings and thoughts and knowledge about you have probably faded very much into the distance.

    Your feelings about seeing her and being proximal to her are likely to be the only relevant ones here.

  34. This is based on the assumption that therapist is a Good Therapist who gave OP a traumatic, but vital for their safety, bit of news and is now a helluva trigger. It depends on how strong the trigger is/how traumatic the association, but it is possible to reclaim and reclassify harmless stuff that now feels radioactive. Sometimes not; sometimes the housefire of abuse leaves everything smokedamaged even though it looks/works fine, it just reeks.

    So…it might be worth giving this guy an airing and seeing how he smells in a week or two. Possibly.

    My particular experience is reclaiming some music that was very much associated with ex and so popular it was impossible to avoid. My new bestie likes them too and she played the music while singing badly and loudly while helping me redecorate my space (which also eliminates triggers). We called it the Exorcism of Ex.

    I still get reminded and slightly triggered but the new associations help me get past incidental contact.

    Keep in mind that just like my bestie, this guy in a much less fun way, helped you exorcise and rid yourself of a bad influence. He is on your team and might be willing to help with further exorcisms of triggers; for example minimising his contact with you or giving you a way of checking his schedule so you can prepare yourself for being in his company. If you approach this head on, and get reassuring feedback from his assistance, you might be able to retrain your brain to stop seeing him as a threat and more of an ally. Possibly. But give yourself all the breaks and treat yourself well if not. Triggers are not things that can always be logicked.

  35. I cannot imagine having to work with someone abusive-ex adjacent. Yes, yes, this person shouldn’t bring it up, but that doesn’t make it any less horrible. That person is the farthest thing from Team You possible. That person is Team Help the Man Who Tried to Destroy You, even if they reached out to you. I received a warning of an impending visit from an emotional abuser by a member of his care team when he was kicked out of rehab. He did me a solid so I could flee with my kid, and it was the right thing to do, and if I had to look at this person at work regularly or even sporadically, whose involvement in my life was for the benefit of someone who tried to destroy me, I would quit my job that I love. No exaggerating. I don’t care if he pretended never to even see my face. I am nauseated just thinking about having that person in my day to day. And honestly, even knowing the warning to me was the ethical thing to do, he is still the person who caused the fear that made me flee my home with my kid, and the embarrassment of having to be that person matters far more than whether he is ethical, or nice, or silent about it.

    Maybe this makes me a jerk but I would 1000% ask him to find another opportunity out of respect for the role he has played in my life. And if he is in fact kind and ethical, he would probably do it. I would never want to inflict ongoing trauma on someone by constantly reminding them of their worst days. And if he wouldn’t, I would absolutely tell my boss that I cannot work with this person for personal reasons.

  36. Without invalidating any of your fear — you feel what you feel, it’s not wrong — perhaps given what all of the various therapists, doctors, nurses and social worker have said above, that could help you trust the therapist. It’s probably not the first time the therapist has bumped into a client, so presumably she would know how to handle it, as all of the professionals above do.

    The first thought that struck me, though, was this: what if your former therapist doesn’t recognize you? That may be unrealistic, but since she has other patients and a life of her own, even though she made an active decision to violate a client’s privacy in order for you to protect yourself, maybe she really would not recognize you at all. Maybe it will help to keep in mind that it might not even be an issue on her end.

  37. I’m assuming that the OP feels the therapist is, and will be, professional but nevertheless he is associated indelibly with a traumatic experience and is now an almighty trigger. Sometimes even good things get smoke damaged simply from their proximity to the house fire of abuse.

    You avoid what you can avoid (for me that’s people closely associated with my ex, even those who were supportive) and reclaim what you can’t avoid (my friend said the popular music on the radio I associate with my ex was perfect for bad singing while redecorating; now it is faintly amusing and not quite such a bad trigger). I bet therapist would understand if you approached him and would aid you in keeping his distance. If he does that you might start associating him with help instead of with trauma.

  38. I’m a psychologist, and my colleagues and I all generally try to avoid running into our clients outside of work because it’s super awkward for us too. If this therapist is on the level they’ll give you a nodding acknowledgement at most and pretend not to know you.

    Also I am bad at faces but I don’t think I could pick anyone who I saw a few years ago out of a lineup unless I worked with them pretty extensively. I’d remember the story, possibly recognise your ex but wouldn’t link it to your face

  39. Hi LW! I’m a clinical social worker / psychotherapist and one line in your letter really struck me: “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.” I don’t want to speak for all mental health professionals, but in general, being a therapist often involves a lot of work in recognizing that two things can be true at the same time. To give an example in this case – I can sit across from my client and see that they feel every emotion truly, and that they believe the truth in their version of every event that they’re relaying to me. At the same time, I know that not everyone involved in every incident in my client’s life will see the story the same way as my client. You say this therapist knows so many personal things about you, but I’d gamble that this therapist did their best to stand alongside your ex and support him, at the same time as recognizing that your ex’s version of you is most likely not going to match up with your version of you. So in fact, this therapist might not think or feel that they know much about you at all. I know at least that when I work with my clients, it’s at the forefront of my mind when I hear about relationship troubles that I’m only hearing one side of the story.

    That said, I agree with all the notes above that recognize that we work with so, so many clients and it’s highly unlikely this therapist will remember anything specific about you or your ex, years later. As @purps said above, this therapist might not even realize that they have a potential conflict of interest with someone at this volunteer opportunity they just signed up for, and they might not recognize your name even if they have seen it. Even if they do remember you at all, our profession has very strict ethical codes around acknowledging anyone we know from our professional work in public settings, as per the above.

    But I recognize that your question may have been more about your own traumatic response than about how the therapist will interact with you, so Jedi hugs if you want them, and please be kind to yourself around this, LW. You experienced trauma with your ex, and it’s utterly normal to experience a traumatic response now when you run into someone who reminds you so deeply of your ex. @Thistledown’s recommendations on tools and strategies to cope, as well as rallying your Team You and speaking with your own therapist, are all good ways to care for yourself around this. You deserve support, as anyone would after dealing with what sounds like quite a rough relationship. It’s normal for some triggers to still be quite strong, years later. If the primary issue for you is your trauma response, then @GreenD’s words are really useful here, as are @purps’ words about sending an email to the therapist regarding the potential for a dual relationship and conflict of interest. This therapist, I think, will pretty naturally take a step back from this volunteer opportunity, as your ability to make a living and your trauma response are of greater importance than their need to volunteer at your particular organization.

    I hope this is helpful, LW. You seem like a strong person to get out of that relationship and be so successful at your job today; you’ve got this.

  40. Unrelated to the letter, but when are you going to mention the whole “interviewed by BuzzFeed”, thing, Captain?

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