Let me start by saying I do not speak for all millennial therapists. In fact, until I was asked to write this piece, I didn’t even consider myself a true millennial. Sure, I realized my birthdate fell within a window that technically put me in that category, but I’d never actually used the term as a descriptor for myself before. After all, true millennials Instagram their avocado toast, they live with their parents until they’re in their late 30s, and they communicate exclusively via hashtags and emojis. And I don’t do any of those things! (And when I have, it’s been ironically, I swear.) So like the true definitely-not-a-millennial that I am, I turned to Wikipedia to find out: am I one of them?
Spoiler alert: after careful review of the criteria typical to this subset of human—passionate, technologically savvy, social media bound, with a touch of narcissism—I realized that . . . (drumroll please) . . . I am, in fact, a millennial: #sigh #itme #truthbomb. And despite the negative connotation often imposed upon this generation by the media, by the generations that came before us, and until today, by me, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing after all—especially for a therapist.
The Me Me Me Generation
“I’m gracing you with my presence.” – millennial role model Kim Kardashian, 2015
Are we selfish? Or just self-focused? Are we narcissistic? Or do we just take pride in our work? I suppose it’s all in how you frame it.
I’ll admit that a part of what made the transition from journalism to therapy difficult for me was the change in my ability to show off my accomplishments. As a writer, successes were tangible and easy to display to others. When this article comes out, I’ll post it to social media, excitedly share it via my practice’s newsletter, and make sure my family and friends know that “I wrote this cool thing!” But when a client shares a truly vulnerable moment, connects to a partner in a new, more intimate way, or offers me a heartfelt thank-you, the success is private, internal, and often fleeting. Instead of finding satisfaction in a “like” from that guy who lived on my floor in college or that third cousin I’ll never see again, I’ve had to learn to hold on to validation for myself—and to have that be enough.
At first, the isolation of private practice hit me hard. I was used to constant banter and collaboration, and though I love and respect my coworkers, they’re usually behind closed doors with clients. I’ve had to learn to be much more proactive about seeking the camaraderie I crave. And I’ve had to make socializing outside of work a priority to fill the requirements of being an extrovert. Some friends from grad school set up a biweekly consultation meeting, which became a saving grace, and days doing paperwork are now often spent in coffee shops with other therapists or work-from-home friends.
The flexibility of private practice is nice, but the schedule has its tradeoffs for a gal with a serious case of FOMO. (That’s “fear of missing out,” for you nonmillennials.) It took about a year for me to balance the stress of being at work on a Saturday while everyone else was outside with the joy I get from taking a 9 a.m. workout class while everyone else is heading to the office—or, my favorite: grocery shopping on Friday afternoons. (No lines at checkout, and all the cheese samples to myself!) And I’ve made a rule: no checking social media while I’m still in the office. It makes the symptoms of FOMO much more acute.
“Dance like the photo’s not being tagged, Love like you’ve never been unfriended, Tweet like nobody’s following.” – @PostSecret, describing a world before millennials (in under 140 characters)
Though being an “older millennial” means I do remember a time before smartphones, there’s no doubt that I’m dependent on technology. I’ve yet to become obsessed with Snapchat filters or even held on to a consistent Twitter handle (all in good time, I’m sure), but my phone is always within arm’s length, and my Instagram story and Facebook wall are consistently updated.
I think it was during my second year of grad school that a supervisor informed me it was probably not ethical to look up my clients’ Facebook profiles before meeting them (or ever). It had never occurred to me that that would be a problem. I’m not used to sitting with limited information on a person—knowing their name, but not being able to look up their face, or their partner’s face. Where did she go to college? Do we have any friends in common? Is that restaurant he owns any good? I knew that the potential answers were one Google search away, and it was surprisingly difficult to avoid online stalking.
Of course, sticking to these boundaries now has monumentally helped my therapeutic alliance with clients. After all, it prevents me from making assumptions or judgments based on their online presence before meeting them, and I actually have to ask the questions to their face if I want answers. (Okay, okay, I know this seems obvious. But the urge to search was just so automatic!)
Alas, setting social media boundaries with clients goes both ways. I’ve had the client followers and friend requests, and I’ve changed my last name on most social media platforms to keep my private life from seeping into the professional.
One of the toughest lines to navigate has been around online dating. I’ve had stints of singlehood during my time as a therapist, and like any devoted member of my generation, I had to exhaust all options within a five-mile radius before choosing a new mate. After my last breakup, I downloaded all necessary tools and settled in to start swiping. The first match that popped up on my screen was—you guessed it—a client. Panicked, I swiped left and immediately deleted the app: the equivalent of a child quickly shoving an entire cookie into her mouth in hopes her mom wouldn’t notice. Did he see me? Was my secret revealed? Does it even matter?
It’s these accidental moments of self-disclosure that make boundaries in the age of social media trickier. My past has been documented in detail on the internet since college. And though there’s nothing I’m aware of that would be objectively problematic, having it all accessible to clients without my choosing to disclose feels like a personal boundary crossing. So I’ve scrutinized privacy settings and spent hours carefully picking through past posts. For younger millennials, social media documentation goes back much further, starting in middle or high school and remaining easily accessible for their entire adult lives. Even with the meticulous trimming of my online presence, the remnants remain. But perhaps it allows millennials the freedom to be more human with our clients. Certainly, it gives us the opportunity for conversations about the therapeutic relationship and boundaries, which I’ve had a good number of in my office.
I think being part of a generation that grew up as the internet grew up, social media blossomed, and reality television was born gave us millennials a curiosity about others’ lives—and the ability to quench that curiosity—that actually serves us well as therapists. Countless adventures into YouTube black holes and hours watching reality TV aren’t what I’d ever list as clinical resources, but they’ve given me a look at the range of human experience and diversity that wasn’t as available to the generation before me. (Yes, I realize it’s a sensationalized look. But it’s a look, nonetheless.)
Rachel Zar, AMFT, is a clinical associate at Enliven Couples Therapy in Chicago.
This blog is excerpted from "Confessions from a Millennial Therapist," by Rachel Zar. The full version is available in the November/December 2018 issue, A New Generation of Clients: Is Therapy Keeping Pace?
ILLUSTRATION © NEIL WEBB
Tags: 2018 | Alliances | boundaries | boundary issues | Cultural differences | Cultural identity | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | ethical boundaries | healthy boundaries | millennials | narcissism | Personal & Professional Development | personal boundaries | professional boundaries | Professional Development | rapport | social media | technology | therapeutic alliance | Young adults