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Googling Your Therapist

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You're starting therapy. Maybe this is your first time. Maybe you are a veteran. Either way, you're probably curious about this person you're going to meet. Let's imagine a she. Where did she go to school? Is she married? Does she have children? This is just the surface. Depending on your history, you have other questions that matter to you: Is she rich, gay, successful? Has she had personal experience with divorce, sexual abuse, depression? You start Googling.

If you've already done this, don't worry -- you are in good company. As Ofer Zur, a psychologist who has written extensively on the ethics of Internet use for psychotherapists, reports, "... modern day consumers routinely Google potential healers, products and services as part of their due diligence in shopping..." with information available on the Web about therapists, spanning material posted by practitioners on professional websites to material outside a therapist's control, such as records of political contributions, photos from charity events, and parents' obituary notices.

A generational divide exists, Zur notes, between therapists in training -- by and large, "digital natives" -- and their supervisors and teachers -- by and large, "digital immigrants" -- regarding Internet use. Setting off alarm bells for the digital immigrant generation of therapists, Google searches are becoming a two-way street: In one 2010 study, 27 percent of student therapists reported having used the Internet to search for information about their clients.

None of this will be resolved before your first meeting with your therapist. If, however, you have not already succumbed to the Google reflex, pause... and reflect. Reflection, after all, is one of the primary purposes of your treatment, a muscle you will be developing. Ask yourself if sating your curiosity is in your best interest. You absolutely should know whether your prospective therapist is well-trained, respected in the community, has expertise relevant to why you are seeking treatment. Ideally, you would have been referred by someone qualified to advise you on these questions: another therapist, your internist, perhaps a smart friend who knows someone treated by the person you are considering. What you don't need is the Internet fishing trip that yields the price of your prospective therapist's home or her marriage announcement.

Why might you want to experience your therapist fresh -- not with bits and pieces from an Internet search on your mind? After all, the idea of the therapist as a "blank screen" was hardly applicable to Freud's own work when he analyzed his daughter and some of his closest colleagues. You might want to experience your therapist fresh -- unimpeded by the Google bounty -- for the same reason Cindy Sherman does not title her photographs or you might want to see a movie before you read the reviews or read a book before you watch the movie. To see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the film version of Revolutionary Road before you have met April and Frank on the page can deprive you of forming your own images of the couple, of experiencing their pathos on your own terms. In the therapy situation, your inner life -- your fantasies, imaginings, interpretations -- are the very material you will explore. Do you really want to flood this fragile garden with Google runoff?

For this not to happen, you will need to draw upon that fusty old-fashioned virtue of restraint. Odd as it may sound in this day when your dinner companion might pull out a smart phone to find the name of an actor in a 40-year-old film, as though the atomized piece of information trumps the flow of ideas and feelings in the moment, being curious about something does not mean you have to satisfy that curiosity. You can choose not to read your children's journals, the letters that arrive for your roommates, your partner's emails. The mother of a kindergarten child once confided that during the summer prior to her child entering school, she had Googled every parent in the grade, thereby learning that there were seven families with a net worth of over a billion dollars -- covetous information gained at the cost of connecting as a fellow parent sharing the profound experience of raising a young child. Similarly, in the service of your treatment -- the relationship you will be forging with your own inner life -- you can choose to refrain from Googling your therapist.

Know, too, that even if you leash yourself so as to allow your curiosity to flower in the treatment, life may still interfere. You might bump into your therapist at the movies, in a restaurant, maybe even in Paris or on an airplane. A near-sighted supervisor used to tell a story of stumbling naked from the shower after a swim, blind without his glasses, only to hear his patient's gleeful "Hello, Dr. C." Trainees were mortified on his behalf. They were missing the point, he gently chided. What mattered, as far as the treatment went, was the patient's glee, not the therapist's birthday suit.

All fine and good, you say, but you and Google are like a child and a bag of jelly beans and you have already put your hand in the bag or are certain that when 2 a.m. rolls around you inevitably will. Be aware, then, that what you have found or will find may be no more reliable than real estate advertisements and -- here is the paradox -- will ultimately be only what therapists call "grist for the mill." Talk about it with your therapist. Investigate your curiosity. After all, you are the reason you are paying dear money to see your therapist -- and, you will discover, you are more interesting than any Google fishing trip.

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