Between a rock and a hard place – when friendship and your professional role overlap

I’ve always tried hard to keep a clear distinction between work and non-work stuff in my life. I expect my friends to be able to offer, on balance, a similar level of support to me than they require from me. If the relationship is too skew then it will be meeting one person’s needs at the cost of the other, and that isn’t a friendship. Friendships are reciprocal, and allow me to trust enough to show facets of myself that I might not want to reveal in the context of work. In the safety of such a relationship I can have my own vulnerabilities. I can worry that I am less than a perfect parent, or talk about my relationships with other members of my family. I can joke, swear, drink wine, express opinions, or laugh at the contestants on The Apprentice without fear that this will tarnish my professional reputation. The rest of the time I feel like I have my professional hat on. I am in a position of responsibility and power, and I am bound by a code of conduct. When I talk or post online as a psychologist, I run the risk that my comments will be brought back against me when I’m in the witness box, or be taken out of context and misinterpreted by a present, past or future client or colleague.

I am friends with some psychologists and other colleagues from work and via the clinpsy forum. That’s a good thing. We share common values and experiences. We have shared stressors, and we spend time together. I am also friends with other professionals that know me as a psychologist, like lawyers, paediatricians, psychiatrists and social workers. Again, our work overlaps and becomes a topic of mutual interest. I also have non psychology friends. That’s a good thing, as they bring different ideas and perspectives. They let me relax, share other interests and remind me of the other parts of me outside of being a psychologist. We can cook, eat, play, exercise, explore, talk. We can play video games, make music or art, debate politics and current affairs. As a prior supervisor would say, we are people, partners, parents and professionals as well as psychologists, and we need to pay attention to each of those roles. What marks it out as a friendship is that there is trust, and that the relationship is enjoyable or nurturing.

The difficulty comes when you feel like you ‘click’ with someone who you are seeing professionally and feel that had you met outside work it could have been a friendship, as that makes it harder to stay within a work role and remain within the more neutral and guarded boundaries that a professional relationship entails. A therapist needs to respect their clients, be curious about them, accept them, hold them in positive regard and see their potential. The relationship may be very important for the client, who may idealise you and want to bring you into their life. But that doesn’t make it a friendship. The power balance is different in a professional relationship. Within therapy the client is expected to disclose a lot about their life whilst the therapist discloses little. It is not a reciprocal relationship, and the relationship is not there to be enjoyable or nurturing for the therapist. Having started from there it is not possible to reach a place of reciprocity (at least not without a lot of time and distance after the end of the therapeutic relationship). So if you find yourself acting too casually, sharing too much information, or wanting to step outside of your normal professional role, this is definitely something to discuss in supervision.

Likewise, if someone in your personal life starts to use your professional skills, this needs to be handled very carefully. Parents asking for advice about their child’s anxiety or poor sleep may not differentiate whether you are giving advice as a friend and fellow parent or as a professional. A friend who wants guidance how to access IAPT, or is feeling suicidal and needs to be taken to A&E needs to know you can support them as a friend, but not as their psychologist. We may well know the system and the right things to say, or the right people to approach, but it is important not to end up muddling the role. You can’t ring up someone you know’s treating clinician and say “Hi, this is Dr Silver and I’m wanting to ensure you understand my formulation about my friend Jane”. They are entitled to confidentiality in their therapy and trust within their friendship. But you may also feel a greater obligation to act on concerns about someone’s mental health, or a child protection concern, than a general member of the public.

It is all too easy to get sucked into an uncomfortable place in between. What of someone that approaches you in a way that appeals to both the personal and the professional? They just find you so easy to talk to that they tell half their life story, and next thing you are feeding back a formulation at a dinner party. Where do you go from there? Do you reciprocate and tell the ins and outs of your life, or give them a business card if they want to follow up the conversation with a formal session? Or the friend who just can’t get an assessment for their dyslexia, but is self-critical about how stupid they are, when you have the psychometrics needed in the office and your assistant has a spare hour on Friday. Surely that’s not so personal? Or the friend of a friend that never seems able to access the services they need. Do you step in and advocate for them? Its a very difficult decision to call sometimes. But in my experience it is these situations that are most likely to fall down around your head.

A colleague of mine was concerned that a friend of a friend (lets call her Sarah) was discharged from an inpatient stay without proper risk assessment or follow-up. He spoke to the GP and inpatient team to raise concerns, but nothing was done. Sarah later committed suicide, and my colleague was interviewed in the enquiry that followed. The coroner did not seem able to differentiate between a concerned friend who happened to be a professional, and someone with professional responsibility, and he got given a really hard time. This was on top of the guilt he felt for not having been able to prevent Sarah taking her own life.

Another colleague ended up having to drop everything to collect a friend from various complex situations all over the country as she had psychotic episodes, and would not trust professionals when she was not taking her medication and did not have a good support network.

I ended up writing to the GP of someone I shared an office with early in my career, to report an eating disorder, suicidal ideation and risky behaviour. I felt like there was little else I could do after a supervisor said it wasn’t their problem, because I felt like it was unfair to burden me with the information without allowing me to act on it. I was very clear with the person involved that this was what I was going to do if they continued to confide this type of information, and they had written down the contact details of their GP for me during the conversation. They went on to get appropriate therapy.

When I first met my husband it was evident he was dyslexic. I did some informal assessments so that I was sure my hunch was correct and then pushed him to get formally assessed at university. This confirmed the diagnosis and enabled him to get concessions made about his spelling and handwriting in exams, and I learnt to help by proof-reading his course work. I felt like the assessment needed to be independent to have any authority, and that I could not take on this dual role.

A decade later, I started at a new post and started to become friends with the IT guy who covered CAMHS. It was clear he had a specific deficit with his memory that had never been assessed, and I owned the WAIS and WMS that were current at the time. With the consent of the directorate manager and my supervisor, I did a full psychometric assessment. We have gone on to be lasting friends, and he credits me with helping him to understand that he is a bright guy with a specific deficit, rather than a guy of mediocre intellect who has done well for himself. However he has never wanted to use the assessment formally.

More recently I spent 24 hours taking an acquaintance to A&E after they confided detailed suicide plans in the wake of a relationship breakdown. They asked me to be with them in the room and share some of their abuse history with the assessing clinician, but I had to be very clear to identify as someone from the personal network. I was not a professional to them, but I was also not somebody who could take responsibility for this person on discharge as I lived in a different part of the country.

Each of these has been a learning experience and shown the importance of differentiating the personal from the professional, but it is something I will continue to grapple with both personally and through supervising others. The third role of speaking to other people on the internet is one I will blog about at some future point, and brings with it a plethora of new and challenging ethical issues, not just the way that the informality of the medium makes roles blur more between personal and professional.

2 thoughts on “Between a rock and a hard place – when friendship and your professional role overlap

  1. Sally1980 says:

    It was totally unethical of you to report to the GP the work colleague within your office. You should have listened to your supervisor. It was none of your business.

    How about you take off all your ‘hats’, and just be human to people that know you.

    It was also unethical of you to ‘help’ the IT guy.

    Like

    • Well, different people put their boundaries in different places, hence the discussion.

      The colleague whose GP I wrote to, I did so with her consent and she gave me the contact details to do so (did you miss that bit?) What would you like me to do when someone repeatedly tells me how much they want to die, how they haven’t eaten anything since the previous week, or how they are driving home on country roads at 80mph hoping they’ll be in an accident as a socially acceptable way to die? Listening didn’t help. Speaking to my supervisor didn’t help. I wasn’t in a position to manage the risk and they were risking their life regularly and telling me about it. It wouldn’t be very human to ignore that. I helped them to access professional support.

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