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What Therapists Worry About

After presenting my thoughts on Social Media, technology, and the helping professions at the Creativity and Madness conference (sponsored by AIMED), I took in the mood of the room. There was a palpable fear in the room, and perhaps in one of very few moments in my life, I wasn’t trying do anything about it.

What might a room filled with medical professionals be concerned about when it comes to Social Media and technology? You might guess it was about not being able to keep pace with the rate of change. They might be deeply frightened by legal and ethical issues involved in breaches of confidentiality. Or they could be disgusted by all the misconceptions about disease and pathology perpetuated in popular media and encouraged by under-educated bloggers. All of these are fears represented in this population. But the fear which was repeated through the stories and questions I heard is the one in which I believe you will find comfort.

What Therapists Worry About

The artists and clinicians I spoke to were most worried about the effects of Social Media use and technology on the ways you and I connect or isolate from each other. They shared observations about how young clients often seemed distracted and unable to focus because they spend many hours staring at screens while having one-way monologues. They seemed to lack the “container” to hold complex and conflicting emotional states, as as the pace of technology emphasizes the now, not patience or unknowing.  They shared about their concerns whether people were losing their abilities to make and maintain real relationships when so much of their worlds appeared superficial, filled with pictures of vacations, promotions, and “good times” without the balance of darkness, grief, and despair. They were inquisitive and wary about the effect of curating thousands of bytes of information about their lives, yet watching clients become more and more empty and lonely in the process.

Instead of assuming these helping professionals are resistant to change in the wave of technology, you should be comforted that they represent a response-able group of parents, educators, advisors, writers, and change agents in their communities. Many of them own the technologies that are in the center of the tech revolution: smart mobile devices. But they rightly look at the trends and culture in which we live, and they voiced their concerns loud and clear. Below, I’ve compacted and summarized a few of those concerns:

Does the fast pace of technology contribute to the disposability of relationships?  In the advent of texting and emailing, does it make it easier for people to hide? Is telemedicine the best way to deliver therapy to people, or only when its convenient? Are therapists able to read their clients effectively using the tools, or is it a poor approximation? 

A False Dichotomy 

I was once asked by my nieces to play a game in which all the players represented three generations of my family. Spread out over several thousand miles, it is rare to get that many family members around the table, and I jumped at the chance. The game was one which involved our knowledge of the other players at the table. Questions were asked, such as, “Which would you rather have: a childhood with no friends, or a childhood with no imagination?” While the questions were interesting, I soon grew bored with it. Why? Because I don’t find these questions meaningful, since they represent false dichotomies; that is, they suggest situations which you would either never face, or would never need to face. They groom us into thinking a certain way instead of creating our own path.

Most of us are clever enough to construct our worlds to include what we need, even if what we need has more than one facet. The presence of smart technologies offers us choices, but no one is forcing anyone to participate by using them. The exception may be texting using cell phones, but even that action is highly correlated with the age of the client; in general, the population above 60 years of age is not as inclined to use texting as a primary mode of communication. We will use what we need. We may dispose of what we don’t need. But we don’t have to choose; we can have both.

The underlying concern is that as an advocate and compassionate person, I want to promote what all therapists wish to give to their clients: presence tied to authentic relationship. Yet, we recognize that we do our work with people in the presence of new and old media, much of which does not support our same ideals. There are more media examples of poor parenting, children who feel out of control, and celebrities gone postal, which invade the Internet superhighway with ever-increasing frequency and saturation. In the wake of all this noise, some of us are inclined to avoid it at all costs, or we feel we ought to embrace it, yet hesitate. My question is, why does this need to be debated? Can we have embrace both digital technologies AND authentic relationship? I think the answer is yes. And I feel the debate should be shifted to how we do this.

The advent of new technologies which can effect the way we do medicine and psychotherapy do not have to signal a false dichotomy. When it comes to having the ability to use VoIP technology, I do not feel the need to have my entire practice move in that direction, nor have all of it conducted F2F (face to face). Just because one client benefits from playing a game on my iPad before the session starts does not mean all clients need to do this, or no clients should do this. And just because another client cultivates a meaningful community of knitters on Pinterest does not mean all clients should do the same.

Post-Conference Processing
I knew the minute I delivered my presentation in my medical community, it would only be the start of on-going conversations about the meaning of Social Media and technology in the lives of the people we care about and care for: our clients, our friends, our families, our communities, and ourselves. I know that every helping professional wants to make a difference in the lives of those who put their trust in us. We truly want to help. Where we don’t have answers, we try to stay open to live into the questions.

I heard myself saying to the audience that I would be writing a book on this topic, and that it would likely be called something like, “Social Media, Technology, and the Helping Professional.” When I returned to Seattle, I fortuitously called Patrick Snow, a book-writing “doctor” who helps entrepreneurs achieve their goal of getting their work published. It just so happened that he was running one of two book-writing seminars this year this week in my hometown, and I did my best to clear my schedule and attend. By the time I was done with Day 1, I felt so excited, I was ready to vomit! This is usually a good sign that I am headed in the right direction, because it indicates that all that is left for me to do is take courage in one hand and my laptop in the other. The rest will come.

I’m not worried that I won’t give appropriate, compassionate care to my clients. I’m not worried (as much) about money, or where it will come from. I am more concerned that if I don’t share what I need to AND get it in the hands of those who are waiting, I will miss a great opportunity to influence my community and make my contribution in making this world a little bit more beautiful.

I don’t worry that I don’t have the latest gadgets and gizmos. Those will come too. If I worry about anything, I worry for the next generation, who needs us to speak up more than ever while using a velvet hammer in modeling the kind of relationships and relating skills that connect us no matter what kind of technologies we access. Love is still love. Let’s work on just improving the way we love and relate to one another, and I guarantee things will look a bit brighter.

P.S. I am about to watch my DVD of my presentation, which was given to me on the final day. This was my first medical conference presentation, and I’m both excited to watch it, and scared to watch it! If you’re interested in seeing a clip, be sure to ask me about it.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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