Guilds, Posses, Boundaries & Business

One of the cool things about social media for me has been the way it has allowed me to connect with other therapists.  I’ve tweeted articles and humor with some.  I’ve explored the worlds of Telara and Azeroth with others.  I’ve had dinner in Laguna Beach with colleagues I’d only met before on Facebook.  I’ve had both fun and networked, and I’ve learned that not only can networking be fun, but that experiencing that social form of fun makes for better and more productive networking. I’ve had invitations to travel and do workshops, requests for supervision, interviews, and dessert, entirely due to social media.  Yes, dessert.

One promising first step I’ve seen therapists take is LinkedIn. When I first joined LinkedIn, there were only a handful of psychotherapists using it.  Now there are thousands.  LinkedIn seemed to be a safe entry point into Web 2.0 for my colleagues, because it focussed on the “professional” aspects of their human being and online presence.

And then things got stuck. And here’s why.

Psychotherapists in private practice are a lot like old-school kindergarden teachers.  You know, the ones who always kept their class doors closed, parents and administrators out, and carved out their own space and laws of physics.  We push ourselves through grad school, work for years in public settings, and then finally we strike out on our own to build our private practice.  And boy do we take the private part seriously!  Not in the way I wish we did, as in a privately-owned and privately-held business concern, but as a top secret laboratory where we practice our craft shrouded in mystery.

Private practice psychotherapy has become, and maybe always was, not unlike feudal Europe in the Middle Ages.  We each have our own little barony with rules and culture, and we rarely talk to each other.  And the common idea bandied about is that “psychotherapy is a lonely profession,” as if that is a necessary evil rather than a potential occupational hazard.  Many people try to deal with this by joining professional organizations, attending workshops, and supervision groups.  And these are useful for our professional development, so when we burn out we can be up to date on the latest in the field that has driven us crazy.

In short, we are afraid to be social in a more personal way beyond the safety of professional boundaries.  And one of the biggest concerns I hear about social media is the danger of crossing boundaries from professional to personal.  I think in fact that when people talk about being afraid of social media technology they are as afraid of the “social” part as they are the “technology” part.

The term “boundaries” is perhaps one of the most misused and misunderstood terms in psychotherapy.  Yes boundaries are important things.  France has a boundary, as does Germany.  That doesn’t mean no one from France should ever go to Germany and vice verse!  You don’t usually hear U.S. citizens saying, “I wanted to go to the Winter Olympics in Canada, but that would be crossing a boundary so I can’t.”  We have gotten this bizarre idea in our heads that transgression is equal to violation, rather than a word for the concept of crossing over.  If you’re house is on fire you better be prepared to transgress your door threshold, or you’re going to experience another kind of burn-out.

Therapists need to learn how to have some permeability in our boundaries, and technology can help break down our social isolation from our colleagues.  One great example of this is Twitter.  Twitter is designed for short bursts of dialogue, which is excellent for me when I want to have a little social connection in the 15 mins between patients.  I may not have a chance for a cup of coffee with my friend Susan, but I can send her a Youtube video spoofing Adele and Angry Birds.  And the only reason I know that Susan would enjoy this is because she allows herself to disclose on Twitter that she enjoys the music of Adele.  She did that some time ago, and from what I can tell no ethics charges have been brought against her from disclosing that.

Disclosure is another word that gets misused by the way.  Our patients have suspected that we are humans for some time, and if they follow our Tweets and find out that I am enjoying Portal 2 that may mean something to them about my humanity.  But it is not the same as mooning someone in my office, and it is time we understood the difference.  The first humanizes me, the second is inappropriate.  But using social media is not some sort of inevitable slippery slope towards debasing myself and violating someone else.  That is just a thought we use to terrorize ourselves into solitude.

Gamers have understood the importance of socializing for years, despite the stereotypes we level against them for being asocial.  Guilds are an excellent example of this.  For those who aren’t in the know, guilds are voluntary groups of players who join up with each other in the game world.  There are raiding guilds that focus mostly on progressing in the game, casual guilds that balance progress with more fun and social activity, and a variety of degrees between the two.  And through the use of Ventrilo and other software, people can actually talk and listen to each other as they play.  One of my fondest guild memories is a Christmas party we had in Dun Morogh.  Dozens of players in our guild, from all over the US, UK and Australia showed up at a frozen lake for a guild picture and dancing around a bonfire.  There were snowball fights, there was a gift exchange, virtual mead was drunk.  It was a blast.  And this social activity strengthened our bond as a guild and I think improved our ability to play together as well.

And yesterday and today on Twitter I have been joking about our forming a posse of therapists.  I think everyone needs a good posse, partners in crime to plot world domination with.  We need to have some playful interactions with colleagues if we want to succeed in our professional lives.  At least I think we do, and I’m not going to refer anyone to see a dour therapist.  So good business networking is personal as well as professional.  You can take your work seriously, but if the only way you have of interacting with people is serious and somber, sign up with the Pilgrims.

Epic therapists need a guild. We can’t solo quest forever.  We need to share with each other the victories and the setbacks in our businesses, not maintain this constant pokerface to give the impression that we have the perfect, full private practice.  Who are people you can brag to safely? Who are the people you can tell when you’ve had a slowdown in referrals and are afraid?  Who can you talk to when you need to be challenged to rethink how you’re doing things?  For me, those people are the people that I can also laugh with, play with, and meet for coffee.  If you are carrying around your office in your life and bearing outside the office, I’m not going to want to connect with you that much.  Learn to shift gears.  Try lurking online, share a link on Facebook that you found meaningful.  Comment on other people’s blogs even if you don’t have one of your own.  It’s good business to be human, and it’s often fun as well.  What kind of guild would you like to join?


  1. Mike,

    Now, I understand the comment you tweeted to Susan about me and a posse…
    Once I graduate, I would be honored 🙂

    I think you raised some very important points here about social media, networking and privacy and I liked how you demonstrated that one can be maintaining “proper” boundaries while still being free to tweet and socialize.

    Recently, at my graduate school of social work which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, much concern was raised around social media and boundaries, particularly because one student had shared experiences rather inappropriately. I don’t know the details; I just know the fall out…

    However, instead of providing us students with safe guidelines on how to navigate the waters of social media, the message provided was essentially to avoid swimming and one professor went so far as to say that we cannot even have a blog.

    It’s a bit like advocating abstinence at a time when this no longer applies…what you are suggesting, coming up with safe ways to navigate the waters makes not only more sense, it makes the field a much more collaborative and fun one…I also suspect that more innovative and creative ideas are likely to result from therapists being able to bounce off one another ideas…

    I know that if not for twitter, I would not have met you nor have known anything about gaming except negative misconceptions. You’ve opened up a whole new world for me…It’s wonderful and I’m most appreciative!

    Twitter has also enabled me to benefit from learning from you (and others) when you and (others) share comments or remarks on my blog…so I for one, am all for the exchange of ideas, thoughts and knowledge via social media.

    Thanks for this great post!

  2. Mike, thanks for this wonderful article! Of course, I agree on all points and no, I have not been sanctioned by any ethics committee for sharing I like the music of Adele. In fact, NO ONE has been sanctioned in the health care profession for using social media. There was one reprimand of a physician in RI recently, but other than that NO ONE.

    And the truth is, therapists get called in front of ethics and licensing boards all the time. Believe it or not some of our colleagues still do sleep with clients and get in big trouble. To say that social media is a path to a career destroyed is just silly. And really naive.

    I go farther and say that if we stay off line, we are actually not practicing in a fully ethical way. The public is online, they build relationships online, they share mental health issues online and are looking for help online. Hiding in our office under a blanket helps no one.

    Dorlee, I’m so sorry to hear your professors are demonizing social media and worse, blogging. I was told ‘therapists don’t blog’ 6 years ago. Well, one super SEO’d blog and a thriving practice later (with my license intact and clients nationally) I can tell you that therapists DO BLOG. So please,please, please, if you want to have a blog go for it!

    And I want to connect with the person who invited you for dessert, Mike…that’s a Twitter follower worth knowing : ).

  3. I’m an attorney who met Susan through Twitter (followed her there via someone’s blog) and read about this post on her Facebook page.

    There are some attorneys who fear social media still, “won’t I be giving out legal advice?!” and others who haven’t figured out that tweeting things about clients who have just left your office might not be appropriate, but a lot of them are using it to make connections and I’ve certainly met some great people (lawyers and non-lawyers) on it.

  4. Insightful post, Mike (as always). I have also been heartened to see therapists joining LinkedIn. And at the same time I’ve been disheartened by those who don’t seem to understand the concept of connecting beyond just marketing their practices. It’s like being human with other people out in the world is too scary.

  5. Mike,

    What an excellent post. I totally agree that therapists misunderstand and misuse the concept of boundaries which is a disadvantage for them as well as their clients. I would also add that fear of crossing the line and making a mistake plays a part in this often rigid application of boundaries. We say that boundaries are there to protect the client, but often they are applied with the goal of protecting of the therapist.

  6. Excellent points. Love the analogies. Lets start a guild!!!!

  7. Hi Mike, thanks for the great post. I’ve gone into my own business (forensic social work consulting primarily) & private practice in the last year and I’m finding it quite a different experience as I’m used to being a pretty social person in worksites with lots of people. In my city and province I’ve been rather surprised there is no connection amongst therapists, or other helping professionals. Some people are trying to get things going via Meetups, but I’ve found it difficult to get there due to scheduling.

    LinkedIn has been a real help in connecting with others through groups. But I’ve found most people just put up their profile and don’t do anything with it. I use LinkedIn, Facebook (Catalyst BC) & Twitter (@Catalyst_BC) to share links of interest and a few little opinions. LinkedIn has a neat book review section, so I post about the books I’m reading and whether I recommend them. On Facebook I’ve created a group for SW’s & SW students in my region and we share links and a bit of dialogue, but not much. I encourage others to use social media for networking, but SW’s seem slow to embrace it, at least here.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Tracey, thanks for your post, and for the Facebook group you created. Yes, you are a pioneer. Sadly, social workers, like other psychotherapy professionals, are being inundated with the fear-based messages around the internet and social media: “Protect Yourself!” is a recent title I have heard for a workshop on social media, or how to “navigate” it. As if social media was akin to the AIDS epidemic or a reef in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s save the rhetoric and fear-mongering, and try to get with the program!

  8. As someone who has wholeheartedly embraced social media and is now about to return to grad school, I can’t help but have hope for the “new generation” of therapists. Those of us who adopted social media and then became therapists. We (well, some of us) already maintain boundaries between our “real” and online lives, so extending those boundaries to our professional vs personal vs online lives should be a piece of cake.

    Now that I know for certain that I *am* going to school, I’m starting to think about setting up my “professional” identity on Facebook and Twitter. Certainly I don’t want everything out in the open for my colleagues/clients/bosses (I don’t do that NOW), but I find it easier to open up to therapists (actually, anyone) who are personable and “real” people – with failings, interests outside of psychology, who get excited when the movie they’re anticipating comes out, etc. If I wouldn’t be happy going to see a dour, over-serious mental health professional, why would I think my future clients would? The psychology company for which I’ve done freelance editing for the last two years even has a bit of fun on their Facebook page, and I love that.

    On the other side… On Monday, I went in to meet with my advisor (not a therapist herself) to talk about my “EdPlan” for when I start school in the fall. I told her that I started following the university’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, and while she thought that was great, she admitted that she doesn’t “do any of that”. *blinks* Your own employer has these feeds and you don’t follow them? Don’t even glance at them? This does not compute. At the very least, one should dip into the feeds from time to time and see what the uni is telling students so you can parrot it appropriately, right?


    • Oh, forgot to say! I noticed you started following me on Twitter, Mike. Appreciate it! 🙂

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Oh But, you have no idea. Our higher ed institutions have a very scattered approach at best. One I have worked at didn’t even bother tweeting a continuing ed project I was doing for them! It is good that between the digital natives and the techies returning to grad school that this will begin to change. We still have a long way to go tho.

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