“I spent all yesterday putting together holiday gift bags and had one left over.”
“I bought you this restaurant gift card to express my thanks for the consultation.”
“I just finished making cookies, and so I brought a few for you.”
Every now and then a client presents me with a gift. I debate instituting an official No Gifts policy to avoid the therapeutic work these offerings demand. On the other hand, these moments can open a window for me to model healthy boundaries or discuss the meanings behind the gifts in ways which provide grist for good therapy.
Don’t be fooled by this fancy-sounding talk. I am a chicken. Sometimes I want to be an ostrich. As much as I would like to be a peacock, I know these presents are not always an indication of my stellar counseling abilities; and I try to overcome my fear of ruffling feathers for the good of my counselees.
I realize that some offers are uncomplicated gestures of thanks. But many are not. Some represent a discomfiting gesture of familiarity. Other times, the giving is an attempt to seek my reassurance or trap me in a tacit contract. Use your imagination, and you will be spot on.
The art of discernment is one I will never completely master.
She–and it is usually a she–may be asking if I like her. Is she is special to me? Will I will think about her when she is not before me? Do I love her? Do I love, love her?
She may not believe she alone is enough to hold my interest. Or what if she has to soften my burden in trying to help someone so defective? Is money enough to make her tolerable?
Is she is just a paycheck to me?
She may be trying to secure a better outcome…Will I work harder if she provides me with added incentive? Maybe I’ll work on commission. Can she extract more-more-more benefit faster-faster-faster if I feel beholden?
It could be that she doesn’t even see me as a real person with feelings (yet?) but experiences a self-absorbed need to give, perhaps compulsively or lavishly, to maintain her fragile belief in her own goodness. Or maybe she needs to remind me that I am a subordinate, a sort of emotional manicurist whose services she can take or leave.
This week I was offered the following:
1. A single, perfect melon from a client who works 80 hours a week to pay off her children’s gambling debts.
2. A gift-wrapped calendar, printed from home, whose artwork had been created by one half of a couple in long-term therapy to manage anxiety and depression without drug dependency and codependency. The creator of the calendar expressed surprise coupled with approval at his wife’s presentation of this gift.
3. A ticket to a motivational speaking event from a client who came to therapy to work on her painful relationship with her adult daughter and who moves to capture me in a hug at the end of every session. She and her spouse are the featured speakers.
I won’t disclose how I handled each instance of gifting. I will leave it to your imagination.
I will say that I have accepted a hand-knit scarf, a tangerine, and some amazing whiskey-infused brownies. I will also say that I have declined a zebra print makeup bag, a silk scarf; and, session after session, the most fraught offer of a stick of gum in the history of mankind.
I am curious. What would you have done?
This post belongs in the series Therapy Tales.