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The View from the Gristmill


Watermelon image courtesy of purpleslog


“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?Β 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.


19 responses »

  1. Your payments are not boring, I’ll say that for you! πŸ˜‰ I was glad that you did accept the whiskey-infused brownies. I have a friend who is a therapist who learned the hard way that gift brownies could be a problem. I prankster client had a dozen brownies delivered in a fancy box tied with a bow, but the brownies had been laced with a laxative!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m in a service business and I get gifts all the time.

    Many yrs ago, a client gave be a gift, I was very touched, but by the time I could comprehend what was happening, he turned right round and asked me to do extra work I hadn’t planned on doing that day. Had I not accepted his gift he couldn’t have trapped me into doing extra that particular day.

    Some give gifts, and as you’ve said, out of sheer appreciation for you and all you’ve done to help them. They sincerely expect nothing in return. But many have an agenda.

    I do accept the gifts, but it’s my longstanding policy to address every client as Mr or Ms. No first names. Period. Even if they insist. That helps keep me and them in check.

    Yes they can appreciate me, and I can appreciate their gifts but it’s still a business and even though some are very close (exchange hugs etc) that one policy keeps things straight. No complications.

    Very intriguing tale. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This reinforces my belief that I’d never have been good at counseling. I didn’t get the genes required to conduct deep hunts for meaning. When someone offers me a gift, I tend to think they’re just trying to be kind. But then, most of the people I’m around really *are* kind, and few of them seem to be in need of a tune up for their mental or emotional well-being. In retrospect, I guess I’m just damned lucky.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I use to work with such impoverished clients, I rarely got gifts. I did home visits and being able to offer a cup of tea was often important to them. It was something that ordinary people did who weren’t struggling, and it frequently opened up opportunities for meaningful conversation. An interesting part of this work is discerning what dynamics were in play and what was best for the client. It is hard πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting that you did home visits as a pastoral counselor. Makes me curious to learn more! Wish we could have a cup of tea πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, wouldn’t a cup of tea be lovely, Jane. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the virtual invite. All of our work was done in the community (homes, daycare, laundromat, playgrounds). My clients were families with children under age 5 and practicing our strategies in their real-life settings was key.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sacred and exhausting work, I think.

          Liked by 1 person

          • At times it was heartbreaking. But working with the kids was almost always great – so resilient and responsive. Some of my work involved teaching families how to play πŸ˜€

            Liked by 1 person

              • I find this post very intriguing as I have a very close relationship with my therapist (I asked her if I was her favourite client and she kind of had to say yes!) but I have never considered giving her any gifts. I feel that would violate the boundaries between us just like I have her personal mobile number but never use it I always email her. It feels like there is an attempt to control – however nice – behind these gifts your clients give you and I can see why you don’t accept some of them. I feel I pay my therapist and don’t have to give her anything else. She knows she is the most important moral arbiter in my life and that the therapy with her has changed my life – transforming my emotional age from under 2 to pretty much 18, I know she loves me I don’t have to give her gifts. But I would definitely want her to be there at my wedding!


                • What a great reply! I enjoy hearing your personal experience. I think also that if I get paid, then surely clients do not need to “pay” me again. I admit to loving my clients. With some, I really have to work at it, though. Others are easy to love. Some are so dear to me!! Really, in my heart, I am sure that you are right and your therapist does love you!


  5. I’d have surely accepted the brownies too, food gifts are always accepted in my world.

    Liked by 1 person


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