A while back I received an email from a prospective client. It was a very long email detailing all of the troubles they’ve had in their life, both past and present. I read the email but the grammar was so bad I had trouble understanding what the person was asking from me. I figured they might have written the email on their phone and that’s why the grammar was hard to understand. So I responded with a simple “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there something I can do for you?” The prospective client emailed back “No… you answered my question.” I probably should have just left it at that, but I was confused and curious as to why this person had contacted me. Whatever question I had answered, apparently I gave the wrong answer and that bothered me. So I responded back “I can tell by your email that you’re disappointed by my response. I’m sorry if I upset you in any way. That was not my intention.” The person then sent back a very long email detailing how I was a fraud, a phony, and was using false advertising on my website. That they could tell by my short response to the initial email that I was nothing like I made myself out to be and that they would be using a true therapist instead. The person then wrote a few more paragraphs about how awful I am, how they were so much more successful and smarter than I was etc. etc.
Whoa. Now keep in mind this person has never met me before, but lashed out in such a manner that you would assume they had some kind of personal vendetta against me. I decided not to respond to that email and just leave it be. I could tell that anything I wrote would just anger the person even more. If this were the first and only time I had received an email exchange from a prospective client like that, I suppose I could just chalk it up to a one-time thing. But unfortunately, I do receive messages like that on a regular basis. I’m sure I’m not the only therapist that does, and I’ll explain why. Believe it or not, but we therapists are considered to be public figures more than we would like. People see that we have a website, blog, and perhaps even guest blogs scattered all over the web. The anonymous individual on the internet knows what we look like, where we live, and what we do for a living, but we know nothing about them. This gives the person a certain freedom to act out in ways they would never do face-to-face or even live over the phone.
Secondly, the person knows that we are therapists, which in their mind gives them even more liberties. They don’t feel bad about their actions because they think “Whatever, she’s a therapist, she can take it”. I’ve also found out during the course of my career that a lot of people view therapists as authority figures. They see us not unlike cops, probation officers, school principals, or in other words “the man”. People who have a dislike of authority figures may feel a natural resentment towards therapists and see us as “just another person trying to control me and telling me what to do.” Other people may see us as miracle workers. They think that a few inspiring words from a therapist will magically change their life. When this doesn’t happen, they feel ripped off and become angry. I think that this is why the person who emailed me became so angry. Looking back, I think that they expect me to write out a detailed analysis based off of the email they sent me, and hoped that reading that analysis would some how cure them of their problems. When they didn’t receive the “email cure”, they became incised.
A lot of therapists have responded to this problem by no longer having an email address listed on their website, they only give it out to clients once they’ve come in for their first appointment. This certainly solves the problem, but creates a new problem of making you less accessible. There are a lot of busy professionals (me included) who prefer to use email as their primary means of communication. If I see that a business doesn’t have an email listed, I go to a different business. I’m sure there are many would-be clients who are the same way. So what do I think the solution needs to be? Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the general public needs to have a better understanding of what therapists do and what we can realistically offer them. We have a terrible image in the media, leaving a lot of people with bad feelings towards therapists. Something we therapists really need to do is clear up the misconceptions the public has about therapy. I’m going to do my part by continuing to blog, write books, and respond to media requests. I hope you do your part as well.
In the mean time, I think it’s important to remember not to take this stuff personally. Remember, it’s not you that the person is made at; it’s previous therapists, their life, or “the system”. The person was mad about those things before they found your email address and will be mad about those things long after you’ve deleted their angry email.