Are You Really Supposed To Ask Your Therapist How They Are?

photographed by Rockie Nolan.
There's a scene in the Gilmore Girls revival, where Lorelai's therapist spots her on the street (read: not during a therapy session) and immediately runs over to tell her that she's trying out for the town's new musical production, and she wants Lorelai to put in a good word with the casting directors.
That might fly in the fictional world of Stars Hollow, but in real life, the therapist-patient relationship is meant to have a lot more boundaries, and for good reason.
Susanne Babbel, PhD, MFT, a San Francisco-based therapist, says that you're not really supposed to get overly familiar with your therapist because the more you know about them, the more you risk distracting from your healing process.
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"Therapists are usually trained not to share their personal life because it gives the client fuel to project onto the therapist," Dr. Babbel says.
Projecting, she says, is a defense mechanism in which you ascribe characteristics that you don't like about yourself, or other people in your life, onto someone else — in this case, your therapist. If, for example, you've gathered that your therapist is a really organized person, just like your mother, you might start projecting some of your more negative feelings about your mom onto your therapist. While it's possible to project onto your therapist without knowing anything personal about them, finding out that, say, they are from the same town as a friend who ghosted you might quickly breed resentment without you even realizing.
Still, therapy is a super personal experience, and it's hard for the lines not to be blurred when you're sharing all your innermost thoughts. It's natural to be curious about the person on the other side of that conversation, especially if you worry that the conversation is too one-sided.
"Usually, people ask questions to feel more connected or feel safe, or they are uncomfortable being the only one in the room that's vulnerable," Dr. Babbel says.

Therapy is a super personal thing, and it's hard for the lines not to be blurred.

If you're worried about your questions getting out of hand, it might reassure you to know that it's usually on the therapist to draw those boundaries when they feel like a question is too personal. Dr. Babbel says that if a patient asks something that crosses a line, the therapist will usually redirect that question and turn the conversation back to them.
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"I can always explore why someone has those questions, which is information that can be used in therapy," she says. "For example, if they ask inappropriate questions because they have poor boundaries, then I do a boundary exercise with them. If they don’t feel safe, I will talk about how they can feel safer with me and so on."
So, rest assured that it's probably fine to ask your therapist how they're doing and other small talk questions, but Dr. Babbel says there are definitely some questions you shouldn't ask, like how old they are, or if they've ever been married.
"Generally, it is good etiquette not to ask your therapist any personal questions about them, but to just let the therapists decide when it is appropriate to share," she says.
But, if you do blurt out a probing question, your therapist will likely just switch gears in the conversation. It's not that they don't want to engage with you — it's just that they don't want to get in the way of what you're actually in therapy for.
"Therapy is about the person who wants to heal, and it is important not to distract from this intention or interrupt the process," Dr. Babbel says.
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