The millennial generation, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, is a generation categorized by the digital age. An overwhelming majority owns a computer, a smartphone and uses the internet daily. Coined “digital natives,” millennials are a generation raised on using social media as a primary way to communicate and express oneself. This is the generation that is now entering into the field of psychotherapy.

The rise of social media  has significant implications for this generation of therapists, both relationally and professionally. We are entering into the field with a perspective of the world much different than our predecessors. We deal with public exposure in a way that has not yet been faced. There can be some harmful consequences of our lives being so public.

As we enter into this field, we must be thoughtful about our social media use and the implications it has for both our work as therapists and in our personal lives.

Wait, We Have Needs Too!

As psychotherapists, our personal and professional lives can become convoluted when social media is thrown into the mix. Therapists are not immune to wanting to be seen, recognized or admired. In fact, the majority of mental health professionals are in this field due to some early narcissistic wounds, leaving us feeling unseen and unrecognized. We can spend our careers seeking to understand and validate our early experiences while hoping to aid others who have experienced similar difficulties. With this early lack of attunement, we are left craving to be praised and seen. While these wounds may be universal within the field, the generational aspect of social media allows for some further complications.

Our early wounds can leave us vulnerable to attempt to meet our needs through the tool that we were raised with – social media. Our public domains can provide immediate relief, and can help to assuage our wounds as we can gain followers, get likes and receive praise for our accomplishments. It can be a regulation tool and help mediate our anxiety by providing attention and distraction from our lives. The difficulty is that this immediate relief is not sustainable and becomes complicated when we are also involved in helping others heal; most of which have their own social media accounts.

This means we must be thoughtful about what we let be seen and how we conduct ourselves on social media. We as psychotherapists need to be aware of these implications and address them in our own lives for healing.

What About our Clients?

No matter what your theoretical orientation, it is important to recognize the therapeutic relationship as a primary vehicle for change. This vehicle could become compromised when we use our therapeutic relationship to get our own needs met.

Our desire to reach out on social media can be a way we are initiating our own healing, but we must be aware that it could morph into an instrument to have our clients see us in a way that is inappropriate for the relationship. While mutual recognition is potentially valuable in therapy, the relationship should still maintain an element of asymmetry; meaning the therapist is the caretaker of the client and the focus of the treatment is on their healing.

If we let clients into our social media, we could be letting them into our worlds to heal and be seen. We need to be aware of what we are wanting from our own exposure and think deeply about the implications this would have in our therapeutic relationships.

What if This Comes up in Therapy?

Now that the majority of people are on social media, it is not uncommon for clients to try to attempt to “add” us. It is important to be thoughtful about how we address this with our clients in therapy. The dilemma we face can act as a tool to explore the client’s feelings about the therapeutic relationship and what it may feel like for the therapy to be asymmetrical.

For instance: What is it like for our clients to let us into their worlds but not be let into ours? This is something to process in the room and could shed light on some important transferential information. Social media provides another element to engage a conversation. In addition, it allows us to engage our own self-exploration. What is it like for us as therapists to not been seen or taken care of by our clients? Is there a part of us that wishes they could engage us in that way and see us in other avenues than in therapy? These questions can help us deepen both our own understandings of ourselves and work with our clients.

As social media is so prevalent, it is crucial that we have these conversations and help our clients explore feelings related to social media and to engage in our own healing.

What do we do?

While every therapist must do his or her own internal work, the millennial generation faces a particular challenge. Our lives are more public than ever before, adding a level of complexity that is noteworthy. In a way not needed by previous generations, we must engage in our own healing while being aware of what we allow others, namely our clients, to view on our social media.

As stewards of mental health, we need to be aware of the implications of social media on our professional lives and the therapeutic relationships we hold. In addition, we need to monitor how we use our social media, including getting our own early needs met. As the therapists themselves are a primary tool in the healing process, it is important that we ensure we are as cognizant of our own blind spots as possible. In this self-awareness, we can take inventory of our motivation and use this information to heal ourselves without threatening our relationship with clients.

We must take steps to do the courageous work of self-exploration so we can help our clients to do the same.

We need to take care of our own needs so we can clearly see our role in the therapeutic relationship, and can focus on the work of helping our clients heal. When we do this work, we can engage our clients while speaking directly about their use of social media and what it is like to live in a time when this is so prevalent. As the generation of digital natives, we have a responsibility to be aware of the effect of social media on our selves and our therapeutic relationships and to use this information to deepen our work.

This article was originally published on December 21, 2015.

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Elise Joy Middleton, PsyD, MACL