Blink, and your edgy, quirky style goes mainstream. Online counseling, just the other day considered risky and suitable only for the young and tech savvy, is now covered in the New York Times. The august APA predicts it is about to “take off like a rocket”. Check out this week’s article, When your Therapist is Only a Click Away.
When I tell my colleagues that I offer counseling online, they are intrigued. Therapists are adjusting to the idea, meaning they no longer think it’s insane, but a new genre of worries is percolating. What would happen to trust, asks the Times, if a counseling conversation were in progress and the Skype signal was lost? Or to self image, if the video image suddenly became pixillated? Can counseling survive the risk of misunderstood irony in a text message?
A consultant from the American Psychological Association thinks that three years from now, technology and social media will be so familiar and accessible that online counseling will be common. Still, traditionalists will prefer the specialness of the shared physical space for counseling. “There is something important in bearing witness,” says a therapist in Glastonbury, Connecticut; “there is so much that happens in a room that I cannot see on Skype.” “It’s not the same as being there,” laments another therapist from Colorado Springs, “but it’s better than nothing.”
But younger clinicians, the consultant thinks, will be increasingly comfortable using online media to conduct the work of healing. Counseling is a deeply personal experience, and it’s worth reflecting on the changes we are witnessing as online media become more transparent, and allow us to have personal communication online that feels genuine because it is genuine, and even therapeutic.
How is that possible? Sharing virtual space may not be the same experience as being on the same sofa, but it is consistent with honest talk. The APA guy seems to think that future therapists won’t even miss aromatherapy or the sharing of physical space. Everything essential to therapy, he suggests, can happen in the exchange of electronic words and images.
The missing third, mystical possibility: the experience of being emotionally present, in subtle and nonverbal ways, will always matter. We can experience some variant of true intimacy, online. Counseling has a poetic dimension. It will only look different.
Going online will not delete that quality. It might even strengthen it.
Online counseling can, for example, parachute into a wilderness where nothing else would have a chance. Somebody struggling with shame might just be willing to do counseling while safely at home, with only a laptop to bear witness. Some of my online counseling clients have chosen it for that reason. Others have done so because they wanted to work with a counselor located somewhere else, and not in their own close knit community. Others just like the fluid medium that can seize the moment. (Hint: Counselors do too. I was at a conference recently; when a speaker went on too long, I lost count of furtive texting conversations in progress. Almost actually LOL.)
It has become almost too easy to go online for respite from boredom or stress. Counseling online has new pitfalls because of the possibility of quickly arranged contact, “counseling on the fly”, as the Times put it. A message exchange can happen anytime, while a client’s difficult experiences are fresh. Spontaneity can be a huge advantage for online counseling.
The unexpected challenge: could counseling become too available, tempting us to miss the struggle? Maintaining good boundaries has always been important to the relationship. It’s not good for counselors to be on call all the time. Butterflies, I understand, benefit from the struggle of emerging from the cocoon.
Online counseling is an emerging medium, and it is listening to our conversation. The challenges of forming trust online may yet teach us something we need. How to survive pixillation, perhaps.