Each week, my interns submit a summary of their clinical hours along with a “process note,” pretty standard training fare. These notes are supposed to document their internal ups and downs; the good, bad, and ugly of their week with clients whose challenges and pathologies are probably a bit above their current pay grade. Good learning opportunity, I often rationalize, especially since they have competent on-site supervisors who are there to teach, train, and support their burgeoning yet fragile clinical identities.

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If the academic/clinical interface were a bit tighter, I would have these folks work their way up from simple and acute disorders to the more severe and chronic pathologies as they evolved through their training. But such is not always possible. So, for most of my trainees, this entails some arduous hikes on those steep and unmarked learning curves that we more seasoned clinicians have experienced—and still may.

Sure, we process some of the more complex clinical challenges in class, and they are in resource-rich learning environments at their sites, but for the most part this is boots-on-the-ground OJT-101. Such was recently the case, when one of my interns wrote in his process note, “I find myself dealing with [a] therapeutic boundary [with a client who] was giving signals of perversion [related to] the dress code. I felt uncomfortable and reported [this] to my supervisor, and the client was confronted. I felt supported and protected.”

I was curious about what he actually meant by the word “perversion,” given the loaded and historically pejorative nature of the term. Upon follow-up, I discovered that in this intern’s culture, women are quickly and quite aggressively shamed and oftentimes punished by family and community if they act or dress in a way that is considered immoral and violates biblical principles.

The client was a 32-year-old female attendee in a day-treatment program who, in the intern’s words, had chosen to wear “a cut-off shirt without a bra and see-through sport leggings without panties.” In that moment of discomfort, my intern abruptly ended the session by telling the client that he had to attend an intake session. He then went to his supervisor for guidance. While I was very glad that the intern took this immediately to his supervisor who gave him the support and protection he needed at the time, I was dismayed that in that very uncomfortable moment, perhaps understandably, he simply told the client that he had an intake to perform and abruptly ended the session. He lied to her.

Apparently, this was not the first time this client had approached therapy with a male clinician in this manner; she was subsequently transferred to a seasoned female clinician after her brief visit with my intern.

In retrospect, my intern understood that this might not have been the best way to handle the situation, but he had clearly been taken off guard by this “attractive woman,” was intensely uncomfortable, and expressed concern that if he did not act immediately that his “imagination” might get ahead of him. While he momentarily considered the possible role of transference in this client’s wardrobe choice, he was even more relieved that his supervisor and the clinical director handled the situation “sensibly and professionally.”

This scenario brought me back to an incident during my own training when, during a practicum placement in a state psychiatric hospital, my supervisor decided it would be instructional to set up an intake for me with one of the “chronic” patients. Soon after being ushered into the seclusion room with me—a strange choice of setting—the patient sat down facing me with her bathrobe open and nothing underneath. All I remember about that tortuous moment in time was that I froze. As then, as if from thin air, my supervisor emerged from behind the one-way mirror and into the room. Upon my supervisor’s entry, the patient immediately sat erect, closed her bathrobe, and had the most delightful conversation with my supervisor, who later said to me, “I can write a book about any patient after meeting with them once.”

In retrospect, I believe, knowing what I later learned about this man, that it was an exercise designed to humor him and shame me. After my initial embarrassment and sense of ineptitude receded, the shame set in.

Getting back to my own intern, I was very aware of not wanting to shame him and wanting his own moment of torture to be a learning opportunity for him and the rest of the class. So I asked them all to consider what they might have said in that moment, while my intern listened in and then reflected upon their responses. These included, “I probably would have done something very similar,” “I would have told her about boundaries and that I was not comfortable continuing the session,” and “I would have ended the session and rescheduled after telling her that her attire was inappropriate for the setting.”

Each of their responses was appropriate given their level of experience, but in retrospect, I was a bit disappointed, perhaps unrealistically, that none of them had considered the possibility that this client’s choice of attire might actually not have been a choice, at least not a conscious one. So, I wondered out loud with them about the possibilities that she had been sexually assaulted or trafficked or both, and/or had come to rely on seduction to navigate relationships of power imbalance, particularly with men. It might have been erotic transference. Or perhaps, it might have been none of these, and she was simply proud of her body, and had chosen not to heed past messages around the inappropriateness of this behavior.


As I write this, I am an hour out from my supervision class in which I hope the incident will come up again; if it doesn’t, I will bring it back into focus. I’ll be most interested to know what about that client’s behavior triggered my intern to consider it a “perversion.” Hopefully, he will not feel the shame I did many years ago, and we will have a rich discussion.

What would you have done?

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections