A commonly-asked question at this time of the year is, “Can I give my therapist a Christmas or holiday gift? What about just a card?”
The answer varies from therapist to therapist and from doctor to doctor.
Generally therapists seek to keep the relationship between a client and themselves a professional one, despite the emotional material often discussed in psychotherapy. The more the line blurs between “professional therapist” and “paid friend,” the more complicated the relationship becomes. So most therapists will seek to keep that line — what they call a boundary — clear and well-understood by both parties.
Some therapists will talk about the subject proactively, letting each client know ahead of time what their policy is regarding presents and cards. Since presents often denote greater meaning than a card, a therapist will most often be reluctant to receive a gift from an active client. In some professions, such as psychology, such gifts are actively discouraged, not because they are not well-intended but because they blur the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship.
Other therapists will not think to talk about the topic, especially with older clients they may have seen longer than a year. If you’re uncertain whether your therapist or psychiatrist is open or able to receive gifts from their clients, simply ask — “Hey doc, do you accept Christmas presents from your clients?” Your therapist will think nothing of the question, and more likely than not will answer you in a direct and thoughtful manner.
If your therapist or doctor accepts gifts, you should keep the gift inexpensive (under $20) and oriented toward something specific you know about the therapist they may appreciate. For instance, if your doc likes to fish, a fancy new fishing lure might be appropriate. A gift card to a favorite local eating place is fine. Stay away from jewelry or gifts with special meaning (to either you or the therapist). The best gifts reflect the tastes of the receiver, not the giver.
If your therapist does not accept gifts (and most do not), you can also consider giving a holiday card if you’re so inclined. Again, you should check with your therapist first, as many won’t accept a card from their clients either. But because cards are exchanged even amongst professional colleagues, some therapists may be more accepting of receiving a card.
Gift-giving or card-giving to your therapist is likely to be a one-way street. Very few therapists exchange gifts with their patients, or give out cards to each client. If you’re likely to be upset by the fact that the gift or card is not reciprocated (or appreciated in a specific preconceived manner), you should probably forgo the gift- or card-giving in the first place. And even though this article is focused on holiday gift-giving, it also applies to birthdays (yours and your therapist’s).
Don’t be disappointed if your therapist nixes gift-giving this holiday season. Such a tradition is one that is usually best shared with close friends and family. While it’s easy to think of our therapists as falling into one of those two groups, the therapeutic relationship is really a professional onejust one that happens to discuss very personal and emotionally important topics.