Appearance is a significant form of self-disclosure. When I first started my practice 16 years ago, I put a lot of thought into how I would dress. Because I was renting an office only one day a week at the time, I had no say in its appearance. I was left with no way to make an impression except by the way I dressed.
Being new to the profession, I thought that looking the most neutral required me to dress in slacks, dress shirt, and tie. This business look was not typical of the way I normally dressed, but because I followed the blank screen approach, I believed this presentation best fit with that theoretical stance.
As I look back on that decision now – I still dress the same as I did then – I realize that while dress always tells a story, I have little control over how people see me, given that their view is likely to be imagined, projected, or assumed. Patients will form an impression independent of how I want them to perceive me.
While I once thought that dressing in business attire would elicit respect and enhance my status as an analyst, I came to realize that no matter how I dress, my appearance is “grist for the mill”. In fact the way this impression colors the treatment helps to shine light on the patient’s psyche and on his/her relationship with me.
A related issue is the affect of my “real life” way of dressing – unintended self-disclosure – would have on patients who encountered me outside the office. I had once feared that this might shake my patients’ view of me, of my neutrality and professionalism. Instead, I found that those few patients I have encountered outside my role of analyst have registered negligible effects. On the contrary, these encounters seem to appeal to their desire to see me as “human” or as “having a life”.
Although I haven’t altered the way I dress in my practice, I imbue it with far less importance than in times past.