by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
We all have that friend: the incredible listener, the one who gives such sage advice, the one who asks intriguing questions that help you gain clarity. We feel so relieved after talking to them; we declare, "I don't need therapy, you're my therapist!"
As someone who has been on both sides of that scenario as well as now being a licensed therapist, I'd like to take this opportunity to attest to some of the important differences between being someone's friend and their therapist. Why? For the sake of our friendships as well as the effectiveness of therapy, we will improve the effectiveness and the way we relate to both if we understand what makes them unique.
1) Your friend has a personal connection to you.
This seems really obvious, but it's important to note that when you call someone your friend, they occupy a part of your social circle and your own image of yourself. Usually you have mutual friends, you have obligations and expectations of a certain nature, such as how often you hang out, how often you talk to each other, or what sorts of things you tell each other. You might see your friend as a sibling and vice versa. We see an image of ourselves in our friends. They share memories with us, experiences that have formed us into who we are.
It's not that your therapist doesn't feel a personal connection to you--in fact, the relationship you have with your therapist is the most important part of therapy. If you have trust and feel connected to them, this is a good thing! Research shows that this is the best indicator of therapeutic change and progress. However, the trust and connection you feel with your therapist is not based in mutual friendships or shared experiences--other than the shared experience of therapy.
Why does this matter?
Let's say for example that your friend points out something really true about you, but you weren't ready to hear it. You feel angry, pissed off, and you don't speak to that friend for awhile. Your friend may be hurt, or maybe they really understand, or maybe they don't. Either way you affect their life and potentially the social circles in which you both participate. Depending on the intensity of the sensitive nature of what they said, you may take a long time to talk to them again.
Your therapist may do the same thing. They may say something you're not ready to hear. You may avoid therapy for a week or two. But your social circles are still intact; you still have support outside of therapy. Your therapist's job is to help you process, to weather the storms of emotion, and to teach your techniques.
2) Your friend is not just there for you - you are also there for them.
I would hope that we are listening to our friends as much as they are listening to us. In contrast, the therapy hour is yours and yours alone. Though we do sometimes feel that awkward inclination of wanting to know more about our therapist out of the social courtesy of simply being two human beings, we know that therapy is designed to give us a window that is only for us.
You may have wonderful friends who give you undivided attention and empathetic listening; however, it's important to remember that mutuality is what makes friendship special. We learn from each other, we give each other our unique gifts.
3) Your friend is (usually) there to help you feel better.
If you have one of those "tell it like it is" friends, then they won't be the type to say things to try to soothe your feelings. But even the most blunt friend might not be best suited to help us process trauma or difficult transitions or our diagnosed anxiety or depression or anything else. Friends weather our ups and our downs, understanding that sometimes we need space and sometimes they need someone to intervene. Friends see us when we are sad and sit with us, let us know they're there for us, and help us get support when it's above their ability.
Your friend's job is to sustain a (hopefully) lifelong connection with you. Your therapist's job is to empower you to create lasting change in your own life.
We need therapists and we need our friends.
They simply do not occupy the same spaces, even though we trust them deeply.
Knowing the differences can give us the freedom to be the unique sides of ourselves with both.