Why Your Friend Can't Be Your Therapist

This blog posting explains why your friend (or spouse, or sibling, or parent) can't be your therapist.

Last week we looked at the differences and similarities between "fixing what's broken" and "facilitating change."  This week I want to take a look at what makes a therapist's office different than your friend's living room.  That is, why can't you just talk to your friend and fix your problems?

First, let me acknowledge that friends can help a lot with one's problems.  Friends  usually offer unqualified support and can at minimum help one feel not alone in the world.  A good friend isn't just someone who will rubber stamp everything you say or do, but will lovingly challenge you too.

A therapist's office, on the other hand, can be likened to a "clean room."   Ideally the therapist has no agenda, so there is no pressure on you to think or behave in a particular way.  Even your best friend, who wants only good for you, will usually want what's best for you according to his or her version of what "best" means.

The second important piece is that it's a very rare friend who will continually listen to you and not want to be listened to in return.  This is one of the aspects of paying someone.  Besides the professional knowledge that you are paying for, payment also relieves you from any need for equity.  The situation is supposed to be imbalanced in your favor and you don't have to worry about whether or not you're talking too much, taking up too much time, and you definitely shouldn't have to worry about your therapist's well being.

The third thing you're getting from a therapist is a knowledge base of how certain psychological issues form and play out.  Therapy at its best is a combination of art and science, of intellect and intuition.  The field of psychology has attracted an enormous number of brilliant minds over the past century, and they have opened up many new ways of legitimate understanding and methods for working with people in pain.  Of course there have been a lot of ugly misses on the way, but that is true of every field of developing knowledge.  It is very reassuring to have a variety of quirky emotional symptoms and have someone who knows how to tie them together into a meaningful whole.  Understanding the problem is seldom enough to make it go away, but it is an important first step.

The fourth, and this may be thought of as a combination of all factors, is a "holding environment."  Inside all of us sometimes are scared little children who need someone strong, loving and understanding to be bigger than us when we are going through a period of turbulence.  It is enormously helpful to have a parental figure (and I frequently serve this role even for people who are older than me) who can be a rooted and reassuring presence, someone who is big enough to hold whatever you bring into the room and to remain unflappable no matter how upset you are.

Next week:  how does talking help someone get better?

Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at josh@joshgressel.com.

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.  He is accepting new referrals.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kenny December 07, 2012 at 03:34 AM
This sounds more like an infomercial. As it turned out, my best friend (many moons ago) turned out to be the best therapist I ever had.
upptick December 11, 2012 at 03:30 AM
Therapists have a vested interest in telling you that you have problems that you need to "work on," preferably over many, many sessions billed at an hourly rate, of course. And a friend is a friend precisely BECAUSE you feel safe enough around him or her to talk about your life, all of it. This columnist is goofy.
Chris J Kapsalis December 11, 2012 at 11:56 AM
I agree friends cannot be your therapist. Be a friend. Advice now and then is one thing, support, becoming their therapist, especially if they are married is a bad idea.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D. December 13, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Let me tell you why I agree with each one of you: Onions: It is a real danger for therapists to get their agenda into the room. I certainly hope they do it less than friends, but they need to be aware of it. Emily: As always, you make a great point. It is so much easier to tell another to adopt a harsh line, with partners or with children, than it is to do it ourselves. Less is always more when it comes to advice. Ed: I really appreciate the balance you bring to the question here. I couldn't have said it better myself. Kenny: If this column provides useful information in order to make an informed decision to purchase needed services, I consider it successful. Uptick: Therapists may fall prey to just what you're describing, not just for financial reasons but also because they can view life through a lens of pathology. Chris: I think you are drawing a useful distinction between being a friend and being a therapist. They are, in truth, different. With my own friends I almost never "do therapy" -- it's just different, and it doesn't belong in the relationship. Thank you all for helping to make this topic more rich and interesting.
ROBERT E. FISHBACK December 31, 2012 at 06:59 PM
We are very complicated beings, and it is reasonable to expect all kinds of rattles and squeeks. The more parts a car has, the more prone it is for rattles and for the car computer to go wrong. My car gets rattles all the time. If the car still functions properly, I just ignore the rattle, and they usually go away. I think we can be too introspective and drive ourselves crazy with an over active mind..flitting from this feeling to that feeling. The best pill of all is laughter..I mean falling down laughter. Several times, I have become so tickled, my knees went weak. I have had my bouts with severe depression and alcohol abuse. I went through my period of co=dependancy. I recovered and I opt to manage my life and not go down the trail of tears again. The most dangerous place for some of you is a bar. Without fail, more bad relationships begin in a bar than anywhere else. Bars are gathering places for the mentally ill...though they may seem sane and nice, alcohol combines with pre-dispositions and sugar coats them with all sorts of charm. They are good places to go shopping for cheap affection. Wriiting is my way of talking, and I seem obsessed with writing..like something is driving me to write. Perhaps I am seeking a compliment on my writing. I suspect that, and knowing this, I can change my motives. I enjoy portraying myself as a well meaning clutz, and I laugh at my inventions.like offering to help an old couple find absorbant pads. Be happy and invent..


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