The Difference Between a Therapist & Close Friend

The Difference Between a Therapist & Close Friend

The Difference Between a Therapist & Close Friend

So…What’s the difference between a therapist and a dear friend anyway?

As a pre-licensed marriage and family therapist I get asked these questions a lot…

“What is the difference between a therapist and a close friend?”

“What did they teach you during all that time in grad school?”

“What does a therapist do & why should I pay to go?”

At first glance it seems like these would be relatively simple questions for me to answer, right? After all, my life has revolved around the topic for quite some time now… and yet I kept finding it difficult to answer these questions and summarize my experience in a succinct and simple manner…

Pinning down the answers felt like chasing a freshly released fist full of confetti flying about in the air… So much information in my noggin from profound experiences, difficult to put into words… Then a little light bulb began to flicker inside… If I’m having difficulty clarifying the difference between talking to a dear friend and talking with a therapist, perhaps others struggle to make a clear distinction as well! Voilà … time for me to consolidate my learnings and pin them down on paper…

This exercise led me to realize that relationship with a therapist is not like any other relationship out there which is why it can be difficult to explain… but here is my humble and imperfect attempt to do so…

Therapists…

listen in layers… not in a magical power or a 6th sense type of way– but in a way sculpted by hours of training (they’re required to have a Masters degree at minimum) and backed by sincere intent. (Did you know researchers believe that roughly only 7% of our communication is verbal?!) Here’s a snippet of what might be going on in a therapist’s mind during session:

Following content, being present, listening to undertone/tone of voice, watching body language/facial expressions, monitoring personal feelings, sensing the emotion of what is being said (even if the emotion is not being shown), watching for connections and patterns to what is currently being said with past history, reframing the discussion, thinking of questions to ask to promote insight and growth, ways to empathize and respond…

Friends often listen to respond (with care), to share advice, a story, or give their opinion. This is the give and take of most relationships – the mutuality aspect that does not exist in therapy. Friends are generally impacted by our decisions and have a sense of personal interest in the choices we make.

Therapists…

… do not offer advice, nor do they shift focus with a personal story of their own (in here, it’s ALL about you!). Therapists are largely objective and are not personally affected by our decisions in the same manner as a close friend. They are trained to watch out for their own biases and refrain from interjecting personal beliefs.

Friends are unlikely to spill the beans and break confidence, but it is always a possibility. There is also often a fear of judgment that we may have when discussing sensitive topics with close friends, inhibiting us from divulging issues that deeply bother us. We don’t want to disappoint those close to us and may hide elements of self to protect against potentially hurtful judgments.

Therapists…

…are bound by law not to spill your beans! Everything about your relationship remains confidential… their license (earned after years and years of hard work) is on the line for any grievance committed against confidentiality.

So why might you go see a therapist?

            Well, you’ve been talking to your tuned in, super empathic friends and been getting great advice from them (because let’s face it, tuned in empathic friends give some really good advice!) but things just aren’t clicking or changing for you even when you try to apply their great advice…

There’s a hitch in your giddy-up and things just aren’t moving or changing… you feel stuck… patterns continue to repeat in your life and you don’t know why… your friends don’t know why and you think, what the hey, maybe therapy could help me out.

A therapist is trained in human behavior and is able to help identify patterns within the context of your family dynamic, your relationships, and your personality. Working with a therapist can help you deconstruct your patterns and gain insight into what makes you you… what makes you tick… and what patterns are getting in the way of growth (what’s stopping up the system). Therapists are trained to highlight blind spots, encourage independent thinking, and promote self-reflection.

The benefit of having both!

In sharing my thoughts with you my intention was simply to highlight some of the main differences between talking to a close friend and talking with a therapist. My intention was in no way to discredit our need for dear, close, buddies  – let’s face it, life can be hard when close connections are faint. Ideally we can enjoy both, gleaning insight and support from various avenues in our lives.

Put simply…

…friends can help you fix the immediate problemlike helping you to tighten up some loose screws on the engine…

…a therapist can help you to make sense of differing life aspects, integrate past experiences, and promote change moving into the future – like helping you to disassemble and reassemble the engine.

Both of these helps are useful and needed at times, but each serves a different overall function.

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