Why your therapist can’t be your friend
I could have called this post ‘How are therapy and friendship different?’, because actually until we’ve answered that question, it’s difficult to explain why indeed your therapist can’t be your friend.
What is friendship?
When you think about friendship, you probably think about sharing memories, experiences and events – taking turns at telling your stories, giving your opinions, turning to each other for support or to share good news.
Friendship is an informal relationship where everyone involved – ideally – shares equally, whether that’s the bar bill or the amount of time each of you spends in conversation or in listening to each other offload your troubles.
What is therapy?
Therapy – or counselling – is a formal, contractual relationship in which one person (‘the client’) comes to see another person (‘the therapist’ or ‘counsellor’) usually on a set day and at a set time in order to talk about very private and personal matters, which may be very painful and upsetting, and which they may not have been able to share with anyone else.
The therapist, by and large, will say very little about their own experience of life even when it might appear to be very similar to (or very different from) the client’s. Much of the therapist’s life remains unknown, while the client’s life is explored and discussed and, perhaps, radically changed by the therapy.
In that sense at least, therapy is a very one-sided relationship.
So why can’t your therapist be your friend?
Good therapy is about what’s best for the client; the focus should be on you and what you need in order to resolve the issues you’ve brought to the therapy room. It’s not about what’s going on for me as your therapist.
Suppose you and I were meeting for counselling, and you told me that you had been abducted by aliens and wanted to talk about it in our sessions – unlikely, I know, but bear with me on this! And then suppose that I too, your therapist, had also been abducted by aliens – what might happen if I decided to share that with you, as if we were friends? Here’s how it might go:
Me: No way! The same thing happened to me. This ship landed and I was beamed up, but the next thing I knew I was being given the most amazing tour of the solar system – it was awesome! So, tell me more about what happened to you?
Although you and I share a similar event – being abducted by aliens – our actual experience of that event is very different. By telling you, my client, about my own experience, I risk making our session as much about me rather than all about you. As you are paying me to help you, I’d not be providing a very good service by hijacking the conversation!
Even if my experience of being abducted had been very similar, it still might not have been appropriate to share it with you, because potentially it would have taken too much attention away from you and your experience. You might have felt unheard or misunderstood.
And that would get in the way of effective therapy.
Do therapists ever share personal experiences with clients?
I can only speak for myself here. On occasion, I will share an aspect of my life experience with a client, but only after a great deal of thought and considering whether it’s more likely to help than hinder the client’s progress.
Sometimes, sharing an aspect of my life experience has – I’m told – been immensely valuable to a client because it’s enabled them to see things differently, or to feel better understood etc. But it’s not something I do lightly or often. And I do it with a therapeutic purpose in mind – to help my client in a particular way.
What about becoming friends after therapy has ended?
Even after you and your therapist have gone your separate ways, looking to start a friendship is still ill-advised. Your therapeutic relationship has been an emotionally intimate one, you’ve opened up to and trusted your therapist in a way you would to a friend – it would be very understandable to wish that to be reciprocated once therapy has finished.
But therapy is a one-sided intimacy, and that’s not a good starting-point for a friendship.
And while you may like your therapist and feel that you’d get on well as friends, if you don’t know much about them (because they have kept their personal lives out of the therapy room), how can you be sure that you’d actually want their friendship afterwards?
A good therapeutic relationship is an immensely powerful tool for enabling change, and it can even help you be a better friend to others, but it’s not – and can’t be – a friendship.