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What’s the Difference Between a Friend and a Therapist?


Some people say they don’t need a therapist because they have friends, while others rely heavily on family alone. Relatives may be helpful, but we can’t rely on them to support what’s best for us because they’re often invested in themselves, in us as is, and lack distance and perspective to advise what’s in our best interest. 

That’s what a therapist is for. I thought about the friend/therapist divide one day talking with an old friend. The friend in me wanted to be empathic, while the therapist in me knew that the healthiest response to what she presented as a problem was to challenge the slanted picture she was painting. Unfortunately, the therapist in me was first out of the gate until I reined her back in and, instead, switched hats (apologies for mixed metaphors) and simply offered compassion for what she was feeling.

This is exactly why therapists can do and say things friends and family often can’t. We don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, but know the only way out is through and that change usually involves feeling uncomfortable now to feel better later. 

Friends, unless they’ve studied psychology, generally respond to us from their personal experience. Someone who’s having a terrible time divorcing an abuser might discourage you from leaving your abusive partner. Someone who hasn’t done well scholastically due to a learning disability might bring up all the reasons you should stay at your current job and not return to college to finish your bachelor’s degree. Alternately, friends can go the other way and push you to do things they haven’t or won’t such as urge you to leave an abuser though they’re still married to one or go back to school in spite of the student loans you’ll accrue because they’ve always feared taking the risk. 

Of course, therapists may share your same problems, fears or desires. However, our job is to set them aside by being aware of them and focus on your feelings, life and what’s beneficial for you long-term. We may note we’ve had similar experiences or keep that to ourselves. Our goal is not only to help you do what’s best for you but to teach you healthier ways to think, feel and behave. 

Generally, therapists look for patterns—another heavy drinker, narcissistic friend, poor job choice—and what you’ve not said or done. For example, when you keep defending your mother when she doesn’t deserve it or never set limits with your son. We notice if you dodge uncomfortable subjects or laugh nervously rather than cry. Most importantly, we don’t judge you as friends might or as you might do yourself. So, please, if you could use a neutral third party skilled in human relations, give one of us a call.