When we're going through a rough patch, need a second opinion, or just want to talk, many of us turn to friends or family who might lend an ear or a helping hand. But as much as they might want to help, those closest to us often struggle to listen, remain impartial, or hold themselves back from giving advice or wanting to solve our problems—and sometimes they might not be in the mood to listen or might even have their own motives when offering suggestions or solutions.
While it’s incredibly important to have social support from friends and family, it’s not the same as the support you get from a therapist. So how is talking to a therapist different from talking to a friend?
“I love this question,” says Jennifer Glass, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “In so many ways, the therapeutic relationship has the potential to become among the most emotionally intimate in our lives. It is not uncommon for clients and therapists alike to develop very strong bonds and deep connections to each other, born of shared vulnerability and trust. Boundaries and bright lines around what this looks like are critical for the protection of this unique bond.”
“We are not stakeholders in your process and outcomes in the way that friends, family and lovers can be,” she says, “we are there to observe, reflect, deeply care, and ideally help you to heal, but our sole focus is what is best for you regardless of how this might impact us. If we are lucky, our lives are populated with many such people.”
Here are a few more ways therapy is different than simply talking to a friend, with input from our community of therapists.
The main difference between therapists and friends (unless your friend is also a therapist!) is that therapists go through years of training to learn how to support their clients.
“There are many key differences between a relationship with a friend or loved one and a therapeutic relationship,” says Kara Casbarro. “Friends and family are an essential source of support; however, some of life's stressors and behavior patterns require us to dig a bit deeper into the root of the problem.”
“Therapy is also completely about you! It is a safe space to express yourself without the pressure to reciprocate that support, and truly delve into your difficulties,” she says. “While friends and family offer valuable life advice, a therapist's knowledge offers clinical and research based approaches, and we go through extensive training. A therapist offers a safe and judgment-free space to identify relational patterns, gain insight into behavioral and emotional patterns, and promote long lasting change.”
“Therapist” is a broad term that can encompass many mental health professionals, including counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists. Some, such as a counseling psychologist, will need a PhD in counseling psychology as the minimum requirement for licensure while other types of therapy practice require a master’s degree.
During their studies, therapists will most likely complete a practicum and gain internship experience as well. While therapists’ licensing requirements vary by state, a set number of clinical hours must be completed under the supervision of an approved supervisor and they will also have to pass state licensure exams.
No matter how solemnly your friend swears to keep what you say a secret, there’s a chance it might still come out eventually. Not so with your therapist!
“In friendship, there is give-and-take in the conversation. With a therapist, the focus is solely on you,” says Carol Meylan. “Friends usually support your point of view, while I might challenge your thinking. I will be objective and unbiased, whereas friends often have an emotional stake or vested interest in decisions you make. You can get upset with me, while it is harder to do that with a friend. And very importantly, I am legally and ethically obligated to keep your secrets confidential. Therapy is a safe space for you.”
Your therapist knows that sharing the intimate details of your life in therapy can be scary and stressful. But therapists are there to support you and work with you to explore challenges or problems you are facing, goals you have, trauma you have experienced, and more.
“Therapy is a completely confidential relationship and thus allows individuals to drop their roles from daily life and tune in to their authentic nature,” says Diego Hall. “There are no judgments or expectations; the only requirement is for the client to be as they are at any given moment."
“A therapist is trained to listen differently than a good friend or a loved one,” says Andrea Yuen-Sing Chan. “We are unbiased and neutral, whereas friends often aren’t, and our job is to look for troubling relational patterns and challenge negative or conflicting beliefs that we hold onto because they feel comfortable. A friend will listen and that can be meaningful, but therapists have a stake in helping you achieve your potential.”
Unlike your friends, family, or partner, your therapist will never be on their phone, distracted by children or pets, or secretly waiting for their turn to talk. When you’re in-session with your therapist, it’s all about you.
“I create a neutral therapeutic space so that you can share anything, as freely as possible, without fear of judgment,” says Dan Liu. “You don't have to talk about things you don’t want to or are not ready to talk about. I listen deeply, not only to understand what you said, but also to attend to what has been communicated unconsciously. This allows me to help you to identify and make connections between your unconscious relational patterns and opens up possibilities to work through them.”
Your mom or best friend can be a shoulder to cry on but sometimes you need someone to talk to who isn’t biased and can give you the perspective you need to understand what you’re dealing with and how to better handle life’s challenges.
“I alone hear your side of your story,” says Leah Ehinger. “I don't know anyone else involved and will likely never hear their side of the story. I am here for YOU and for you alone, without any motives or judgements.”
“I am here to listen to you fully and allow you to share whatever is on your mind,” she says. “When we share ourselves with others in a non-therapeutic setting, the ego of the other person can sometimes influence our feelings around the situation/event/challenge. I am an unbiased third party who is always on your side and looking out for your best interests.”
Your therapist is there to both validate or support your feelings AND to challenge you to think about how you might have contributed to events in your life, habits you have, or beliefs you hold. There is no judgment, bias, or personal opinion—just an objective listener who is there to support you.
“When you come into therapy, that time and space is just for you,” says Anne Lee. “This is a time and place that is safe for you to address your issues and concerns and receive support, direction, and input from an objective point of view.”
“When I give feedback, it’s not based on well-meaning advice that friends or family would give,” Anne says, “rather it's from my experience, education, and training that helps me to explore and assess your situations and help you work through them. This is a one-way relationship. Friends and family relationships are two-way—it's reciprocal.”
Friends and family often feel the urge to give advice when you present them with your thoughts or problems (and even with the best intentions, that advice can be uninformed or biased). Your therapist isn’t going to give you advice or tell you what to do.
“A strong therapeutic relationship involves unconditional support and acceptance,” says Taylor Mefford. “Friends and loved ones can be a wonderful support system, but sometimes you need the encouragement to think deeper about your life experiences.”
“We will be able to reflect further on emotions and circumstances that you may not feel comfortable sharing with others,” says Taylor. “You are the expert of your life—I am here to walk alongside this path with you to gather the tools you need to make the changes you want.”
It's important to have a social support system, but getting unbiased, professional support is just as important in your mental health journey. If you want to get started with therapy but you’re not sure where to begin, check out our ultimate guide to starting therapy and find your perfect match today.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.