When is a therapist not a friend?
I realise this is a deliberately provocative title but it raises an important question. I was once asked by a client how our sessions could be any more healing than talking to a friend and this got me thinking....
Counselling can often create an intimacy that can be confused with friendship. If the therapeutic relationship is working you may find yourself exploring parts of you that are closely held, parts you may not have even known about before. A strong therapeutic relationship will also mean your counsellor is invested in you and cares about you unconditionally. This 'no matter what' care from your counsellor helps you to find this for yourself, but it can often mimic that feeling of being with a friend that 'gets you' and is on your side.
But there are some crucial differences, and these are exactly what can make counselling so powerful as a force for healing.
1. A counsellor isn't trying to cheer you up
A counsellor is invested in helping you feel better but not at the cost of missing a deeper understanding of who you are or what you are experiencing which is sometimes hard, hurts, feels tough. A counsellor can sit with you through the pain of this and doesn't try to move you on or chivvy you out of it. Often our friends, because they love us, don't want to sit with us in our pain as it upsets them to see us upset. Staying with the difficult stuff and experiencing it can often be the starting point for healing.
2. A counsellor hasn't developed blind spots
When we know someone well we become part of their journey, accustomed to their ways. Over time we notice less about how they respond to things - it's just part of who they are to us. As the newness of meeting someone gradually passes, we settle into each other and patterns of being around each other. A counsellor's job is to notice what is happening, wonder at the words you use, the way you react to situations or your bodily movements to look for clues to how you live and what underlies your responses. A counsellor comes from a start point of knowing nothing about you and isn't afraid of highlighting what is happening right here and now between the two of you. Friends, even the most well-intentioned friends, can't wind back and 'un-know' you in this way.
3. A counsellor doesn't need the friendship to be reciprocated
Counsellors care deeply about the people they work with, for my part I am invested in building a relationship with clients that will be a force for good for them during our time together and far beyond, but I am not building a friendship. Friends are always there for us, we hang out with them and often we make dates to see them in the future. Ultimately the experience of counselling is one I hope can be carried along with clients so that they become their own internal counsellor and have no need of me anymore.
So yes, I care for my clients and often we share an intimacy that could be compared to friendship but I am actively and passionately not a friend to them. Neither for that matter would I try to be a counsellor to my friends, for all of the reasons mentioned above and many more.