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Your Therapist Is Not Your Friend

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There is something special and unique about the relationship between a person in therapy and his or her therapist. It is a professional relationship, one in which the therapist is providing a service. However, it is also an intimate relationship, one in which secrets are shared, tears are shed, and moments of joy are celebrated. It is an open relationship in that, with consent, your therapist will communicate with other health professionals on your behalf. But it is also a very private relationship, as your confidentiality is held sacred.

A bond and trust are formed in therapy, yet the therapeutic relationship is a bit one-sided; while your therapist learns a great deal about you, he or she is less likely to engage in reciprocal sharing. This is different from a friendship, in which both parties mutually share who they are.

The complexities of the therapeutic relationship are distinct from other relationships, but it is these same complexities that make psychotherapy work. For therapy to be successful, your therapist must maintain healthy boundaries in the relationship and cannot develop a friendship with you.

Because of this, it could seem like your therapist is being fake or disingenuous with you. There have been multiple occasions in which a person in therapy has stated to me, “You don’t care about me, you are only here because this is your job.” It is true that your therapist is doing a job, but this does not mean he or she does not care about you. I rather like and enjoy the people I help. I have had the pleasure of meeting funny, intelligent, successful, and down-to-earth women and men who, had we met outside of therapy, likely would have made good friends. But for therapy to do what it’s supposed to do, your therapist simply can’t be your friend.

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One of the first rules therapists learn is they cannot provide therapy to friends or family. It is too challenging to remain unbiased in friend and family relationships, which is why many people have great difficulty staying objective when it comes to those closest to them. Your therapist developing a friendship with you would ultimately serve to interfere with your therapeutic relationship. Additionally, therapists who become over-involved in the lives of those they help experience higher rates of burnout and decreased efficiency.

Admittedly, it’s odd to share great detail about your life and get little in return from the other person. Fortunately, your therapist (hopefully) is not robotic or an emotionless blank slate. Although you do not have a friendship with your therapist, he or she does not have to be a mystery to you.

This is also not to say you cannot have a friendly relationship with your therapist outside of counseling. Your therapist is unlikely to accept your social media requests or attend social functions you invite them to; however, there are many cases where therapists and the people they help have more than one relationship. For example, a therapist working at a college counseling center could be an adviser for a campus organization in which a person they help is a member. Or a therapist and person in therapy could attend the same church and see one another at church functions. But even though friendly exchanges occur, your therapist is still operating within boundaries to protect your confidentiality and maintain the therapeutic relationship.

Admittedly, it’s odd to share great detail about your life and get little in return from the other person. Fortunately, your therapist (hopefully) is not robotic or an emotionless blank slate. Although you do not have a friendship with your therapist, he or she does not have to be a mystery to you.

As mentioned earlier, your relationship with your therapist is a predictor of therapy’s success; therefore, you and your therapist need to be a good fit. When appropriate, your therapist can voluntarily share personal information, but it is also fair to ask your therapist certain questions. You can ask professional questions about your therapist’s educational background or style of therapy. You can ask personal questions that seem relevant to you. Your therapist has the right to decline to answer any question. There are times when I refrain from answering questions if I believe that, regardless of my response, any answer I give will have some sort of unnecessary impact on the relationship. But often I answer personal questions, as they are not generally meant to be invasive—people are just curious about people sitting across from them.

Curiosity, about ourselves and about our relationships with others, is an important element of therapy. Honoring that curiosity is a good thing. Your therapist is there to help guide that curiosity where it is most needed. So, while you and your therapist can’t be friends, you can be part of a rewarding relationship!

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 Kimber Shelton, PhD Duncanville, TX