A common reason people give for not seeking therapy is that, well, it’s basically like talking to a friend – except you don’t have to pay your friend to listen to you. However, seeing a therapist is very different from having a heart-to-heart with a loved one.
“I love the cathartic feeling of having a deep conversation with a good friend, and certainly therapy can have that same cathartic feeling. But working with a therapist is so much more,” said clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, PsyD.
It’s like comparing apples to oranges, said Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist. Here’s why.
Therapists are trained professionals.
Therapists have years of schooling and advanced degrees in human behavior, relationship dynamics and effective interventions, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. Most friends do not.
Clinicians also are trained to listen in order to understand their clients; encourage independent thinking and self-reflection; and highlight their blind spots, said Serani, also author of two books on depression.
However, “most people listen with the intent to respond. Friends have conversations, share personal information with each other and problem solve in a social or caring way.”
Psychotherapist and author Jeffrey Sumber, MA, LCPC, also stressed the importance of therapy’s role in helping clients flourish.
“Therapy, in its best sense, is a process of unfolding our inherent wisdom that is oftentimes trapped beneath layers of conditioning, fear and reactivity. Our friends are oftentimes either happy for us or afraid for us but typically are not engineering their feedback to support long-term growth and change.”
Therapists are objective.
Friends aren’t objective or neutral, said Hanks, who pens the blog Private Practice Toolbox. “They have something at stake in your life and their views, needs, and opinions are going to color their interaction whether they are aware of it or not.”
While therapists care for their clients, they don’t have a stake in your life. They’re also trained to be aware of their biases and reactions and work through them, she said.
“[W]e are neither inclined to tell clients what they want to hear, nor the opposite,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
Therapy is confidential.
“Though friendships allow for safety in many ways, there are things most all of us would disclose in therapy that we may be uncomfortable sharing with a friend,” Duffy said. This means that we’re more likely to dig deeper and unravel the layers of ourselves when we know that we can spill our secrets in a safe space.
“Therapy is a safe, supportive, empathic space to explore the aspects of self you may not be willing or able to explore within the context of friendships or other personal relationships,” added Joyce Marter, LCPC, a psychotherapist and founder of the private counseling practice Urban Balance.
Hibbert, also author of the memoir This is How We Grow, described therapy as one of the most valuable experiences of her life. “In my times of personal trial, therapy was one place I knew I could go and not feel like I would hurt or burden anyone by sharing my true thoughts or feelings.”
She referred to therapy as “a safe harbor, a place I could receive honest feedback, insight, and perspective from someone outside my inner circle.”
Therapy focuses on you.
Good therapists don’t need anything from you, aside from a willingness to be open to the process, said Marter, who writes the Psych Central blog The Psychology of Success. “The agenda [in therapy] is about you, your wellness and your benefit — not about them.”
“Therapy is designed to help you discover and achieve what you truly desire, and not what anyone else desires for you,” Hibbert said.
Therapy comes with clear boundaries.
For instance, you meet your therapist at a specific time and usually at their office, Duffy said. “You should feel no need to impress your therapist, and that ability to present yourself without expectation is liberating for a lot of therapy clients.”
Therapists rarely disclose personal information. Again, that’s because the focus is on you and your well-being. Having boundaries provides both safety and clarity, Duffy said.
Hanks summed up the differences between talking to a therapist and a friend with this analogy: Therapists are like a coach standing on the sidelines observing your life, while your friends are actual players in the game. “Both are important, but the roles and perspectives are different.”