Given the range of procedures that are considered “psychotherapy,” arriving at a complete definition for the word is difficult. The emphasis placed on different components determines the distinctions among the various schools of psychotherapy. Still, it is probably safe to define psychotherapy as a process whereby psychological problems are treated through communication and relationship factors between an individual and a therapist.

While most psychotherapy hinges on communication between the therapist and the individual, it is much more than talking about your problems. While family or friends can help you feel better or even provide good advice for change, this is not psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a professional relationship between a therapist and a client that is based on therapeutic principles, structure and technique. It differs from other relationships in several ways.

Nature of the Psychotherapy Relationship

The relationship between a therapist and a client is strictly professional. That is, the relationship exists only and solely for the purpose of helping the patient. The therapist is there for the patient and expects nothing in return but payment for the time.

This is an important point. The therapeutic relationship differs from all other relationships. You can tell therapists things without having to worry about your information being told to others or in any way affecting your job, family or relationships. You can be honest with therapists without having to worry about offending friends or neighbors. When a therapist asks how you are doing, he really wants to know. This is different from casual or social conversations in which the person who asks the questions expects you to say, “OK” so he can tell you how he is doing.

Therapists reveal little about themselves to patients. This ensures that therapists do not do anything to change how individuals present themselves. Extending the relationship beyond the therapeutic setting is not considered psychotherapy and is often harmful to clients.

Nature of Psychotherapy Communication

Therapists are trained to understand what you say — your words, how you say them and which ones you do not use. They pay attention to body language and voice tone to fully understand your speech.

Having learned about and treated people with your condition before, therapists can comprehend your particular problems. They are familiar with the symptoms of various psychiatric illnesses and the difficulties of daily living. They know what questions to ask and might pose questions that you have never heard before. As noted above, the communication between patient and therapist is not equal. Therapists rarely will reveal their opinions or stances on various issues, such as abortion or politics.