How Working With a Therapist is Different Than Talking to a Friend

Published on: 23 Aug 2016
female friends bench not therapy

Talking to a friend may be free, but only working with a therapist will give you the cognitive and emotional skills to live a happier life.

When we don’t completely understand what psychotherapy is, it’s easy to assume it won’t be more beneficial than talking to a friend. Like a relationship with a friend, seeing a therapist involves conversing with someone, being vulnerable and maybe receiving advice. These aspects of therapy are, however, only a small part of the experience.

Once you learn the differences between working with a therapist and talking to a friend, it will be easy to see how therapy might be worth the investment. It’s more than paying to chat with someone, and it carries less risks than treating your friends like therapists.

Why People Assume Working with a Therapist and Talking To a Friend Are the Same

They Think Therapy is Nothing But Talking

If therapy was only about paying someone to let you vent or chat with them, it actually would be a waste of money. But conversation is only the surface layer of therapy, and the conversations you have with a therapist will be a far cry from anything you’ll experience with a friend.

good will hunting therapy film
This is the park scene from “Good Will Hunting,” a movie about a therapist and client.

Unfortunately, media and film depictions of therapy make it easy to believe it is nothing but talking.

“They see a segment that only shows a portion of what occurs during a normal session of therapy,” said therapist Shannon Battle. “They make the assumption that therapy is pointless because they are unable to see the value of the therapeutic process.”

Here are some aspects of therapy that provide long-term value and go beyond the kind of chatting you could do with a friend:

  • Learning how to better manage emotions
  • Challenging negative beliefs that negatively affect your life
  • Learning new perspectives on situations and people
  • Learning how to improve good relationships and avoid toxic ones
  • Identifying negative and positive behaviors, decisions and patterns
  • Understanding how your past is affecting the present
  • Reducing symptoms of mental illness
  • Preventing the development of mental illnesses
  • Learning therapeutic techniques such as breathing techniques and journaling
  • Learning to be more authentic and understand who you are

They Think Therapists Will Not Challenge Them

Some people assume therapists will only affirm what they are already thinking, something a friend could do for free.

“I had a client who thought therapy was a waste of time because her friend would give similar advice to what she was thinking,” Battle said.

Therapists are actually supposed to challenge your thinking so you can try new ways of improving your life. They won’t agree with you as much as friends.

There are times when they might make you feel insecure or upset for a bit. This might be what it takes to change negative thinking or make you reconsider maladaptive behaviors.

Some people avoid professionals who might present alternative views, Battle said, because they are afraid of change. On the other hand, most friends maintain the views you have.

Why Going to Therapy is Different Than Talking to a Friend

Some friends are great listeners and give advice that works. Nonetheless, only a therapist has the skills and training to help improve your mental health without risking any damage to your personal relationships. The therapeutic relationship is also fundamentally different than friendship.

Therapists Spend Years Training So They Can Help You in Ways Friends Can’t

Noor Pinna therapist license
Here is one of our therapist’s licenses.

Therapists spend years training so they can provide the aforementioned aspects of therapy. They earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and sometimes a doctoral degree. These degrees involve psychology classes and opportunities to work with experienced therapists.

To earn their licenses, therapists must study therapy or something relevant to it, graduate from an accredited school, complete a certain number of supervised hours in a clinical environment and pass one or more exams (requirements vary by state).

These studies and experiences give them the skills to treat your mental health better than any unlicensed friend could. They train specifically to help people work through their problems and offer insights, said Talkspace therapist Katherine Glick.

Therapists Are Legally and Ethically Obligated to Keep Your Secrets Safe

Unless a therapist is OK with you suing them for malpractice, they will not share your secrets with anyone. The bodies that license therapists require them to keep client information confidential.

With certain forms of online therapy, therapists do not need to know any identifying information such as your name. They don’t need to see your face or hear your voice either. It is usually not possible to have this kind of confidential relationship with a friend.

With friends there is no guarantee the secrets you share will be safe. They might gossip or not realize the information was supposed to stay confidential. The secrets could then spread around your social circle and damage other relationships.

Therapists Will Not Judge You

red hand stop judging me

Friends don’t want to judge, but it’s hard for them to resist. They haven’t spent years training to refrain from judgment. If you share something intense, even a sensitive friend might react in a way that hurts your feelings.

Clients are often more open with therapists because they are not worrying about being judged.

“I know it’s literally my therapist’s job not to judge me and she won’t think differently of me no matter what I say,” said Sierra, a Talkspace client and community member.

Therapists Are Objective and Unbiased

When friends become attached to you, they can’t see your life clearly. They sometimes want to be on your side even if that means missing the opportunity to help.

Therapists have no emotional stake in the situation, Glick said, so they can provide unbiased guidance. A good therapist will keep the relationship professional rather than becoming attached in a way that could negatively affect the quality of treatment.

You Don’t Need to Feel Guilty About Talking with a Therapist and Taking Their Time

Friends are supposed to listen and provide emotional support, but you might feel guilty if you vent to them for an hour or more every week. They’re not being compensated for that time, and they might need to shift their schedule so they can chat for so long.

Then there’s the guilt you might feel about laying complex problems and emotions on someone who doesn’t have the training to handle it. Because friends don’t have the skills therapists do, listening to intense issues and trying to help might be stressful for them.

With a therapist, you are paying him or her to listen and help you. The hour belongs to you!

“I never feel like a burden for taking up too much of my therapist’s time or feel guilty for spewing my problems at her — because that’s her job,” Sierra said. “I can talk non-stop for 10 minutes and it’s fine!”

You Don’t Need to Worry About Disagreeing or Getting Upset with Your Therapist

Conflict is a normal part of life, but no one wants to strain friendships if they can avoid it. People tend to circumvent disagreements with friends even if the conflict might provide valuable insights.

In therapy clients don’t need to worry about disagreeing or becoming upset with the therapist, according to therapist Jeanette Raymond. It is within the boundaries of a healthy therapeutic relationship.

Why Trying to Use a Friend as a Substitute for Therapy Might Hurt the Friendship

A friendship is different than a therapeutic relationship with a licensed therapist. If you try to treat a friendship like a relationship with a professional, you could damage the friendship.

frustrated woman listening to friend
Source: The Frisky

In an article called “My Self-Absorbed Friend Treats Me Like Her Therapist,” an unnamed woman wrote about the issue of blurring the boundary between friendship and therapy. She expresses the frustration many people feel when friends treat them like therapists.

“She spends almost every minute of every conversation talking about herself: her ex, the guys she’s dating now, her boss, her family,” she wrote. “Whenever there’s a lull, instead of asking me what’s up in my life, she’ll pause and say, ‘Hmm, what else?’ and think about more things to tell me.”

If you try to use a friend as a substitute for therapy, there is a chance he or she might feel the way this woman did. They might complain about you to other friends or end the friendship.

“A healthy friendship is a give-and-take” said therapist Grant Brenner. If you take much more than you give, the relationship will become unhealthy.

Talking to a friend may be free in terms of money spent, but there is a price to pay. Free therapy from a friend could cost you that friendship and more.

With a therapist, you can take as much as you want (in terms of venting, advice, emotional support, etc.). You are paying for a service.

Working with a Therapist Will Improve Your Friendships

If you talk to a friend in an effort to receive free therapy, your friendship might suffer. The friend might not keep your secrets safe and could accidentally harm you with bad advice. Or maybe the friend will become upset if you don’t take the advice they give.

Working with a therapist will yield positive results and has no risks. It can also help you improve relationships with the friends you might have been considering using as a therapist.

Therapists know a lot about relationship dynamics, Glick said, and they can help you learn those dynamics.

Therapy also helps clients understand what boundaries they should have in their friendships, Brenner said. They can learn how to identify unhealthy relationships and boundaries.

A therapist can help you manage expectations of friends, too, according to Raymond. This can make friendships more satisfying and easier to cope with during times when friends disappoint or falter.

Going to therapy will make you more authentic as well. People will gravitate to that authenticity. New friendships will be more genuine and open.

Therapy will cost you some money, but it will save your friendships. And the benefits of therapy will improve all aspects of your life.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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