Your Therapist Is Not Your Friend

Oppressed man talking with psychologistThere 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.

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.

This does not mean a deep connection isn’t developed between you and your therapist. Authenticity, warmth, and support are desirable characteristics for any therapeutic relationship. In fact, the relationship between you and your therapist is one of the most important factors in creating a successful therapy experience. The better the fit between you and your therapist, the more likely you are to reach your therapy goals. It just so happens that the relationship remains safely protected from a level of personal involvement that would distract from your therapy goals and success.

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!

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kimber Shelton, PhD, therapist in Duncanville, Texas

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tiller

    Tiller

    November 9th, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    this is a mistake that many people go into therapy and make, thinking that because this is a person that they can freely talk to then in their heads they confuse this with friendship. I ma sure that there are many wonderful therapists who try their best to walk this very fine line professionally but there can always be that confusion that the patient or client has a difficult time understanding.

  • Weston

    Weston

    November 9th, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    The reality though is that some people seek out a therapist looking for a friend. bad move

  • stacey

    stacey

    November 10th, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    But don’t you think that there are ways that a really good therapist will relate to you and make you feel like you are being understood without crossing that no no line into friendship? They will understand you and help you better learn to understand yourself, but without going into that territory of friendship, and not making you think about the professional relationship in that way.

  • Linda

    Linda

    November 11th, 2015 at 7:45 AM

    But he might could get you started in the right direction of making new friends!

  • Billy

    Billy

    November 12th, 2015 at 5:27 AM

    There was a time when I went into therapy and this sort of became a real problem for me. You are talking so much about your own thoughts and emotions that it does come to feel a little like what you assume that a friendship is but then you think that this isn’t what it really is because you never receive any of that back. But when you are already struggling and feeling a little lost it can be hard to see that until you have made an emotional turning point of your own.

  • Vickie

    Vickie

    November 13th, 2015 at 6:18 PM

    I have been a patient and am currently a therapist. I think that it is often best to not be friends (other than the legal and ethical issues). It is quite possible that the person as therapist may be idealized and that the person outside the therapy hour with day to day faults, and quirks may not be as wise or knowing as they seem to be in therapy. There is the possibility that the person would be disappointed!

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    November 13th, 2015 at 8:02 PM

    excellent point Vickie :) It is a real problem area and I find the therapist has to be very good at this in order to navigate it well for the clients benefit.

  • Gertrude

    Gertrude

    November 14th, 2015 at 5:17 AM

    To be reciprocal a friendship is not necessary. It is simply being human and in connection with the other. And without it any consult with a therapist is indeed fake. Even spoils a client in what to expect from true friends or loved ones, with which relationships are often challenging, especially if one suffers from obnoxious traumasymptoms that when rearing their heads often hurt anyone around. It is high time that both therapists and clients start to realize themselves that the consults can be either healing or detrimental, further deepining the traumatic disorder.

  • Emily S. Rosen, LCSW

    Emily S. Rosen, LCSW

    November 14th, 2015 at 7:26 AM

    Kimber,
    What an excellent article. Thank you for sharing it with us. You make some terrific points.
    Emily

  • Charley

    Charley

    November 14th, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    I am a therapist and will tell recipients of services that I can’t be a friend but I will be friendly. Minding boundaries is so critical in order to be professional and assist in healing.

  • Fredric D. Shulman, Ph.D

    Fredric D. Shulman, Ph.D

    November 14th, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    I’ve been a practicing psychotherapist in Brooklyn, N.Y. for over 40 years. I find nothing negative about sharing SOME personal information with my clients, so long as this information relates to THEIR therapy and THEIR therapy goals. I have found that doing so has a tremendously positive impact on the ” empathetic bond” between us, and enables the client to feel safer and more trusting of me. That, in turn, enables the therapy to proceed more smoothly and actually, more quickly…even if we teleconference or skype…at considerable distance.

  • Beatty

    Beatty

    November 14th, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    They are close to what most of us would want in a really good friend.

  • Ron

    Ron

    November 14th, 2015 at 1:04 PM

    I’ve struggled a lot with this topic. I do see my therapist as my friend, even though I know it is not allowed or technically true because he is paid for. But I’ve made peace with the situation by seeing he has earned a special place, along with my parents, as someone whose impact and presence I will always feel and will always be a part of my life, even though I may never see him again when my therapy ends. It is bittersweet.

  • A DC Psychologist

    A DC Psychologist

    November 15th, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    This is well written;often the therapist -client relationship is misinterpreted thus it is important that the professional maintains professional boundaries and the clent can confuse the professional relationship.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    November 23rd, 2015 at 5:48 PM

    I have been in and out of therapy for most of my life. I view therapy as a safe way to deal with my issues and as a creative fun way to further explore and get to know myself. I have put therapists up on a pedestal to my detriment and to the detriment of our relationship. Dealing with a therapist who sees them selves as better than or sees themselves as a would be God sets the whole relationship up for failure. This is not a power or ego trip for the therapist. I no longer give the therapist that kind of power and I strive to look at a therapist as an equal who has there own gifts and talents to contribute to the process. I now view therapy as a relationship between equals, each with something valuable to contribute to the therapeutic partnership. I am in therapy to work out my issues and use the therapist as a sounding board to help me work the issue out myself. Or I may need some further insight or information that the therapist could provide. I would welcome a therapist who is willing to admit that they are human beings with faults, foibles and eccentricities just like everyone else. This meeting of two equal human beings is what gives the helping relationship depth, meaning and healing. I do not expect my therapist to be my friend in there office or out of it. I do not expect them to interact with me outside of the office. I do expect the respect of being treated as an equal person as long as our therapy progresses.

  • JP

    JP

    February 16th, 2016 at 7:43 PM

    My husband refers to he and his therapist as “we” well we discussed this and we decided! He dose nothing without her approval and the advice she has given him in the last 6 months has pretty much destroyed our relationship.
    he takes everything she says as law although i am not to privy to what they discuss in therapy she requested i come
    in on a session to get to know me. It was a horrible experience she yelled profanity at me called me terrible things and demanded that i come to see her separately we i find to be a big conflict of interest. this was my initial introduction to gestalt therapy. My husband admits that she bullied him into demanding i only see another gestalt therapist even though i was already seeing someone of more conventional therapy mode. he says that after careful discussion with her she has basically said that if i don’t comply he’s to leave me. Im a retired OT with mental health background and my husband a physician, but this sounds like abuse of power given my husbands childhood traumas and his inability to connect with his feelings ,i have become concerned that i may in fact losing him to his therapist not in a sexual way but emotionally

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