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Speaking to a therapist vs Speaking to a friend

‘Why pay to see a therapist when my friends are more than willing to listen to me when I have a problem and I feel supported by them?’, is a very common thing we hear most people say. Most people report their experience of a therapy relationship feeling vastly different to a friendly chat, as it should.
Generally speaking, most people don’t come to see a therapist with the sorts of issues they feel comfortable sharing with friends. Mostly they come when repeated patterns seem to be causing more harm than good, or a traumatic event occurs which triggers certain feelings. For others, it is a more elusive but pervasive sense that something is wrong and they feel ready to address it. These things are often beyond the remit of friendships and kindness from those that care for us. Professional support is different in that it is a structured approach to how the situation is explored.
Friends also rightly hold their personal view of the world including values, beliefs, prejudices and opinions. We know what is acceptable to one may not be acceptable to another so we make choices about who we speak to about certain issues which fragments the picture for us and our friends. There are also differences in levels of trust and reliability with friends and because they don’t want to hurt us, friends may also avoid painful truths. On the other hand, therapists are trained to cut through these sorts of issues having spent many years in therapy themselves learning to separate their own experiences and to ‘leave them out’ of the therapy encounter. Also, therapists are trained to work with painful material as it comes through in the therapy at a safe and supportive pace. Of course, the client is always in the driver’s seat, another factor that seems simple but is actually complex and important. Therapy also involves a relationship with another person, where one should feel safe, be heard, unconditionally accepted, non-judged and supported. Though there are a number of reasons why speaking to friends maybe beneficial, there are also some factors that separate a therapy relationship from a friendship and why approaching a therapist may be better than approaching a friend. Some of these factors are:

A therapist holds a theoretical ‘frame’.
What sets a therapist apart from a friend is the fact that a trained therapist has a coherent theoretical ‘frame’ to looking at these patterns, something a friend cannot offer. This ‘frame’ offers a professionally trained therapist the skills to safely explore the feelings, thoughts and even fantasies underlying these patterns and the structure to work towards a goal of change. Another key difference separating therapists from friends is that while a therapist holds a therapeutic ‘frame’ in which he or she considers the client’s situation, the therapist does not approach the client with a preconception about how and why things are happening. The therapist makes a concerted effort to fully attune to the client’s unique story and experience and does not make assumptions.

Boundaries are the cornerstone of therapy.
In therapy, a non-sexual and non-friendship kind of intimacy develops between the client and therapist and evidence shows this connection or alliance is the biggest factor in the success of therapy. To create an environment of safety, trust and mutual respect very clear boundaries need to be set up so the relationship is close but within strict limits. These limits ensure a consistent, reliable and predictable setting for the work to take place. Boundaries also
recognise the inherent power inequity in the patient-therapist relationship and are therefore essential to any effective and ethical work. Such boundaries are not factored into relationships with friends in the same structured ways.

Confidentiality is an ethical issue.
All professional therapists adhere to codes of professional conduct for their respective professional groups and this includes ethical responsibilities including, within legal limits, a client’s absolute confidentiality. This sets the scene for consistent behaviour and values among therapists, something that can’t really be expected of friends or acquaintances.

A clear contract is central.
Unlike friendly support and advice, therapy relationships should involve a mutually agreed contract about what the work will involve, the client’s expected outcomes and the goal of the work. Contracts are dynamic and they can change as the work develops but it is vital that a mutually agreed plan is put in place so the work has an agreed direction toward what the client is seeking to achieve.

The dialogue is focused in one direction.
Friendship discussions work both ways and often involve sharing experiences or personal stories as a way of being supportive and helpful. This is generally not appropriate in a therapeutic relationship. The focus of a therapeutic relationship is the client and not the therapist and thus it is incumbent on the therapist to ensure the work does not stray into a mutual exchange of dialogue where the therapist’s own life enters into the work.

Formally Trained 
A therapist has been specifically trained (usually at the minimum of a Master’s degree) in therapeutic conversation, assessment and interventions. Although it often may feel like a casual conversation, the therapist may ask questions during your session to help you uncover meaning and reflect on life experiences and how those have shaped your current situation. They may help you make connections to discover hidden emotions. They may help you look at your thoughts and how your self-talk contributes to your feelings.

These are only some of the reasons why speaking to a therapist can be beneficial. From this, it can thus be concluded that talking to a friend about your problems can be a great way to get advice and love from someone you trust and someone who knows you. However, this should not be a replacement for getting treatment from a trained therapist, because what a therapist is trained to do is not something that a friend would be able to do. While talking to a friend, a person can also talk to someone who is trusted and who has the ability to provide a safe, trusting as well as a confidential environment for that person.