When I put myself into other people’s shoes that have not been spending their entire career in the field of psychotherapy I realize the answer to this question might not be obvious. I am biased because this is how I make a living, but at the same time I also got into this business because I believe in the practice, not because I am trying to get rich. It’s not the best way to get rich anyway, I can definitely attest to that, but it’s a good life because it’s a very meaningful service.
One of the major differences between a conversation with a therapist and a conversation with your friend (assuming your friend is not doing therapy with you…) is that a therapist who is doing his or her job will be making 100% of the session about you and you alone. He or she may have different methods, theories, or approaches of how he or she helps, but one thing we all have in common is that we make the time about YOU. If that’s not the case and you are in therapy, I suggest you get out now! Listening is an art, a science, and a feeling. You can feel when the conversation is about you or about the other. Sometimes therapy includes teaching, coaching, cheerleading, encouraging, nurturing, confronting, or compassionate silence, but getting what you need is what therapy is all about.
Another major difference is confidentiality. When you talk with your therapist there is guaranteed confidentiality (exceptions are all related to safety: yours and other’s). This means that you can work on issues with your therapist openly in session, spill your guts so to speak, without the possibility that this information drifts into other areas of your life. What a beautiful thing to have privacy in this way.
And one more very important difference between a therapist and a caring friend or family member is that a therapist has specific reasons for offering a specific treatment plan. This is where “therapy school” is most beneficial; we spend years studying theories and interventions so that when someone comes along we can identify specifically where that person might be ready to go next. Our friends don’t typically have this theory in their mind and be able to guide you in this way. But if you have a friend who is doing this for you, congratulations! Your friend is a great therapist!
Our friends are very therapeutic, but sometimes there are problems that are just too big and too full of hurt, shame, sadness, and guilt to feel comfortable sharing with even a close friend. These are times when seeing a therapist is a good idea and he or she can help you address those deeper issues. When you have a place to address those deeper issues this will allow for times with your friends to feel fun, easy, relaxing, enjoyable, and connecting. Everyone’s friendships are different and some friendships are all about deep meaningful sharing, but for the most part friends want you to share the “mic time” and be available. Going to a therapist will help you address deeper issues to allow you to be available for your friends.
For those of you who have had therapy, feel free to add more to this topic. Another question that folks could address in the comments section is: “How do I know when my issue is beyond what my friends and family should hear?” and “What responses should I be looking for from others that suggest I might want to see a therapist?”
How to make the most of your therapy sessions part 2 coming soon…