When I hear people trash therapy, a recurring criticism is, “I don’t need to pay someone to be my friend”. I’ve also heard people say that, “seeing a therapist is like having a really great friend.” Connecting meaningfully with another human is awesome, and the quality of the relationship between therapist and client does significantly increase the likelihood of positive treatment outcomes. But I cringe when I hear people refer to their therapist as their “friend.” Your therapist is not, should not, and cannot be your friend. If you’re hanging out socially with your therapist, something has gone terribly awry. And honestly… actually being friends with your therapist probably wouldn’t look the way you think it might.
It’s common to feel close to your therapist, and to even want to be friends with them. However, building a personal relationship with your therapist is inconsistent with most mental health counseling codes of ethics, as well as with your goals for therapy. So whether you have a longstanding working relationship with a therapist or have just begun therapy (or even if you’re just wondering if therapy might be beneficial for you), it’s important to understand the boundaries of this relationship. Here’s a few things to consider:
- Across the board, all therapists – whether we’re counselors, social workers, or psychologists – have ethical codes that prohibit “dual relationships” with our clients. Even *if* we could develop social relationships with our clients… we still couldn’t be our friends’ therapist.
- During that hour that’s scheduled just for you, your therapist is showing up as their best self. No matter how on top of it we may seem in session, therapists are still messy, fallible humans like everyone else. It can be hard to always show up for our friends after a full day’s work. This is especially true for those of us who are more introverted, living with our own mental health issues, and/or struggling with vicarious trauma and other emotional hazards of our work.
- As great as that hour with your therapist might be, it’s still true that all things are only good in moderation. Even when we are able to show up for the people in our lives, sometimes we have a hard time taking our therapist hat off. Free therapy sounds great… until you’re just looking for a friend’s shoulder to cry on and get advice on CBT exercises instead.
- A big part of what makes the therapeutic relationship so successful is confidentiality. Aside from situations where someone is actively in danger or cases of possible child or elder abuse, what’s said in the office stays in the office. Not only are we bound by professional ethics to not talk about your business with other people, we also have no reason to. We are not directly impacted by the events in our clients’ lives, and our friends and loved ones have no interest or awareness of what our clients are up to. But boundaries aren’t always that clear cut in social situations.
- As your therapist, I do not (and should not) have to agree with your personal values or beliefs in order to provide you with the care you deserve. And I will argue to my last breath any healthcare provider who believes they should have a right to refuse services to someone based solely on “sincerely held beliefs.” Being able to speak freely in session without fear of judgment, being argued with, having your words held against you, or having it impact the quality of care you receive is crucial to being able to process and grow therapeutically. But there is a level of patience, diplomacy, and tact that therapists bring into the session that we simply do not have the emotional stamina to keep up when we just want to relax and hang out with friends.
If it feels like therapy has turned into weekly chit chat, or you’re thinking you want to cut back on how regularly you meet because you “don’t need weekly anymore” but also don’t want to consider termination… it might be time to talk with your therapist about what you’re getting out of therapy. Maybe there are some attachment or self-reliance issues that need to be addressed. Maybe individual therapy isn’t really meeting your needs anymore and you could benefit from group therapy’s focus on interpersonal dynamics and social connection, (click here to check out IntraSpectrum Counseling’s upcoming therapy groups).
If you do choose to terminate therapy and then realize that you need more therapy, you can re-engage in services. But as meaningful as the relationship you’ve developed with your therapist might be, as much as you might enjoy getting to talk with them every week – it can’t be your primary reason for staying in therapy. Your therapist can help you practice the skills to develop new friendships, but your therapist can’t be your friend.
This blog is authored by Kayo Curra, MA, LCPC, NCC, CCMHC, and member of our clinical team. IntraSpectrum Counseling is Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and we strive to provide the highest quality mental health care for multicultural, kink, polyamorous, and intersectional issues. For anyone needing affirming and validating support in their healing, please click here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.