The difference between a friend and a therapist

One of the best reasons to visit a qualified mental health professional is to give yourself the opportunity to talk freely without judgement to an objective person.  One thing you may not know is that ethically, therapists are not allowed to be friends with their clients.  This is something that has been confusing to recipients of mental health counseling, especially in the era of social media.  As a therapist, I believe a therapist’s strong boundaries are critical in the therapist’s ability to give their client quality services.  Below, you’ll find some clarification on what these boundaries mean (as well as what they do not mean) for the client.

Strong Boundaries do not Equal Lack of Care and Concern

A therapist with strong boundaries has the ability to be focused solely on the needs of their client.  This is the unique way that a therapist cares for their clients.  Part of these boundaries are legal and ethical boundaries.  For instance, as a client, you are protected by privacy laws and a therapist may not disclose any part of your journey, including your enrollment in the counseling services, to anyone without your written consent or unless it is a safety concern. Ethically, licensed therapists, like me, are not allowed to have what’s called a “Dual Relationship” with a client (more on that later).  These boundaries give clients a safe place to talk about vulnerable topics without fear of other people finding out.  

Friendship is a Two-Way Street

Perhaps the simplest way to differentiate between a friend and a therapist is to make note of the fact that in a healthy friendship, there is give-and-take.  Both parties lend and receive support. 

Therapy is a One-Way Street

As opposed to a friendship, the primary focus of therapy is the client.  You, as the client, are the consumer.  This means that your journey will not be interrupted by a therapist’s cognitive and emotional needs.

Dual Relationships are Not Safe for Clients

While your therapist might feel like a friend to you, this is most often because they are 100% there for you without interrupting your process with their own issues.  You have their undivided attention and because of that, many clients not only feel like their therapist is their friend, but that they are their best friend.  And really, that makes a lot of sense to think this way.  Who doesn’t like and need the focus on them during difficult situations? But, again, this is solely because your therapist has good boundaries.  Should a therapist cross the line between being a professional counselor and being your friend, customer, or otherwise, they are putting your emotional health in harm’s way.

Why?  Because during the therapeutic relationship, a therapist begins to learn things about you that are very vulnerable.  An unethical counselor could use this information to their advantage.  The friendship role cannot be built upon a foundation of therapy as it is again very one-sided.  In order to not compromise the integrity of the therapeutic process for you, it is imperative that we professional counselors maintain our boundaries with you so that you can make the healthiest gains possible.  This not only means that we can’t hang out outside of our sessions, but also we cannot connect on social media, through personal phone, text and email exchanges, and we cannot seek out your professional services from you for our personal gains.  Avoiding the dual relationship not only protects your therapeutic process, but also your confidentiality.  

Friends Respond to Your Wants while Therapists Respond to your Needs

Simply put, when you’re having a bad day, your best friend will likely console you, meet up with you, and sympathize with you.  Your therapist will help you process what happened and help you to brainstorm what you have control over so that you may find a solution.  They empathize with you and help you to brainstorm how to get through.  Your therapist might also ask you some tough questions: questions that are not always typical of a nurturing friend.  Sometimes therapists ask uncomfortable things that others in your life will not ask you because they do not want to add to your discomfort.  However, the very function of therapy is to change and change is uncomfortable (and can be downright excruciating).  We would not be providing you with a catalyst to change if our response always resembled the “there, there, it’s okay” approach of a friend.  

My hope in writing this was to give you a small glimpse into they “why’s” of therapeutic boundaries.  When your therapist turns down your invitation to hang out, be a friend on social media, or buy your product, they truly are not doing so because they don’t like you or don’t think you provide a quality service… they are doing so because they care about your therapeutic growth.