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Why Going to Therapy Isn't the Same as Talking to a Friend

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I have to admit, as a therapist with many years of training, and still aiming to improve my work every day, it always frustrates me when I hear people equate the delicate and challenging nature of psychotherapy with talking to a friend.

Sure, therapy can at times involve a venting quality, and this is completely welcome as part of the process. However, this isn’t the extent of what therapy is about. Therapy isn’t simply an ear and a supportive voice, even if listening and support are part of the picture (and sometimes listening and support is what a person needs; and it’s also important to hold in mind that not everybody has an ear or a supportive person in their lives).

But even for those who have this much outside of therapy, good therapy isn’t as simple as just talking. Don’t let the fact that the work happens through talking fool you. It’s easy to open one’s mouth and speak words, but it’s where the client and therapist together open and follow the treatment that’s most important. And it’s the job of the therapist to help facilitate this, often straight from the client’s unconscious cues. A good therapist must be able to recognize and understand how to make use of these cues.

When people are in a place of devaluing therapy, they may say things like, “I don’t need therapy, I can think about these things at home myself,” or “These are questions I can ask myself.” However, people generally don’t tend to ask themselves the questions on their own that would come up in therapy, nor do they take the time on their own to stop, reflect and understand in the same way that makes the therapy process effective.

There is also a significant difference between ruminating on thoughts at home and externalizing them with a therapist in a way that helps a mental and emotional process move forward rather than in circles.

Basically, people find ways to believe that therapy is useless or redundant so they may not have to seek outside help (the reasons for this are different for each person). Believing that therapy has no more to offer than talking to a friend falls into this category.

So, if all you’re looking for is to vent then, by all means, a friend can be enough. But here are some points that illustrate the differences between a conversation with a friend, and good therapy.

1. How often will a friend sit with us for 45 minutes on a regular basis (weekly, or multiple times per week) while we just talk about ourselves?

2. How comfortable would we feel exploring and sharing the deepest, most vulnerable, secretive, or shameful parts of ourselves with a friend? Some would be OK with this, but for many there are parts of ourselves that a confidential space with a professional, outside of one’s social circle, is necessary to allow these parts of ourselves to be known.

3. A good therapist will help you explore, reflect and understand the deeper meaning behind your decisions, thoughts, actions and behaviors.

4. A good therapist will challenge thoughts, actions and patterns that work against you and your psycho-emotional well-being (which can help with greater issues, such as anxiety, depression, headaches, relationship struggles, etc.).

5. A good therapist will help you recognize patterns from your history that tend to unconsciously repeat themselves, and help you work your way out of these self-defeating loops. These often play out in the treatment, as well as outside with others, and a good therapist will help you recognize and work through these patterns as they emerge in real time.

6. A good therapist will be able to sit with your anger and other challenging qualities and still stay with you (as long as there’s no threat of physical harm). It’s a place where you don’t have to fear your negative traits causing judgment or abandonment. With friends, people often feel they have to carefully hide these parts of themselves for fear of repercussions if they become fully known.

7. With a therapist, you don’t need to stop and think about if it’s time to ask how they are doing, or if you’re monopolizing the conversation. You know that the space and time is for you to deal with your own needs, whereas with a friend, there is often the complication of sharing the conversation.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. But this hopefully gives some sense as to why a good friend can’t replace good therapy. I see many people who have good friends (and many who don’t), and there are benefits of therapy for either situation. Everyone needs help at times, and having caring and accepting friends is priceless. But if you’re looking to be accepted, cared for, and supported while also making significant and meaningful changes, this is where a trained therapist can really help.

 All rights reserved. A version of this article originally appeared on as “Can Talking to Friend Really Replace Therapy?” Reprinted here with permission.

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Originally published: April 15, 2016
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