How is a session with a therapist different from talking with a friend?

“Don’t they just charge you money to listen to you for an hour?”

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There are numerous reasons people avoid going to psychotherapy.  Unfortunately, some of those reasons are based on incorrect assumptions about what happens in a therapy session.  Many people still believe that a psychotherapy session involves their therapist primarily just listening to them. 

With that belief, it is understandable that people might not seek out treatment. Why would you pay for something you could get for free?  Why would you talk to a stranger instead of a trusted friend? The reality is that therapy offers a unique set of benefits, often unknown to people who have never tried it before.

Ten Ways That Therapy Differs from Venting to a Friend

1. Therapists have years of education, training and experience.  This experience provides them with the skills needed to best help you.  Therapists with a clinical license hold either a doctoral or masters degree and have been taught the most effective therapy techniques, as well as the  unique dynamics of the therapist and client relationship.  After completing their graduate degree, they have several years of hands-on experience providing psychotherapy to patients (at least 3,000 hours in most states).  Additionally, they are required to keep up to date with new research and training in order to be informed of the newest and most effective techniques to best help people.

2. Therapists offer completely private sessions.   It is possible that literally no one in your life will ever know you have attended a therapy session if you choose not to share that information.  Even if you do share that you are in therapy, no one will ever know the content of the things you discuss in your sessions.  That stays completely private.  The only reason a therapist would ever share information about what was discussed during a session would be if the patient asked them to do so, or if the patient is at an immediate risk of harming themselves or others.

3. Therapists will not judge you. Therapists approach your problem in a supportive manner.  They provide encouragement and feedback devoid of shaming or guilt.  They are trained to be objective and bound by an ethical code.  They won’t harshly criticize you for things you may regret doing or saying.  They understand that you may already be criticizing yourself. 

4. Therapists are unbiased and approach your problem objectively.  They are not “too close to the situation” to see it clearly. They can provide you with different feedback and a fresh perspective from that of a friend or family member.  Therapists may be able to illuminate important aspects of a situation that yourself or your friends have not.

5. Therapists focus on you only.  Therapy sessions are focused on discussing what is going on in your life, not what is going on in your therapists life.  Therapists have the space, time and resources to give you undivided attention.  They allow you to fully discuss and resolve your issues, without any outside distractions.  They also understand that your situation is unique and what worked for someone else may not work for you.  They tailor your treatment to you specifically.

6. Therapists can guide you to resources that may help.  Therapists are knowledgeable about how different areas of life are connected and understand how alleviating stress in one area can echo benefits into another area.  They understand the connection between mental health and culture, race, financial security, physical health, trauma history, family dynamics and friendships.  They may be able to help you make useful connections to other types of treatment or assistance. 

7. Therapists can help you better understand yourself. When you first seek out treatment, you may be confused about your own thoughts, moods, and behaviors.  Therapists are trained to help you uncover aspects of your personality and actions which may be unconscious to you.  Once you better understand yourself, you may be able to more effectively manage challenging aspects of your life.

8. Therapists provide unconditional support while helping you grow.  Therapists seek to provide a “holding environment” or a respectful, safe space filled with compassion and empathy.  They are usually very caring people who genuinely want to help you.

9. Therapists give you the time and space to process whatever you need to.  They dedicate their time in the session to helping you, and won’t become overwhelmed when you open up.  They encourage you to delve deeper into your thoughts and feelings.  They understand that healing looks different from one person to the next.  They have patience and won’t rush you to move on from an issue before you are ready to do so.

10. Therapists won’t tell you to “just think positive!”  Instead of telling you to just shift your mindset, therapists focus on teaching you how to do it. Therapists understand that thinking patterns and mindsets are more complicated than an on/off switch.  They understand that if most people have the tools to do so, they will think more positively.  They also focus sessions on being empathetic and validating concerns, rather than minimizing them. 

The Pros and Cons of Talking to Friends

There is no doubt that friends can be extremely helpful, supportive listeners.  Spending time with friends can greatly improve your mental health and well-being. At the same time, your friends may not be professionally trained and may not know exactly what to say to be helpful.  They may inadvertently come across as judgmental or not fully understand your situation or reactions.

Your friends may be too close to your situation to be objective; they may cheer you on even when your actions are detrimental to your wellbeing.  They may not know how to fully empathize with your situation.  They may not challenge you to think differently, and they may even be struggling with similar issues to your own.

Friends may say things with good intentions that can leave you feeling worse.  They may try to motivate you by telling you not to think so negatively.  In reality you likely would “just think positive” if it were quite so simple.  

Your friends may state, “I got through it and so will you” without realizing that this can put excess pressure on your situation or oversimplify things.  They may insist you use the same approach that they did to solve similar issues in their lives.  Friends may neglect to realize that your situation is unique and you may do better with a different strategy.  Your friends may want to talk about their own life concerns, diverting attention away from your issues before you can come to a resolution.   

While your friends likely really want to help you, they may not be able to assist you in clarifying aspects of your life you are confused about.  This is simply because they aren’t trained in how to do so effectively.  Friends may be ill equipped to help you untangle years of past trauma, turmoil, or significant loss. 

While your friends may be exceptional listeners, they are likely not trained in how to help you stop repeating unhealthy behavior and negative thinking patterns.  They also may not understand the biological underpinnings of mood states, and not know when or how to refer you to other helpful resources.  They may not know at what point it would be wise for you to consider psychotropic medication or various other treatments.

The Unique Nature of the Therapeutic Relationship

The therapist-client relationship is supposed to be objective, private and centered on the client’s needs alone. Therapists are explicitly asked not to treat their friends and family. They are trained to avoid having “dual relationships” in which they have contact with their clients outside of therapy. 

This is not because therapists don’t want to be available to their clients 24/7. Instead your therapist’s goal is to help you learn to effectively manage your concerns on your own, rather than keeping you as a client for the rest of your life.

The separateness of the client and therapist relationship is what keeps it unique, sacred and as helpful as possible. There are many good reasons to explore therapy as an option for yourself today.

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