One of the special things about a really great therapeutic relationship is the openness with which a you as a client share your life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When therapy really clicks there is a synergy that happens in session that transports both you and the therapist to a place of resonance where the really great work can happen. This synergy may be something you have only experienced with a therapist, which emphasizes the special nature of the connection. What can happen for those who have never experienced this type of connection before, is that it can start to feel like seeing a dear, trusted friend, as opposed to a trained professional.
While this is a compliment to those of us who practice the craft of supporting people in their most difficult and most joyous times, it is also a misperception on the part of the client and a great place for continued work with the therapist. The reason being, a therapeutic relationship is all about you! If the therapist effectively uses examples from their own life, there may be some natural disclosures, however, a therapist who employs good professional boundaries, maintains the focus of the session on you.
The wonderful thing about this experience for so many of you is that the time spent focusing on your self, can meet a need you have always had to be heard, understood, and honoured in your experience, but have never before found this in your relationships. The resonance can then be misinterpreted as friendship, because it is a relationship that meets your deepest needs, which “should” have come from other connected relationships.
If you are in a place of feeling that your therapist has become your BFF, this is a gentle reminder that this is not the case, and here’s why:
1. Power dynamics – One of the biggest imbalances in a therapeutic relationship is power. Therapists often attempt to minimize the power imbalance, particularly if they are more holistic, or client centered, but there are therapists who specifically use the power imbalance, to influence or affect client perception and action. The therapist as the trained professional helper always has some degree of power or influence over the client, which needs to be respected and ethically managed. A friendship, or relationship is considered very unhealthy if it has significant power imbalances, where one person has more influence over the other and uses it often to get their preferred way. If this happens in your relationships, it is advisable that you do seek the help and support of a professional to assist you with shifting the power imbalances or removing yourself from unhealthy relationships.
2. Disclosure is one sided- As much as you think you know about your therapist as a person, when you really stop to think about it, you probably don’t know very much about him/her. Self disclosure can be a tool that therapists use in the room to help further a client’s progress, trust, or relational connection, however, the therapeutic relationship exists for the primary benefit of you, the client, and thereby must be focused on your disclosure. A healthy friendship or relationship means that both people get equal airtime for sharing and supporting each other; maybe not every time, but it evens out in the end.
3. Payment – The obvious difference, you don’t pay your friends to be friends with you, and if you do, you likely could benefit from some therapy about that. Therapists are paid professionals. They have education in psychology, relationships, biology, social dynamics, +++. The services they offer are in support of you achieving and maintaining your wellness, which believe it or not, is more work than sitting down to a cup of tea or coffee. The good therapists may make it feel like you are having a conversation with a friend, until you realize how you have changed because of their assistance, and you have received more than your money’s worth in return.
4. Note taking – Aside from journaling about events or venting about the latest drama, the majority of friends don’t take notes about their conversations with friends to document the changing relationship. This is a significant part of a therapist’s job. Taking notes, helps therapists chart your progress, remember significant events or details, track any referrals, changes, or conversations and homework they suggest for you. Note taking helps therapists ensure that you are working towards your goals and serves as a reminder to hold you accountable to the changes you want to make. While a good friend may hold you accountable, this is part of a therapists job.
5. Goal oriented – As the saying goes, some friends are with you for a reason, a season or a lifetime. While there is great purpose in having friends, we don’t necessarily seek people to forge a specific type of relationship. Some friends may have a specific purpose that brought you together and maintains your connection, such as your “go out dancing” friend, your “book club” friend, or your “coffee shop” friend, “yoga” friend, etc., these are friends you enjoy as people, with whom you share a common interest. Your therapist, is in a therapeutic relationship with you because they are working to help you achieve a specific goal, that you have defined. When the goal is achieved, the therapy will and should end. The purpose of the relationship is goal specific and that goal is to get you to a better place than when you started.
Now, I know there are some exceptions to the lines between therapy and friendship once the therapeutic work has finished. Some clients stay connected to their therapists to share updates or ongoing successes or hardships. Likewise, it can be challenging for a therapist who has learned so much about a client, and genuinely cares for them, for the relationship to end. However, it is important to remember the one sided nature of therapy and respect that those dynamics must be openly addressed if the relationship has evolved into something else. There are ethical guidelines on how to address these shifts as per professional associations and colleges, for the health and wellbeing of everyone.
Therapeutic relationships are so beneficial to everyone’s growth and understanding of relational dynamics and boundaries. It may be the healthiest relationship some of us are ever able to have. Just remember, that there are distinct differences between friendships and a professional therapeutic relationship and those boundaries are there for your psychological and emotional wellbeing and safety.
Healthy relationships (no matter who they are with) are happy relationships.