As a therapist, I am in a very privileged position because I get to know my clients in a way that, most likely, no-one else in the world knows them. I get invited into the most raw and vulnerable places of a person’s soul, heart and mind. And, under all the uncertainties, the pain, and everything else clients bring into therapy; there are amazing individuals who have so much to offer the world. My clients are caring, thoughtful, driven, creative, brilliant and gifted in ways I am not, and have a sense of humor that brings tears to my eyes.
As I get to know my clients, I often find myself thinking, “Why did I have to meet you in therapy? Why couldn’t I have met you at the grocery store? You are such a cool person. Now that you are my client, I can’t be your friend!” And, when clients ask me if we can just “hang out” over a cup of coffee, I have to say “no” for a number of reasons.
The differences between therapy and friendship.
1. Ideally, a therapist’s office is a neutral place; the therapist has no agenda aside from supporting your agenda for change in your life. There should be no pressure for you to behave in a particular way – the only expectation is that you will be yourself and be open to possibilities you had not considered for your life. Friends generally want what they want for you often because it is what they think is the “best” for you
2. Friends do not listen without expecting that they will be listened to in return. A relationship with a therapist is one sided – we listen; clients talk. And, when we do talk, it’s to help you be clear in your thinking.
3. You pay your therapist. The exchange is one of money for knowledge, support and direction. Payment relieves a client from the responsibility of the reciprocity necessary in a friendship. In therapy, there is no give and take on an emotional level. Because there is payment, the situation is and is supposed to be imbalanced in your favor – clients are freed up to talk about themselves and not worry about the therapist’s well-being.
4. In therapy, you are the recipient of a particular knowledge base of how certain psychological issues tend to look and play out in your life. At its best, therapy is a combination of art, intuition, intellect, and science. Sometimes, it’s not done so well. Although running into the “wrong” therapist can be discouraging, don’t give up in the pursuit of finding a therapist who is a good fit for you. A good therapist will be one who can take your experiences, help you name and understand them, help you come up with your own solutions, and cheer you on as you meet your goals for your life.
5. Therapists often talk about therapy as a “holding environment” where the therapist is someone who is strong, loving and understanding when you are going through some turbulence in life. In short, we are like the good parental figure that can hold whatever you bring into the room and be able to sit calmly in the presence of your strong feelings. Therapists are (or should) be able to think about your situation rationally and see it objectively for the purpose of pointing out that which you may not be able to see. Therapists are people whose primary job is to listen without reaction and judgment – to take in and gently mirror back to clients what they have a hard time accepting about themselves.
Okay, so the above list is pretty thorough in explaining the differences between therapy and friendship. In theory, a therapeutic relationship can be turned into a friendship, but this move would be fraught with a high level of risk to the client. (“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”) Generally, most of us therapists will not make this move in an effort to protect both ourselves and our clients.
A few weeks ago, a client and I were finishing the work we were doing together. In our last conversation, we were discussing how difficult it is to end a therapeutic relationship that has been a constant for a long time. My client asked, “Are you allowed to just have coffee and hang out?” I pretty much told my client that a friendship would be impossible because she would never be able to win an argument with me. I joked that getting into a fight with me would never be a fair fight.
“I would decimate you! I know everything about you; especially those things in your life that are the most painful. You, on the other hand, know nothing about me.”
She pondered this for a couple of seconds.
“Yeah. That would be weird…and unfair. I never thought of it that way.”
We then proceeded to seriously discuss the imbalance in a therapeutic relationship – an imbalance that is necessary for me to do as objective work as is possible for me, for her benefit and in her best interests.
Because of the lack of reciprocity in therapy, I have a great deal of power as a therapist. If you think about what I do for a living, it becomes clear I have been extensively trained to help people change the way they think, feel, behave, and what they believe. It’s like having a superpower! Thankfully, I have chosen to use my powers for good (mainly because I have a very low threshold for the kind of stress and guilt that comes from living on the dark side).
If you really think about it, a superhero has a secret identity, not because they don’t want relationships, but because they value them. They have secret identities because they want to protect the people they love. Therefore, they keep their private and personal lives separate from their work. Things can get very confusing for both parties if there is what is called a “dual relationship”. When Clark Kent told Lois Lane that he was Superman, ugly things happened. Clark badly wanted to share his life and everything that he was with Lois, but to do so would mean that her life would be in danger.
Okay, so I am not Wonder Woman (no matter how badly I wanted to be when I was a little girl). In the real world, a dual relationship (being therapist-client and friends at the same time) means there would need to be mutual vulnerability and, as a result, all manner of confusing things are introduced into a place that should (and needs to) be as neutral and safe as possible for you. Safety in therapy is established by keeping the boundaries very clear as to the purpose of the therapeutic relationship. This is why therapy is framed by your goals and the expectation is that I will help you accomplish them. It never goes in the other direction. It’s all about you, baby!
So, please don’t be offended if I say I can’t be your friend when you are or have been my client or if I seem a little standoffish when you reach out to me outside of the therapeutic context. It’s because I am protecting both your safe experience of therapy and the role you have asked me to play in your life as your therapist.
The truth is, as difficult as it is for clients to hear “no”, it is just as difficult for me to say.