Counselor’s Desk: When a friend just won’t do

In a recent conversation, I was confronted with a dilemma of sorts. An individual was seeking advice from their friend and shared with me that they were talking to their “therapist.” As a professional therapist, I battle with the reality that there is more to being a therapist than giving advice and/or talking. It is a misconception that therapists “give advice” for a living. In fact, therapists are trained to set personal beliefs and opinions aside for the good of the client.

This concept was presented again as I scrolled through social media and the following quote jumped out at me, “Talking to your best friend is all the therapy you need.” But what if it’s not? What if you need more? I agree that a supportive friend is an important part of a healthy emotional well-being. Therapy is not intended to replace supportive friendships. Therapy, in fact, should strengthen relationships.

However, talking to a friend is not the same as talking to a professional therapist. There are several key differences between talking with a friend and seeking the help of a professional therapist.

First, therapists are trained professionals with advanced degrees, which focus on human behavior, assessments, interventions and therapeutic conversation skills. This special training allows therapists to help clients with issues that effect daily functioning such as: chronic pain, insomnia, racing thoughts, constant worry, physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, relationship turmoil, parenting, divorce, career changes, guilt, grief, overwhelming stress and substance abuse. Therapists have the ability to diagnose mental illness and make referrals to psychiatrists and/or other treatment facilities.

A second major difference between a friend and a therapist is the objectivity of the therapist. In layman’s terms, objectivity means the therapist will not be influenced by personal feelings or offer biased advice. Keeping emotions out of the conversation is often a difficult task. A friend has an emotional connection to the conversation and often uses that connection to offer advice. Friends may unknowingly offer emotionally biased advice or validate bad behavior. Suppose you tell a friend your significant other is cheating on you, but you want to mend the relationship. Will your friend set personal opinions aside and help you identify why you want to save the marriage? Suppose you are constantly worried and feel on edge. Will a friend say you are worrying over nothing or help you identify the source of your anxiety? Therapists are trained to help you identify patterns and achieve what you want, not what others want for you.

Finally, the focus of therapy is the client and the presenting problem. Where friendship should be a mutually beneficial relationship, therapy is not. A therapist’ s sole attention is focused on the client’s needs. Constant venting or complaining without showing interest in a friend’s life can eventually affect the strongest of friendships. Does you friend understand your constant negativity is anxiety related or do you become someone they dread seeing? I often here my clients say, “You must be tired of hearing about ____.” I always answer with, “No, my job is to listen until we find a solution to the problem!”

Why don’t more people seek therapy? One reason is the stigma of therapy. Seeing a therapist is often viewed as a weakness and for someone who does not have it all together. However, there is nothing weak about seeking out professional help. It’s widely accepted to see a doctor for physical problems, why can’t one see a therapist for an emotional problem? You would not see a friend to treat the flu, then why see a friend to treat emotional struggles? If are going through a difficult time, local professional help is available. If you would like to know more about our counseling options please contact Tombigbee Outreach at 334-287-2422.

Crystal Crawford is a Master Level Counselor who is currently pursuing a license. For more information about Tombigbee Outreach, call 334-287-2428.