So I just recently received a phone call from a client I saw years back. She moved away and I had not heard from her since our last session circa 2011. When I answered the phone, she identified herself using her first name. Thankfully, her unmistakable voice allowed me to recognize her immediately (I say “thankfully” because it felt as though she would have been disappointed had I not identified her right away). She explained that she was going through a divorce and asked if I had any therapist referrals in her new town. She went on to say that she would trust any referrals I might suggest because I was “not only [her] therapist, but I was also [her] friend.” Ummmm…uh oh! It became clear that this was an issue requiring clarity and brutal honesty. Truth is, I am not a friend to my clients, I cannot be a friend to my clients, and I should not be a friend to my clients. Let’s talk about this.
Look, I understand that therapists are good listeners who genuinely care about your life and well-being. You might even say that therapists are among the most approachable of people given that they make a living caring for people. But let’s make one thing perfectly clear, we cannot be your friends. Friendship is a bond based on giving and taking. Both parties generally support each other and take turns disclosing personal information, expressing private emotions, and sharing interests. Essentially, friendship is a two-way street and a therapeutic relationship is not this way…nor should it be. But why? I mean, some of you might say that turning your therapist into a friend would be the ultimate kind of therapy. But think about that for a sec. Imagine knowing your therapist like you know your friends. Imagine having intimate knowledge into their family life, their likes and dislikes, their biases, their preferences, and their strong opinions, etc. How can you possibly be treated by someone whose innermost sentiments are known to you? Imagine talking about the relationship you have with your mother when you know that your therapist’s mother is dying of cancer. Imagine talking about your divorce when you know that your therapist has been happily married for 30 years. Imagine talking about a political official you support when you know that your therapist has strong opinions against said official. You can clearly see how beneficial it is to get a therapist you do not know personally! You don’t want any of the personal stuff to get in the way of your therapeutic process. Your therapy is about YOU – the opinions and personal disclosures of your therapist may only be expressed occasionally, when they are deemed therapeutically beneficial.
I occasionally get clients who wish to add me to Facebook or go for coffee but I must decline each and every time. I tell them that the relationship that we hold must be as organic and authentic as possible. Seeing each other’s Facebook posts, for example, and casting erroneous superficial judgements about each other’s lives based on a social media account, can cause serious therapeutic impasses. God forbid you see something you don’t like on the Facebook page of your therapist. This will contaminate the relationship you have with them and may influence whether or not you return to therapy.
So, getting back to the client I discussed above…. If she was still my client, we would absolutely need to discuss the fact that she thinks of me as a friend, because I am, importantly, not her friend. She would, surely, be affected by this conversation. She might even be hurt or confused by this “rejection” but this hurt or confusion would be a therapeutic goldmine! …this hurt or confusion would actually hold the secret behind her desire to be my friend. Truthfully, wanting to have a close personal relationship with your therapist might indicate that you are lacking intimacy or sensing rejection in your already-established interpersonal relationships. …it might indicate that you are looking for love in all the wrong places and that it might be time to start looking in more appropriate places for intimacy. If these are not the reasons behind your desire to befriend your therapist, there is likely a delicious psychological reason you have yet to discover. I encourage you to explore your motivation to make friends with your therapist because this kind of discovery will kick start your progress in a huge way!
Look, in the same way your kids are not your friends, and your employers are not your friends, and your teachers are not your friends…your therapist is, most definitely, not your friend. Your therapeutic relationship is just another example of how some relationship roles and boundaries need to be upheld and maintained for your optimal benefit.
Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.