Therapists, as a group, are pretty friendly people. We entered into a helping profession, one that relies on our ability to connect with a wide range of people. Generally speaking, we try to assume the best of others, whether friends or strangers. We go to great lengths to avoid jumping to negative conclusions. These are all great traits, and useful in the therapy room.
These same traits can also leave therapists and counselors vulnerable, though. Our desire to be on good terms with those around us can make it difficult when their behavior doesn’t line up with what we want or need. We’re trained and skilled at reducing conflict, so we’re typically not eager to jump into it (or create it).
Often, the frustrating things that other people and organizations do to therapists aren’t personal. They result from those other people and organizations doing exactly what they are supposed to do. They aren’t your friends, and they aren’t supposed to be. Understanding that can make it a lot easier and less stressful to deal with them.
In the spirit of protectiveness for our colleagues, we present some reminders of who is and is not your friend.
Your supervisor (or supervisee) is not your friend.
You know who gets this, in my experience? Supervisees. Contrary to the hesitancies of many supervisors, every student and supervisee I have known — and I mean that, literally every one — has wanted to hear what they are doing wrong so that they can get better. It’s more often supervisors who seem to struggle with providing negative feedback.
Protecting someone from criticism is something you might do as a friend. As a supervisor (or as a supervisee, for that matter), protecting someone from negative feedback is failing to do your job. It keeps them from fixing mistakes they are making that will ultimately cost them clients and perhaps jobs. Supervisees should not just want, but expect to hear negative feedback from their supervisors. Overwhelmingly, they welcome it, even when it can be tough to hear in the moment.
Your employer is not your friend.
Any employer succeeds by getting as much out of you as they can, for as little as possible. And it doesn’t matter if they are nonprofit. If it’s a for-profit business, they do this in service of making money. If it’s a nonprofit, they do this in service of their mission. Either way, your employer succeeds by exploiting you to whatever extent you are willing to be exploited.
I’m an employer, so I have no intention of demonizing employers. Employers are good! But your employer is not your friend, and you do not owe them anything more than the work you were hired to do. It’s not personal. They may like you, they may not. It doesn’t change how their survival and success are measured.
Therapists, especially early in their careers, face exploitive and often illegal employment arrangements at least in part because they are often unwilling to complain. But this is one area where other people — professional associations, regulatory bodies, whoever — can’t do much from the outside. (We do try.) Someone who is being exploited has to stand up and say they won’t take it. A single case can make huge waves, but very few cases get pursued.
Simply put, an employer who is breaking the law, or who demands that you violate your code of ethics, does not deserve your protection. It does not matter how nice they are, the need of the population they serve, or whether “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Exploiting one vulnerable population — prelicensed or desperate-for-work therapists — to serve another vulnerable population should not be a viable business plan.
Demand that your employer follows all applicable labor law, particularly around wages. (See our past posts on the topic of pay for prelicensed therapists.) Complain to the appropriate state regulatory agency if they refuse. And consider unionizing your workplace.
Your colleagues may or may not be your friends.
If you’re early in your career, you may be surprised to learn that the therapy world is small in many ways. Your graduate school classmates and early-career colleagues are people you are likely to keep crossing paths with as your careers progress. For this reason, you want to have a good reputation among your colleagues — they are your future (and perhaps present) referral sources — and treat them kindly and respectfully.
Commonly, those same early-career classmates and colleagues become your long-term friends, people with whom you share both personal and professional interests. It’s great to have friends in the field. They can empathize with the tough parts of this career better than those outside of it.
You should not, however, assume that simply because you share a classroom, an office space, a supervisor, or other professional connections with someone, they are in some way personally obligated to you. More than once I have seen a student’s or supervisee’s feelings get hurt by a colleague because the student or supervisee held the mistaken belief that being colleagues automatically means being friends. Hopefully your colleagues like you, are kind to you, and treat you with respect. Hopefully each of those goes both ways. But you get to choose your friends, and it’s ok to choose who you want in or out of that circle based on whatever reasons you want, even among your coworkers. And they can do that to you, too.
Your licensing board is not your friend.
That said, the licensing board is not your enemy, either. In Robin’s words, your licensing board “is not the ‘final boss’ in a video game that needs to be defeated.” Assuming hostile intent on their part simply because you didn’t get a return phone call right away, or because your application hasn’t been processed yet, might lead you to be hostile toward them — a stance that will not help you.
Think about it in terms of clients. If you were just doing your job on an average Tuesday, and a client called up to yell at you when you hadn’t done anything wrong, would you be eager to call them back? I wouldn’t.
Treat your licensing board like a licensing board. They’re not your friend out to help you, and they’re not an enemy out to get you. They’re most often a bureaucracy to be navigated. That’s all.
Your clients are not your friends.
It is true, of course, that you need to maintain good relationships with clients in order to work effectively with them. But a friendly relationship isn’t necessarily a good one. In fact, many clients come to therapy precisely because they want to be challenged by a trained professional. They have friends. They are paying a therapist for something that looks very different from friendship.
Becoming friendly with your clients might lead you to pull punches, as the expression goes, and avoid challenging clients who want or need to be pushed. Yes, challenging clients runs the risk of upsetting them, even leading to termination. But part of being a skilled therapist is maintaining a good relationship even in the presence of challenges.
A warm presence and a comforting ear may be all that some clients want. For the rest, perceiving them as friends weakens the therapy. Taken too far, thinking of clients as friends can easily weaken your boundaries against inappropriate dual relationships.
Your friends are your friends.
Working in the world of psychotherapy is tough. Therapists and counselors often need to share their personal and professional frustrations, be open about their fears, and simply relax with good company. Social support is essential to a lasting and happy career in this field.
That’s where your friends — your real friends — come in. They’re the ones you can lean on when sharing horror stories about your non-friends. They’re the ones who can help hold you back when you’re ready to go to battle over something that doesn’t deserve it, and can help prepare you for a fight over something that does. They deserve your caring, your loyalty, and your protection.
The other ones on this list? They don’t. They’re not bad, they’re not out to get you, and wherever possible, you should work with them and not against them. But sometimes — based solely on their roles, not on their quality as people — working with them isn’t possible or desirable. That’s ok. That can happen even when no one has done anything wrong. And in those instances, you should feel no guilt about fighting for what’s right. You’re not being disloyal to a friend. You’re standing up for yourself.