The therapist friend

Burst / Used under licenseTherapists and counselors are a community’s experts in relationships. It only makes sense that our occupation impacts our personal relationships. With our friends, we often aren’t just their friend who happens to be a therapist. We’re their therapist friend.

Being the therapist friend affects how our loved ones respond to us. In most situations, our opinions are respected. In some, we can get written off as arrogant — something that typically doesn’t happen to, say, plumbers who speak confidently about how plumbing works.

When I catch up with my friends, I am often asked whether I would consider certain diagnoses for people in their lives. Of course, the safest response is, “I can’t diagnose someone who is not my client, but maybe if you’re concerned you should encourage that they get treatment!” Truthfully, though, I wouldn’t be a therapist if I didn’t secretly enjoy those types of diagnostic conversations. A big reason why I was drawn to psychotherapy is the idea of piecing together why people do what they do. In that sense, the “therapist hat” never completely comes off.

Hopefully, our friends and family benefit at least a little bit from our fascination with human behavior and relationships. But even when they do benefit, it raises concerns. My best friend once said to me, “It’s like you’re my personal therapist that I can drink wine with.” Comments like that give me pause. When I speak from professional knowledge and experience, am I overstepping my boundaries as a friend?

I later came to the conclusion that most therapists either naturally know how to be good friends, or apply our training in our personal lives in ways that make us better than we otherwise would be. We actively listen, show empathy, and highlight strengths to show our support. It’s second nature for us. If I had actually been concerned that the friend I mentioned might need her own therapy, I would have set firmer boundaries and suggested it to her. It’s important for us as psychotherapists to constantly check on these boundaries for our own wellbeing. When our family or friends really are calling on us to serve in more of a therapist role, it can contribute to burnout in our clinical practice.

What’s interesting to me is that as much as my advice is sought, when I notice that someone might really need therapeutic help, that suggestion is not always received well. There’s a certain skepticism, even from family and friends, when a therapist recommends therapy. Of course, some of us are known to preach that everybody needs therapy. That skepticism isn’t entirely unfounded. But then when we notice something, for instance, if someone seems to be showing progressive signs of addiction, or someone’s relationship is turning emotionally abusive, we may get brushed off as “overly critical” or “over-analyzing.”

Some people can take off the therapist hat, and keep separation with their personal lives. Others simply can’t help it. But just like people do in almost any career, we intertwine the knowledge we have from our work into our relationships. Careful boundaries are required, of course. But being a therapist means more than simply doing therapy. The therapist role and therapy skills, over time, become woven into our personhood. Understanding what comes with being a therapist friend can make us better at both kinds of relationships.