Why Can’t I Be Friends with My Therapist?
Working with a therapist is a unique relationship dynamic. It involves telling someone all of your problems, fears, and secrets while knowing nothing about them and their personal lives. Despite this, it is easy to feel close to them. In a way it doesn’t seem fair that they can know so much about you and you so little about them.
So why can’t you be friends with your therapist?
First and foremost, you are paying them for their professional services to assist you with your problems. Therapy thrives when your therapist is not an active member in your life. A great analogy for this is like watching a movie - the movie being your life - where characters (friends and family) in the movie naturally have biases and motives pertaining to the main character (you). These are not necessarily negative, but everyone who interacts with the main character brings their experiences to the feedback they provide and role in their lives. As someone on the outside looking in, a therapist can see this movie with a clearer vision, they can identify patterns and conflicts because they’re not actively involved in the plot. Their only proverbial horse in this race is to assist you in guiding your progress in an area you want to improve.
Therapists are people with their own lives and personal struggles. Seeing life as a mountain of challenges and obstacles, everyone has their own to climb. Despite how they may appear and present to their clients, therapists are not above you on your mountain looking down. Instead, they’re on their own mountain looking over at yours and able to guide you from that outside perspective.
So, why can’t your therapist be your friend? There is a code of ethics that all mental health clinicians have that prohibits what is called a dual relationship. For example, a therapist can not treat their nephews because they are an aunt or uncle to them - so to add being their therapist would create a second relationship. This includes being a customer to a client’s business or dating someone related to a client. This blurs the lines of their role in a client’s life and will lose the benefit of being someone on the outside looking in. Based on their code of ethics, if these sort of dual relationships emerge, one of the relationships must end. This usually means the therapist should refer you to another clinician.
What can you ask your therapist then? You are welcome to ask your therapist anything about themselves but it is up to the therapist to decide what is appropriate to disclose. Self-disclosure is the act of the therapist sharing something personal with a client and is only encouraged ethically if it is beneficial to the client. A good therapist does not take up more room emotionally in the session than their client. The time and space is the client’s since they are paying for the service to work on themselves.
Some therapists are comfortable being on call or always available via text, but that is to benefit and focus on you. They may not share the same political or religious views or have different opinions about something that is very dear to you. In therapy, the therapist’s personal opinions should not matter especially if they could be harmful in any way to their client. If learning they are married, single, conservative, liberal, religious, or atheist could make a client feel judged or misunderstood based on their own experiences with individuals with those views. If someone feels judged, they may withhold information or lie, which hurts connection and keeps the therapist from getting the full and accurate picture; ultimately making therapy not productive.
Someone who does not completely agree with you on large or small issues is still capable of helping you so whether or not you know all of their stances, is not actually relevant to your treatment.
It is worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic blurred some lines when therapists were in their home offices, living rooms, or even their own bedrooms doing therapy due to the rush to find a way to work from home. Clients may have met their pets and seen a glimpse of the inside of their homes. Referring back to only sharing what is beneficial to the client, from this period of time when the entire world was in crisis, many found it helpful to see that their therapist was experiencing the similar life change as they had been.
There may very well be times when you could run into your therapist “out in the real world” and in those scenarios, a therapist won’t acknowledge you, out of respect for your privacy. You can approach them, but in the event you are with someone who doesn’t know you’re in therapy, a therapist would never violate that privacy by approaching you and possibly putting you in the position to explain or lie to whomever you’re with about who they are.
Even if you feel personally that it wouldn’t embarrass you to have everyone in your life know who your therapist is, or you would like to hear all about your therapist’s life, these boundaries are in place to protect everyone. This includes your therapist who, when sometimes working with highly sensitive issues, needs that separation from work and personal life for their mental health as a clinician. So while they do care about you, it is important to the therapeutic process that they are not your friend.