“For each client you see, you may be the only person in their life capable of both hearing and holding their pain. If that’s not sacred, I don’t know what is.”
Can you be friends with your therapist?
As an adult, making friends can be challenging. I feel you. Gone are the days when you could throw a ball in break time or hop on a swing next to someone, and be best friends in five minutes. So when you do meet someone who really gets you, it’s not surprising you want to cherish that connection.
A good therapist should not only get you but also be an attentive and empathetic listener. They should be able to build trust and rapport, make you feel safe and cared for, and encourage you to unburden yourself. All of these are lovely qualities to have a friend.
Doesn't that make us BFFs?
Put bluntly, no. That’s what you pay us for. What can feel or look like a friendship is actually a professional exchange. There is no equivalence in the give and take. The exchange is that you pay your therapist to provide this service for you. While your therapist almost certainly wants the best for you, it’s not a two-way street to Friendshipville.
Depending on the therapist’s approach and personal preferences, they may share more or less about themselves. But there is no expectation that they will share any more than you’d find in their professional biography or on their “About Me” page.
Personally, this is one reason why I no longer have any personal or professional social media. I enjoy the clear distinction between my private and professional lives. I’m also aware that prospective clients are likely to perform some sort of online search before signing up to work with me. While we all have a digital footprint, as a therapist, I am responsible for how accessible I make myself to clients.
What's the problem?
Your therapy is about you. This is your time to focus on yourself. (Side note, if you find yourself spending your sessions talking about other people, ask yourself why and if you’re trying to control or avoid something.) You can receive support, learn about yourself, and practise new life skills.
During therapy, you will uncover all sorts of things about yourself, which makes it a deeply personal and private relationship. You may share things with your therapist that you’ve never told anyone else. In most types of therapy, your therapist provides you with a judgement-free space for you to fill as you wish. This profound acceptance can feel deeply intimate. Your therapist won’t give you their opinion or advice, but rather create a safe space for processing and transformation. At times, it really can feel sacred and it really is all about you.
I think you're wrong
If you think you are friends with your therapist or you feel defensive, upset, or confused reading this, please talk to your therapist about it. I’m not joking – this is therapy gold! I remember one client who was heartbroken when I invited her to join one of my groups as she had somehow imagined herself as my only client. She felt I had sullied our relationship mentioning I had other clients. This gave us a lot to work on together around what it meant for her to feel seen and special.
Whether you agree with me or not, most therapeutic approaches deem it unethical for your therapist to be your friend, even more so a lover or partner. (If you find yourself attracted to your therapist, this should help.) This is because it creates a dual relationship. All the major accrediting and regulating therapy bodies in the UK, such as BACP and UKCP, explicitly discourage dual relationships unless it’s unavoidable, such as in very small or isolated communities.
What's a dual relationship?
A dual relationship is when two people are in more than one type of relationship at the same time. For example, being friends and being therapist-client.
The problem is that any friendship or family element can interfere with the therapist’s need to remain impartial. There’s also a potential power imbalance if the therapist is seen as an expert to be respected and deferred to.
That said, life happens. You join a choir or move house, and suddenly you’re seeing your therapist in a social setting. If you do bump into your therapist, don’t be surprised if they ignore you. They’re not being rude or standoffish, they’re protecting your privacy.
If a dual relationship occurs, the therapist should take the necessary steps to end or change one of the relationships. Such as, they might suggest you move from individual therapy into a group setting. If you’re not sure what to do, talk to them about it. We are also human beings.
If you have previously been a client and no longer have therapy with them, then your ex-therapist may be comfortable becoming friends with you.
Friendly not friends
Just as you have different relationships and boundaries with colleagues and your kids, so the therapeutic relationship also needs different boundaries.
As explained above, a good therapeutic relationship can include many of the qualities that you’d like in a friendship. But here’s something that might surprise you: who your therapist is as a therapist is not who they are as a friend. Nor should they be. Models don’t sashay around the supermarket and plumbers don’t stick their head under the sink when they come round for dinner. While I can’t, and wouldn’t pretend to, speak for all therapists, when I’m with my clients I love working with them, and when I’m with my friends I’m not working.
Ethically, personally, and professionally, your therapist is not and shouldn’t be your friend. If you feel the boundaries are blurred you might want to consider finding a new therapist. You’re welcome to ask me for recommendations as you deserve someone who is your therapist and not your friend.