“I don’t need a therapist, that’s what friends are for.”
I’d bet that most people have either said or been on the receiving end of this phrase at some point. In many ways, it makes sense. Friends are an incredibly important source of support. When we’re feeling down, stressed, or confused about the best way to handle a difficult situation, friends can help us to feel better and achieve clarity. The support and guidance we get from our friends also has the potential to be extremely meaningful and effective because they know us so well. It also feels really good to be the one providing our friends with support and this can make our relationships stronger and closer1. However, when one of our friends consistently turns to us for help or advice, it can sometimes feel like we are no longer being treated as a friend, but rather as a therapist.
Given that one of the main roles of friends is to offer and provide each other with support, it is only natural that friendships can have some overlap with the relationship between a therapist and client.
Why is it tempting to see these two relationships as interchangeable?
It’s all about the connection
Remember the days when you were told you had to invite every kid in your class to your birthday party? It’s probably been a long time since you felt like you had to be friends with everyone. The truth is, there are some people we connect with a little more easily and with whom the conversation flows a little more naturally. The same is true for therapy. Even though it takes time to develop a trusting and comfortable relationship, you should be able to tell fairly early on if you “click” with a therapist.
This is so important. In fact, it turns out that the relationship in therapy is more important than the specific type of therapy used2. That is, having an authentic connection and the experience of feeling valued and supported is a large part of what actually helps us to feel better. Really, the same is true of our friendships. We don’t always need our friends to say the right thing or give us the perfect advice, but we do need them to be present and to feel like they genuinely support us and appreciate us for who we are.
They give us space to talk about really personal things
This process of discussing personal information, including our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, is one of the main ways we connect with others and build closeness in our friendships3,4. It goes without saying that this is also true of therapy. The fact that personal experiences are often discussed in therapy can sometimes make it feel as though we are talking to someone we trust, like a friend. Similarly, talking to a friend about really intimate topics can sometimes can make us feel vulnerable in the way we expect therapy might.
They sometimes say things that can be difficult to hear
This one probably doesn’t need too much explaining in the context of friendships. As well-intentioned as our friends are, sometimes people (all of us) mess up and say or do things that are hurtful or upsetting.
In therapy, there is often the misconception that we should feel a little better after each and every session. In reality, this isn’t always the case. Therapy can be hard work. Once you have developed a close, trusting relationship, a therapist might begin to (gently and respectfully) point out certain things that you find upsetting, including difficult topics or the ways in which your own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are impacting you and your relationships. Essentially, a therapist can sometimes call you out on your “stuff” the same way a good friend might. That being said, this should always be done in the spirit of helping you reach your goals and good therapy and friendship should always feel like teamwork.
Despite these similarities, there are some very real differences between these two important relationships and things can get a little messy when we feel like one of our friends is treating us like his or her therapist.
So, how can you tell if one of your friends is relying on you a little too much?
The relationship is unbalanced
One of the defining features of friendship is a sense of reciprocity5,6. We expect our friends to be there for us and, in turn, we are there for them. One of the most obvious signs of this give and take is the space devoted to each person. Good friends usually have a way of balancing out their conversations (either in the moment or over time) so that each person has the chance to contribute their own thoughts or experiences.
In therapy, however, the attention is almost always on one person. This imbalance is one of the main differences between these two relationships. Think about it. In what other social context would it be appropriate to sit there and talk about yourself (e.g., a recent vacation, your dating life) for an entire hour without asking or hearing about the person you are with? Feeling like we don’t have the space to talk about our own experiences (the good and the difficult) is one of the most important warning signs that our friendship has tiptoed into therapy territory.
It feels like a burden to keep things private
A good friend is someone we can trust. It’s really common for friends to share personal information, secrets, and gossip with each other and, for the most part, we usually have no trouble keeping the important things private. However, when one of our friends shares concerning or upsetting news (e.g., about their mental health or well-being, a difficult family situation), it can sometimes make us feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to be supportive. We might also feel the need to tell someone else, either to get their advice or process our own reactions, in order to help our friend7. Ultimately, it can be really difficult to support someone close to us when we are personally affected by what they are going through, especially when the situation is ongoing and we are running out things to say or do. Feeling burdened by the need to keep things private and the desire to reach out for support can be a clue that we feel as though our friend is over-relying on us.
The confidentiality that exists in therapy is one of the things that really separates it from a friendship. Therapists are ethically bound to keep information discussed in therapy private (although there are a few exceptions related to safety). They also learn strategies to help others cope when they are in crisis and are trained to be objective in a way that is almost impossible in our friendship.
You keep giving advice but it just isn’t working
“What do you think I should do?” One of the biggest differences between friendships and therapy is the way that this question gets answered. Friends will often have no problem telling us exactly what they think we should do or how we should feel, even when we haven’t asked them for their opinion8. Psychologists, on the other hand, will typically help us explore the available options and come up with our own decisions or plan.
It goes without saying that receiving unsolicited advice can be an unpleasant or intrusive experience9. However, it can be equally frustrating to feel like we are giving good advice (especially when asked for it directly) and, for whatever reason, our friend just isn’t listening. The issue here is that, sometimes, our friends don’t really need advice. Instead, they might be looking for comfort or reassurance that they are doing the right thing or that their feelings are valid. However, it’s really easy to feel like we are spinning in circles when a friend keeps asking for and refusing our advice, and this makes it difficult to know how to continue to support them or intervene.
Does it really matter if one of our friends is over-relying on us for support?
Should we really be concerned if one of our friends is treating us like a therapist or can we feel good about the fact that our friend can clearly count on us? The truth is, it depends. Fluctuations in the balance of support giving and receiving are really common. However, when this balance is shifted on a more regular basis it can create tension and problems in our friendships.
The first step is recognizing that this dynamic is going on. Of course, the next question is what should we do when we one of our friends is overly dependent on us for support? Find out how you can handle situations in which your friend is treating you like a therapist here.
1. Deci, E. L., La Guardia, J. G., Moller, A. C., Scheiner, M. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). On the benefits of giving as well as receiving autonomy support: Mutuality in close friendships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 313-327.
2. Wampold, B. E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14, 270-277.
3. Bauminger, N., Finzi-Dottan, R., Chason, S., & Har-Even, D. (2008). Intimacy in adolescent friendship: The roles of attachment, coherence, and self-disclosure. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 409-428.
4. Derlega, V. J., Winstead, B. A., & Greene, K. (2007). Self-disclosure and starting a close relationship. Handbook of relationship beginnings, 153-74.
5. Hartup, W. W., & Stevens, N. (1997). Friendships and adaptation in the life course. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 355-370.
6. Laursen, B., & Hartup, W. W. (2002). The origins of reciprocity and social exchange in friendships. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2002, 27-40.
7. Feldman, S. S., Cauffman, E., Jensen, L. A., & Arnett, J. J. (2000). The (un) acceptability of betrayal: A study of college students’ evaluations of sexual betrayal by a romantic partner and betrayal of a friend’s confidence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29, 499-523.
8. Feng, B., & Magen, E. (2015). Relationship closeness predicts unsolicited advice giving in supportive interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 751-767.
9. Smith, J., & Goodnow, J. J. (1999). Unasked-for support and unsolicited advice: age and the quality of social experience. Psychology and Aging, 14, 108-121.