Thousands of years ago, when life was simpler, we used to sit around the fire at night and complain about all our problems to our closest friends. Luckily for our closest friends, therapy was invented. If you find that a friend is your consistent go-to for tackling the hard stuff in your life, take heed — it might be time to find yourself a therapist.
Close, supportive friendships are an important part of a healthy, happy life. Our desire to make friends is deeply rooted in evolutionary history, and links us to other social mammals like elephants and chimpanzees. But while a close friend can offer welcome support and advice, when it comes to working through psychological and emotional issues, a friend can’t substitute for a professional.
Your therapist is not your friend — and that’s a good thing.
To understand why a good friend makes a bad therapist, it’s worth noting what a good therapist actually does.
“As therapists, we learn to not interject ourselves. We’re invested in the client reaching their goals, which have nothing to do with us,” says Linda Kondilis, a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta.
Our friends have a different investment in our choices, Kondilis explains. They often have opinions about what we should do (break up with a partner, for instance, or quit a stressful job) and may be disappointed if we don’t take steps toward that end.
“It can create a disconnect in the friendship,” she says. “If you don’t follow along with a friend’s recommendation, you can feel like you’re somehow letting them down.”
A therapist can help you divide big goals into smaller, more achievable steps, with no judgment along the way.
“There are no expectations in therapy,” Kondilis says. “If you don’t accomplish a step we’ve agreed on, we look back on that step and our relationship and say, ‘We must have missed something, let’s go back and reevaluate that.’”
Therapists are also trained in noticing patterns of behavior and emotional cycles, which friends are not professionally trained to notice. This kind of clinical expertise, coupled with the healthy emotional distance of working with a paid professional, results in a different kind of support than we can ever receive from our friends.
Making your friend your therapist can strain or even break your friendship.
Pop culture is full of best friends. We tend to mythologize ultra-close friendship with terms like #bestie and “ride or die.”
While these friendships are some of the most important relationships we’ll have throughout our lives, best friends can also benefit from healthy boundaries.
In recent years, a new term has emerged to describe when friends take venting too far: “trauma dumping.” When someone trauma dumps, they share serious information without the other person’s permission. They also disregard whether a friend or family member is in the place to hold such information.
Trauma dumping can weigh on your friend-turned-therapist, who isn’t trained in proper therapeutic techniques, and can create burnout and resentment. The truth is, setting healthy boundaries about sharing our emotional burdens actually leads to healthier ride-or-die’ relationships.
How can you actually set those boundaries? Checking in before unloading is crucial, says Kondilis. It’s as simple as saying, “‘Hey, I’m going through a lot, but you may be too; let me just check in with you about your bandwidth.’”
This healthy communication is good for everyone. It gives friends an opportunity to advocate for themselves if they don’t have the capacity to listen at that moment. But if they do have the bandwidth for you, you can feel safe to open up.
Without that practice of communication, Kondilis notes, friends might avoid “sharing because they fear they might be a burden.” By checking in before emotionally unloading on each other, you and your friend are building trust between each other — and trust is the stuff from which true BFFs are made.
When it comes to disclosing trauma, telling a friend can be the first step, but shouldn’t be the last.
People who have experienced a traumatic event, such as sexual assault or another form of abuse, often receive important emotional support and care from their friends. A friend may also be the first person they talk to about the trauma: One 2005 study of victims of sexual assault found that 38 percent of those who disclosed their assault first did so to a friend.
Sharing about traumatic events with friends can be an important first step toward healing, but friends don’t have the capacity to be your sole support as you work through what happened. Trauma-informed therapists have professional skills to help you heal after difficult, life-altering events, and can connect you to resources like support groups and treatment modalities that fit your needs.
If a friend discloses to you about a trauma they experienced, it’s okay to let them know it’s more than you can handle on your own, says Carissa Dagenais, a therapist at a community health clinic in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“You can respond, ‘Thank you for telling me, and I will hold this for you, but I think you need someone else to help hold this with you. I’ll be here for you, but I don’t have all the tools,’” she says.
Encouraging friends to seek trained support isn’t dismissing what happened to them, Dagenais explains. It means you love them enough to help them get the care they need.
A good therapist makes a good friend, but not at the same time.
Dagenais isn’t just a therapist; she’s also one of my best friends. I checked in to see how she navigates being a therapist — and a best friend.
“Friendship is repairing time,” she says. “It’s a time where you both can really fill your cups.” As a therapist, she sets boundaries around her own emotional investment. In friendships, she lets herself be more emotionally responsive.
Dagenais reiterates Kondilis’ advice about checking in with friends before emotionally unloading — or as she calls it, “sliming.” “I might say, ‘I can’t today, but tomorrow I have an easy morning. Let’s talk at lunch.’”
For Dagenais, her professional work has taught her the importance of learning to really listen to others, and of thinking before responding. Even in close friendships, she says, “I regulate myself before I respond to something that might be emotional.”
Most importantly, Dagenais says that deep, long-lasting, healthy friendships grow from trust and honest communication. “You shouldn’t be afraid that someone is going to abandon you because you were honest,” she says.
So next time, when a crisis strikes, take a moment before immediately turning to your group chat. When it comes to your relationships with your therapist and your friends, knowing who’s who will lead to healthier outcomes all around.