Why Therapy is Different than Having Lunch with a Friend

Sometimes, it feels good to let it all out. To process, to free yourself of all the worries and thoughts that grate your nerves. It’s normal, it’s healthy, but depending on who your audience is- your deepest, most inner point of view, may land differently.

Therapy is different than going to lunch with your friend. I say this with utmost confidence, as I have been working as a therapist for over the last ten years. And I have friends. Amazing, salt-of-the-earth people who are the most fun to share my latest gripes and mom victories. Nothing is more fun than venting to a tried-and-true BFF who gets it and will do me the favor of keeping it between us… and getting amnesia by the time I am less infuriated by the topic.

That said, there are limits. Finding a perfect friend who happens to be an exceptional listener and has a vault of secrets (and is available) is no easy feat. Sometimes the people you love the most are lacking when it comes to comforting words and knowing when it is okay to crack a joke to lighten the mood. If I just bombed an interview due to time zone differences, I do not want to be told “it’s no big deal.” I want validation, a moment of silence for SUCH an error, and a suggestion for self-care (e.g., bubble bath or margarita). Is it fair to hold friends or husbands to a therapist-grade standard of consoling?

No, that is what professionally trained therapists are for.

So, how do therapists differ from friends:

  1. Most therapists are naturally (and then later trained) to really listen.

For many therapists, this is their personality, the core of who they are. They are empathic. They care, they listen, and they want to help. This is their heart. They spent a lot of time in graduate school and earning hours towards licensure so that they could channel that natural inclination into being effective at what they do.

  1. Confidentiality is not a preference, it is an ethical obligation.

Let’s face it. When we bare our souls, we provide some seriously good gossip. Even for the best of friends, it is tempting to let a detail or two slip. You may or may not be drilling down to the real root of what is going on, fearful of leaked information. With a therapist, you can say it all. Your therapist does not personally know your people, and should they, they could lose their license if they get chatty. For once, you say every awful, gory detail. The cathartic moment, sans consequences. That may or may not happen when venting to a friend.

  1. Sessions are timed and spaced out. For a reason.

Counseling sessions typically run 50 minutes long. You can cover some major ground, but not every detail of a lifespan. This allows you to focus on a specific topic. With new clients, it is recommended that you begin with weekly appointments, assuming your schedule and finances allow for that. This gives you time to reflect on what was discussed. Sometimes it takes a minute for things to sink in, or revelations to emerge. There is a method to the madness. It’s a thing, trust me.

  1. You get an objective perspective.

Your mom is biased- she loves you more. Your best friend may also hate your annoying friend in your group text. Your co-worker may never validate anything you say to ensure no word will get back to your boss. Your therapist has no skin in this game. They are giving you feedback based on the picture that you are painting… on their extensive reading of psychological theories… and on the sixth sense, you develop if you are a seasoned therapist. So much of therapy is “it’s normal, it’s normal, it’s normal- nope, not normal. Let’s unpack this.”

  1. You do not have to then ask, “So how are you doing?”

It’s okay to make it all about little ole you. Therapists are taught to limit “self-disclosure”, meaning the information they share about themselves. Your therapist’s intention is to be there for you, help YOU. Your therapist is not another person on your list to caretake for. You do not have to get your therapist a Christmas gift (if anything, it is actually an awkward ethical situation- so don’t.) For once, just take care of yourself.  You are a terrible friend if you do not lend the same courtesy of listening to their woes. Your therapist has been trained to be able to handle it, wherever “it” may be. They can take it.

The next time you find yourself at lunch with a good friend, cherish it. Order dessert and enjoy. But should you need more than lunch, do some research, and find a therapist who seems like a good fit.

Melissa Fleming lives in Prairieville, Louisiana with her husband, Blake, and their three beautiful daughters: Evelyn (4), Clara (2), and Chloe (1). She graduated from LA Tech with a B.A. in journalism and then earned her M.Ed. and Ph.D. in counselor education from UNO. She is the owner of MWF Counseling, LLC. In between seeing clients, chasing toddlers, and holding babies, she enjoys watching Real Housewives and drinking as much caffeinated tea as possible.

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