Three Differences Between Therapy & Friendship

[Written around 2007.]

1) Purpose of the Relationship

Therapist: The therapist’s purpose is to help the patient face his buried traumas, uncover his blocked feelings around them, resolve them through grieving, ascribe appropriate blame, discontinue his repetitive acting out, and integrate – and thus grow toward enlightenment. This is what the patient pays him to do, and the payment is what balances the scale of the relationship. Where the therapist desires any more from the patient he fails as a therapist and instead acts as a regressive force in the patient’s evolution.

Patient: The patient’s purpose is to grow at all costs. He pays for the right to be fully selfish in the relationship – and thus to discover what a healthy self is. He uses the therapist as a tool toward this end. In therapy he is safe to express and explore the deepest truth of his being and the darkest chambers of his grief and rage – both without fear of rejection. He need not attempt to win the love of the therapist, because that love – the true love of NURTURANCE – is already inherent in the process. If that love is not inherent then he has not found a mature enough therapist.

Friendship: Friendship is mutually beneficial selfishness. Although each member primarily nurtures his own path toward enlightenment, what drives the relationship is freely offered and freely received mutual support and understanding. Neither member devotes his energy more toward the other than the other offers in return. This mutually agreed upon balance is what gives friendship its beauty and power. Yet if both members of the relationship are not devoted to their own individual paths to know truth, then the relationship is not a pure friendship. It would then be a relationship whose partial purpose is mutual deception.

2) Boundaries and Respect

Therapist: The therapist absolutely respects the boundaries of the true self of the patient, yet all the while walks the fine line of respecting as few of the boundaries of the patient’s false self as the patient can emotionally tolerate. To do this the therapist must be keenly aware of the boundaries of his own true self, and quickly and accurately delineate them in the relationship. Where he is not clear on the boundaries of his own true self he will not appropriately respect the patient’s boundaries and will fail to be therapeutic.

Patient: Although the patient must be capable of a basic level of respect in the relationship (respect therapy times, respect payment, exhibit no violence toward therapist, etc.), it is not his job to respect the therapist any more than this. His job instead is to learn to respect his own boundaries and thus honor himself. The way he will accomplish this is by letting his guard down and going through his wrenching healing process, which at times involves disrespecting the therapist’s boundaries in the very same way that he himself was disrespected in his own childhood. Had he not been disrespected by his own parents he would have never been traumatized, would have never developed a false self as a reaction to the trauma, and would have never developed an ability to be disrespectful to others. As he heals he will come to discover who he really is, and as a consequence he will spontaneously become more respectful of himself, and by extension others – including his therapist.

Friendship: In a friendship there is an understanding that each member is individually responsible for his own growth – and not the growth of the other. Thus friendship is based on a mutual respect by both members of the other’s true self – and false self as well. The only time it is acceptable for one member to pierce the false self of his fellow is in defense of his own true self. And if his fellow cannot understand how he pierces the true self of his friend – and rectify his behavior so that it is not repeated – then his fellow is no friend.

3) Personal Questions

Therapist: The therapist goes to any length to ask the most deeply personal, and often even seemingly intrusive, questions to help the patient explore and uncover the root of his pathological behavior. Yet he asks no questions that are not good for the patient’s growth. If he asks personal questions to suit his own needs – even simply his own curiosity – he is not behaving as a therapist.

Patient: The patient may ask the therapist any question, personal or otherwise, that he wishes, for whatever reason. This is his right. It is the therapist’s job to weigh the appropriateness of answering these questions – even personal questions – in light of optimally benefiting the patient’s personal growth. It is his sacred responsibility to answer or to not answer accordingly. Sometimes this entails answering very personal questions, and sometimes it entails refusing to answer. Either way, this process can be incredibly frustrating and uncomfortable for patient and therapist alike, but comfort is sacrificed in the growth process. If the therapist cannot tolerate such frustration then he is not fit to be a therapist. And if the patient cannot tolerate such frustration he does not really wish to grow.

Friendship: It is acceptable for a friend to ask any personal question for the sake of his own personal growth, but only insofar as it respects the delicate balance of the friendship. This requires much patience, self-awareness, and appropriate mutual self-appraisal on the part of both friends. On the contrary, it is rarely appropriate for a friend to ask – or request – a question intended to stimulate the other to grow or explore. That is a therapeutic question and does not belong in a friendship.

6 thoughts on “Three Differences Between Therapy & Friendship

  1. Hi Daniel,

    I read this essay few weeks ago, and at that time something made me uncomfortable about it but I did not know what exactly.
    I just returned to it, and read it very quickly about the response you can give on the friendship part. I am not okay with you with all you are saying.

    I think, in a general way, truth is the most important, whatever happens and whatever the kind of relationship.

    Beyond the fact that we are responsable for our own growth, we are firstly responsable for our ownself and what we feel.

    You wrote : “The only time it is acceptable for one member to pierce the false self of his fellow is in defense of his own true self.” What does that mean exactly ?
    When I have a person in front of me who is lying, no matter the subject is and even it is not against me, I point the truth. And when I do not – that happens, it is just because I actually does not care about the person.

    All the relationship types are complex and the good balance is not easy to find. But a good friendship is about a complete honesty in my opinion, even when one person is confronted to her false-self. Actually, especially in that kind of moment.
    Having a friend who all the time agree with you, or make you feel “grandiose” or make you feel too comfortable is dangerous. It can have the exact same impact that a romantic relationship. : let you think that you are “unconditionally loved”.
    And frankly, when someone is all the time okay with me or too nice, I ask myself : “what does he want from me ? is he using me ?”

    Question someone to make him grow is not okay, I quite agree on that. But when someone ask for my opinion, I answer honestly. The way they react to my honesty is none of my business, they have to take care of themselves and be responsible about themselves. And I wait the same from the others -and generally, when they not, I can easily feel it, and this is worst. How does a relationship can work when there is no truth ?

    Truth is not about beauty. It is about reality. And reality can be pretty painful and ugly. But, that worth it. Who want to live in a lie ? And who want to have a fake friend who is lying because he protects your false-self ?

    Not me.

  2. Thanks for your response. Happy travels in Australia! If when you’re back you have more time to add to the subject, please do. I’ll repost some time down the road to let you know how it unfolds. At this point I think I might return to see him in a couple of months and hope that I’m able to hide my “crush” enough for it to not be the elephant in the room. I just don’t want things to get awkward or have him become all clinical and detached because he doesn’t wan to provoke further feelings. I might be less embarrassed to bring it up if he wasn’t half my age!

  3. I thought I should add something to my above message. Although I would love to have this person as a friend, I realize that it is a rescue fantasy and that he’s not in my life to be my buddy or bff. I’ve experienced obsessive love before but mostly in a romantic context and after the brief relationship has ended. I would never stalk anyone…except google stalking. I realize that my obsessive thoughts would be a huge turn-off to the person on the receiving end and for that reason I keep them to myself. The above mentioned practitioner is trying to help me feel and release my feelings and I spend most of the session releasing anger through tears. It’s very hard for me to feel emotionally safe around men as I’m afraid I’ll be judged. For this reason working with a man in a therapeutic setting is so much harder for me (unless he’s a old fuddy dud) which is why I feel I need to do it. Emotional intimacy with men is very challenging for me, unless I don’t care about that person’s opinion of me. For this reason I feel I need to work with a man to heal those issues. Part of me thinks that walking away from this situation would be like running from the symptom — the attachment and obsessive thoughts — and that they’d just rear their ugly head down the road with the next caring man who I value. The irony is I don’t think I’m exactly straight, yet I don’t get obsessed with women, only men. But I don’t know how to stop the obsessive thoughts/feelings of attachment even though I understand why they occur.

    Rachel

  4. I thought I should add something to my above message. Although I would love to have this person as a friend, I realize that it is a rescue fantasy and that he’s not in my life to be my buddy or bff. I’ve experienced obsessive love before but mostly in a romantic context and after the brief relationship has ended. I would never stalk anyone…except google stalking. I realize that my obsessive thoughts would be a huge turn-off to the person on the receiving end and for that reason I keep them to myself. The above mentioned practitioner is trying to help me feel and release my feelings and I spend most of the session releasing anger through tears. It’s very hard for me to feel emotionally safe around men as I’m afraid I’ll be judged. For this reason working with a man in a therapeutic setting is so much harder for me (unless he’s a old fuddy dud) which is why I feel I need to do it. Emotional intimacy with men is very challenging for me, unless I don’t care about that person’s opinion of me. For this reason I feel I need to work with a man to heal those issues. Part of me thinks that walking away from this situation would be like running from the symptom — the attachment and obsessive thoughts — and that they’d just rear their ugly head down the road with the next caring man who I value. The irony is I don’t think I’m exactly straight, yet I don’t get obsessed with women, only men.

    Rachel

  5. This was an excellent piece on the difference between a friend and a therapist. I have a question for you that is related in a way and I’m hoping you’ll be able to shed some light on how I can navigate this situation.

    I’ve been seeing a healing practitioner who is not trained as a psychotherapist, but he incorporates talk therapy into his practice. He received five years of formal training in Europe as a body worker and his training focused on a mind/body/emotion approach to illness.He incorporate both talking (gently probing questions) and structural re-alignment in his practice. In my first session with him he asked me questions that no one had ever asked me before (even in therapy) and he was very caring and nurturing in his approach. When I was growing up neither of my parents were comfortable with emotional stuff and nor did they have much interest in listening to me, so I became quite emotionally starved in that area. I have had a chronic illness for awhile that has left me quite socially isolated and without many people to talk to. Even though I’ve done talk therapy in the past, this is the first time I’ve felt so seen, heard, valued and understood. He is incredibly attentive and present and because of that I feel that just being in his presence is healing. But here’s the catch. The approach of this practitioner showed me what it is to feel loved, something I didn’t feel growing up. Within a few sessions I started to feel overly attached to him and fantasized about him being my friend. My thoughts became quite obsessive. I even started to feel romantic feelings for him, even though he’s two decades younger than me. As much as I tried to hide it, my “crush” leaked out in indirect ways and I think he sensed what was going on and was uncomfortable with it. He seemed distracted and distant in my last session. I’m now feeling too embarrassed to go back. In trying to understand why I became so attached so quickly to a “therapist” a google search lead me to the phenomena of “erotic transference in therapy”. Apparently this is common in people who are yearning to be seen and heard and find themselves in the hands of a skilled professional listener. I don’t really have anyone else in my life who is interested in listening to me. The websites that I found that discuss this phenomena encouraged clients to discuss this with their practitioner/therapist, but warned that if the practitioner wasnt adequately trained in the subject of transference, they might not handle it well. Because he’s not a trained psychotherapist I don’t know if he received any training in this particular area. So I don’t know how to proceed. I’ve only seen him 8 or 9 times in total, and once when I was starting to feel too obsessed with him I didn’t go back for several months, but once I returned the obsessive thoughts came back full force, even though they never entirely went away.

    So my question for you is this: should I terminate treatment with this practitioner and find one who doesn’t trigger these obsessive thoughts and feelings, or do I continue knowing that he is simply triggering a long standing desire to be loved and heard? I so look forward to my appointments with him and in the fleeting time that I spend with him I feel nurtured and loved in a way that I longed to received from my parents, and still do, even thought I’m now middle aged. Do I address it head on (and explain that I understand that I’m experiencing transference) or take some time off and hope that when I return he wonders if he just imagined that I had feelings for him? Is there a way to overcome these feelings so I can continue receiving treatment from someone who has skillfully and professionally shown me what it is like to feel truly heard by another?

    Many thanks.

    • hi rachel,
      aaaah!! i read your posting — and i wish i had a good long time to answer it. i’m in australia, on the road, and just have a few minutes. hmm……….what to do? some thoughts i have: well, this kind of thing can be pretty common — i’ve experienced it both as a client in therapy and as a therapist from clients, both men and women. it can be pretty intense, in my experience, from both sides. and i think it’s something that the therapist really needs to be able to handle delicately. personally i think most are not up to the task — but some certainly are. training — well……it might help some therapists handle it, but i think all the “proper” training in the world will not help some people handle this, and i think there are some folks who have no training at all and who work as therapists or quasi-therapists or even coaches or consultants who are really deft and caring and respectful at handling this kind of situation. they can respect it, help someone explore it, not encourage it, not necessarily love it (because it can at times make a therapist feel very special, especially if he or she is lonely in his or her life), and at best help someone make sense of it and move through it. but perhaps in some cases it could be too much for both a client and a therapist to handle, and maybe it’s best for the client to find a therapist who won’t trigger such feelings. in your case —- i don’t know. i think ideally in therapy it’s good to talk about with the therapist and see how the therapist handles it, and if the therapist is good about making sense of it. maybe this person your working with can’t do that. i don’t know. generally most people who aren’t therapists don’t want to bill themselves as workers who get into this kind of deep transference stuff — it’s generally considered out of the bounds of what “non-trained” people are supposed to be dealing with. that said — let’s face it, this kind of stuff happens in life all the time. i remember when i was a social work intern this was happening to interns (who, in their first year of training, or lack of training) all the time. i think it’s just a normal human phenomenon that people who are kind and gentle and open-minded and respectful and are good, attentive listeners are going to provoke feelings in people who haven’t had the best experiences of being lovingly listened to in their lives……
      wishing you the best!
      daniel

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