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posted: 3/23/2014 1:01 AM

Sometimes you need a friend, sometimes you need a therapist

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Few things in life are more valuable than good friends. Money, power and prestige all pale in comparison. Ultimately, one measure of the meaningfulness of our very lives is the quantity and quality of our friendships.

A good friendship is a relationship in which we experience a special closeness, a cherished intimacy. We can share with our friends our deepest thoughts and feelings, as well as just talk about the ups and downs of life. We can cry together, laugh together, and sometimes simply sit silently together.

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Such a friendship also involves living and learning together. We are part of the fabric of each other's lives, knowing about and participating in the mundane, day-to-day activities that make up life as well as being a part of those special, once-in-a-lifetime moments. We share in both each other's successes and failures, and learn together from both.

Good friends know about and accept both the good and the bad in who we are. Our willingness to share so much is grounded in this acceptance. We trust that, whether it is celebrating our most recent accomplishment, or revealing our innermost hopes and dreams, or confessing our most-guarded secrets, or mourning our most recent failure, our friends will continue to be there.

Finally, in our true friendships we find ourselves giving as much as we receive. Certainly there are times when we lean on our friends more than they lean on us, but we do so with the knowledge that the time will come when we will be there for them as well. There is a balance, reciprocity, a give-and-take that we all appreciate.

The above is suggested not because we are going to talk this week about friendships (though I think the above is a better-than-average description of friendship). Rather we're going to take a brief look at the relationship between psychotherapists or counselors and the people with whom they work. But to do so, we first needed to have a common understanding of what friendship is like so we have something to contrast with.

First, our relationship with therapists is limited to a specific time and for a certain number of minutes. We do not just drop in on therapists, we make an appointment.

Therapy also has a much more limited purpose than friendship. Where we want friends to share in much of our lives, in therapy we are there to work on specific goals that we as the "client" set.

Neither do therapists seek to become close to us as friends do. In fact, part of the value of therapy is that therapists are not close to us. More often than not, our friends "cannot see the forest for the trees." They care so much that they lack the distance to clearly see what is going on, especially when we are troubled or in pain. Because therapists care in a much more limited way, they do bring this distance to our problems.

Not only distance, but expertise as well. Therapists study people and relationships. Though they cannot make decisions for us, they do use their expertise to help us better understand ourselves, the people around us, and the problems and potential we bring into therapy. Like friends, however, therapists unconditionally accept whatever we share with them. Judgment is not a part of therapy.

Therapists are different as well because they are part of our lives primarily at times when we are struggling with questions, issues or problems we want to answer, address or solve. Therapists help people at times when they need to change. Friends are there all the time.

A final observation -- therapy is not a give-and-take relationship. Though we may "give" to some degree by paying a fee for therapists' assistance, we do not give of ourselves the way we do in friendships. Nor do therapists take as friends do by sharing with us their lives and by leaning on us when times get tough.

Therapy is one sided. Its total focus is on us and on our needs. We take. That is the whole point of therapy. And when we have taken what therapists can give of what we need, therapy ends.

Therapists are not friends. Nor are friends therapists. That's OK. There will probably be times in our lives when we need both.

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