How Is Talk Therapy Different From Talking to a Friend?

Talk therapy session.

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Psychotherapy has hit its prime recently. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health came to center stage in public discourse. Amidst the discussion about the health and financial fallout of the pandemic (and other events of 2020), many people found that depression, anxiety, and addiction were secondary consequences of living in an unprecedented pandemic.

These conversations helped to normalize and destigmatize mental health diagnoses and therapy. As a result, talk therapy has become more mainstream.

Why are more people tapping into the benefits of talk therapy? The main reason is that psychotherapy is effective. Research shows that it can be helpful in reducing depression, anxiety, eating disorder symptoms and help those struggling with addiction.

Another reason is that having a space to process and talk through the happenings of your life can be transformative. While many people often rely on their friends, family or significant others for support, there are disadvantages in doing so exclusively.

When working with a professional, you have the benefit of knowing that there are actual laws protecting your privacy. You are not just relying on the pinky promise method to assure confidentiality regarding the intimate details of your life.

Therapy can also provide a designated time to stop and reflect in a fast-paced world. It can help unravel some of what is keeping a person from being the best version of themselves and get unstuck.

Talking to a Therapist vs. Talking to a Friend

Friendships offer some of the best of parts of the adventure of life. However, there are some times when even the best of friends cannot replace the cathartic and therapeutic experience of regular meetings with a trained mental health practitioner.

Talking to a Therapist
  • You can be honest

  • You have the therapist's undivided attention

  • A therapist will not give advice

  • You have confidentiality

  • A therapist is qualified to address major issues

  • Therapists are objective

Talking to a Friend
  • You might not be able to be fully honest

  • Your friend might not be as attentive

  • Friends can give advice

  • Confidentiality is not guaranteed

  • Friends are not qualified to address mental health issues

  • Friends often have a biased perspective

You Can Be Honest

Most of us are doing some sort of managing of our image most of the time. It’s something many adults do instinctively. If you are talking to your best friend, you are still wanting them to think highly of you. Therefore, you are speaking while being mindful of not lowering their opinion of you.  

When talking to a loved one you may do some amount of editing of yourself. Shame or a desire to avoid shame may cause you to change or leave out some details.

With a professional, this is less likely to happen. You don’t feel the same worries about sharing your circumstances. You understand that they are viewing your issue with a clinical perspective.

You Are Truly Being Listened To

An uncomfortable truth is that often, when someone is listening to you, they are thinking about what they are going to say in response to what you've just said. Because a therapy session is totally and completely about you, it isn’t quite a two-way conversation.

A therapist or psychiatrist is actually trained to listen. They are not only listening to what you are saying, they are listening for what you are not saying. They are “listening” to your body language or what topics seem to make you tearful or anxious.

Not everyone gets the opportunity to be seen and heard on that level. Talk therapy provides this and many people deeply appreciate that aspect of it.

Your Therapist Is Not Invested in the Outcome

If you are talking to a loved one about a tough choice that you need to make, they may be consciously or subconsciously invested in the outcome. For example, if you are talking to your dearest friend about your thoughts of moving to the other side of the country, they will miss you if you go. That may influence their opinion of your move.

It’s not that your friend is trying to sabotage you. It’s just that they have an attachment to you that impacts their perspective.

A trained clinician doesn’t have the same forces weighing in on their discussion with you. Being neutral and objective is an important skill that comes with experience for a therapist.

What Therapy Is Not

Because talk therapy is loosely based on the basic principle of conversation, even those who have never done it tend to think they know what it must be like. For instance, some people assume it is another person telling you what to do or paying someone to listen to you complain. It isn't.

It Is Not Advice Giving

It is a popular misconception that a therapist gives you advice on what to do. Yes, if you are making catastrophic choices that put your well-being at risk, they may weigh in. They may also counsel you on certain lifestyle choices that are scientifically proven to be beneficial, such as making time for adequate sleep.

However, telling a person to leave their spouse or switch careers is not the job of a therapist. It is very difficult to really know what is right for another person. If years ago, Bill Gates asked his therapist if he should drop out of Harvard to work on an idea in his garage, that person might have advised him against it.

This situation is hypothetical but illustrates the complexity of a life journey. It is nearly impossible to know what is best for someone else and mental health professionals know that.

What a good therapist may do is practice Socratic questioning. Instead of telling you to leave your partner, they may ask you how this relationship makes you feel. Or if you would want your child or best friend to date someone just like this person. These questions are designed to make you reflect on your situation and help you conclude for yourself what is the wisest course of action.

It Is Not a Big Complaining Session

Therapy is not all about complaining endlessly. Yes, there are times when that is suitable depending on what is going on in your life. However, for the most part, psychotherapy is about being guided through the process of reflecting on your life and identifying obstacles to you becoming your best self.

It is also an honest discussion about what brought those obstacles into your life. You can then get support with making meaningful changes to the thought patterns or behaviors that are interfering with your happiness and success. Endless complaining will not result in those changes and will not be therapeutic.

It Is Not About Parent Blaming

Therapy is about finding out what destructive patterns are playing out in your life and reflecting on the possible source of those patterns. Often, the parenting a person received is a topic of psychotherapy because many of our deepest wounds occur in childhood.

So, in psychotherapy, a person’s formative years are considered through the lens of what we now know about child-rearing and the result of certain parenting styles. It may examine how aspects of your early relationships have shaped who you are in order to help you take more accountability for your choices in the present. This isn’t the same as parent blaming.

Many people with reverence for their parents avoid psychotherapy because they think that their parents will be dragged through the mud and disrespected in the process. This is far from true and based on misguided ideas about the process. 

Balancing Therapy and Friendships

Therapy cannot replace friendship. They are both meaningful and offer different, valuable contributions to anyone's life. Many individuals report that being in talk therapy makes them more generous in their friendships. They are not competing to be heard because they have that regular outlet with their therapist. They listen better.

Also, in friendships, people worry about being a burden. They hate the idea of bringing down their happily married friend with their dating woes. Although therapy often feels safe and familiar, it is a paid transaction. When you get your hair done, you generally don’t feel like an inconvenience to your stylist. Not feeling like a burden allows for more freedom in therapy sessions.

As good as therapy can be, there can be some benefits to hashing out a problem with a companion. First of all, sometimes you just really need a hug. Your chat with your friend can come with a good squeeze whereas mental health professionals generally don’t touch their patients.

Those that practice therapy avoid giving outright advice on an issue. There can be instances in which you want outright advice and guidance on an issue because you really feel stuck in your decision making.

However, if you are struggling with symptoms of diagnosable mental illness such as major depression or binge eating disorder, talking to a friend will likely not be sufficient.

Because certain conditions are associated with the risk of suicide or other serious health consequences, you should understand the limitations of a conversation with a buddy. Eating disorders, addictions, and suicidal thoughts generally require the input of a medical professional.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Therapy allows you to talk through the events of your life. It is an important outlet where you can have judgment-free discussions about matters of the heart. It’s another set of eyes and ears on your life journey and a way to receive affirmation and support.

For many, it is what they need to optimize their potential. If you are on the fence, consider making the leap to engage in psychotherapy, particularly because now, it’s easier than ever.

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