Dear Friends: I Love You, But Stop Offering To Be My Therapist

When my friends tell me that they want to help, I totally understand what they are saying, and I love them for offering, but I kind of wish they wouldn't.
Publish date:
September 20, 2013
mental illness, therapy, friendships, adventures in crazy brain

Like a lot of mentally ill people, I pay more money than I care to think about to talk to a stranger for an hour a week (well, when I'm making enough money I go to therapy, anyway). Some of us go to therapy more often (holla, Emily!) or less often (howsit, Marianne!), but the bottom line is, therapy is a thing that many of us find pretty helpful in the management of our mental health conditions.

Oh, and by the way? Our therapists aren't strangers. I mean, ethically speaking we can't give them presents, invite them over for dinner, or go out for drinks with them, but when you spend an hour a week sniveling on someone's couch, that person no longer qualifies for stranger status.

So, here's the thing: YMMV, as they say, but for me, therapy is awesome. I love my therapist, I love sorting things through in therapy, I love the fact that his office is the one place in the world where I can feel comfortable being myself, even when myself is not having the greatest of times. His office is the place where I drop the front.

It's not just that I snivel on his quite comfortable couch, but that I let out all these icky feelings and emotions and we work through them together. We talk about how sometimes these things come from our own minds and how my brain is like that mean girl in high school who knew exactly which cutting comment to make to send you fleeing to the bathroom in tears. And we talk about how some of those feelings are actually totally legitimate, and part of being an adult (sigh) and how we need to deal with them.

We talk about scripts for social interactions, and managing anxiety, things I want to say to people and how to say them. We talk about my past, about my present, about my future. We have a strong therapeutic relationship and he's very good at what he does.

Sometimes I emerge from his office totally energized, and sometimes totally drained with a lot of emotional work to do (gah, I hate saying things like “emotional work” because it makes me sound like a giant hippie, but you're gonna have to deal).

Therapy, if you haven't guessed, is important to me.

Which is why it bugs me when my friends offer to be my therapist.

I totally get it. They are speaking, usually, from a place of very good, loving intentions. They say they are available to talk any time, that they are always open, I should never hesitate to call. But here's the thing: They don't really mean that, because they don't understand what they'd be getting into. It's like volunteering for the electric chair because you think it's a funfair ride, not an instrument of death.

Crazy people are, you know, crazy. And we have a lot of stuff going on. Often, it's a lot more stuff, and it's way more complicated stuff, than your average non-crazy person has happening. Therapists get a lot of training in dealing with our stuff: in handling emotionally volatile people, in intervention, in dealing with mental health crises, in maintaining a safe distance. Average people do not.

I couldn't offer therapy to another person even though I've been in therapy for years because I don't have the training, though I might have the experience of benefiting from it. Someone who's never even been in therapy, and who has no real understandings of the complexities of mental illness, is even less equipped than I am to provide therapy.

It's one thing to chat about ordinary things, and even the tough emotional things that come up for everyone over the course of our lives. That's what friends are for, and having a friend as a sounding board or supportive person can be hugely beneficial.

It's another, however, to delve into the complexity of interacting with the feelings of someone who has a mental health condition, because some of us have a lot of trouble processing our feelings, dealing with them responsibly, and sorting the feelings created by our brains from the feelings in response to real-world things.

It's like, you enter a hallway with three doors and there's a GIANT SCORPION behind one of them, and you have no idea which door it is. That's what going into the depths of my mind and having deep emotional talks with me is like. Now, if you're a therapist, you have a ray gun, and you can be all “BAM!” and take that sucker out if you open the wrong door. But if you're not, you don't have that ability.

Instead, you're going to open the door, go “AGGGGGGHHHHH GIANT SCORPION!!!!!!” and either get eaten or run away.

Speaking in a non-metaphorical sense, when friends are exposed to the me who isn't carefully cultivated and in tight emotional control, it can be scary for them. Which is OK, and I totally don't begrudge that. Feelings are intense, scary, complicated things, and they can be even scarier when they are BIG and seem irrational.

Unfortunately, the common reaction to being exposed to something that is big and scary is, understandably, to run and hide. Which means that if I take a friend up on an offer to “talk anytime,” the response is often to recoil in horror, and a rift develops in the friendship, and my takeaway there is that I am a horrible scary person (all those feelings were right!) and that I should never talk to anyone again. And I especially shouldn't rely on friends for any kind of emotional support ever. Much better to be stoic no matter what the cost, not to open up even a little bit, because who knows, a tiny crack in the facade might be enough for the GIANT SCORPION to get through.

And this is why I like therapy. Because my therapist doesn't reject me when he encounters the GIANT SCORPION. He fights it, and more importantly, he helps me learn how to fight it. My friends don't have the capacity to do that because they don't have the training, and they don't have the emotional capacity. It's a huge burden to put on a friend, expecting someone to be able to handle something this big.

When my friends tell me that they want to help, I totally understand what they are saying, and I love them for offering, but I kind of wish they wouldn't. Because it puts an uncomfortable burden on me, too, to have people asking that I open up to them; I can't articulate that it's not safe for me or for them in a way that doesn't sound patronizing or rude. It becomes a situation where somehow the person who needs help is turned into the person who is being mean, where I am expected to support my friends while I'm also dealing with my own emotional issues.

Which isn't fair to me.

More frustrating still, more than one of my friends has commented that I “don't need to pay for therapy” when I have them around to talk to. It's yet another burden on me, shaming me for not opening up to my friends, but it's also reflective of social attitudes about mental health treatment.

At the same time that we are stigmatized for being crazy and told we need to, you know, stop, we're also told that none of the recognized methods for responsibly managing mental illness are OK. We can't take medication because that's weak. We can't go to therapy because it's ridiculous to pay some stranger to sit around and talk about feelings. We can't go to group counseling because that's just for losers. And so on down the line.

I really believe that people don't think about the implications of what they're saying and doing when they tell their mentally ill friends that they are “always around to talk,” and obviously, many mentally ill people benefit from hearing support from their friends.

Even though I will never take my friends up on these offers, I appreciate that they are made in the first place. What I don't appreciate is when it turns into pressure, or into therapy-shaming.

And I appreciate it even less when I attempt to draw boundaries and am rebuffed, especially when those boundaries protect not just me, but the people I love. While reaching out and making it clear that you're ready to listen is valuable, so is respecting people when they say they're in therapy and would prefer to keep some things in the shrink's office.