Health: Is your therapist a friend?

A good counsellor offers many of the qualities you might look for in a friendship. By Paul Gordon

One of the comments that most annoys psychotherapists and counsellors is that therapy is "just like talking to a friend". It's annoying because it's saying that, really, there is nothing special to what we as therapists do - anyone can do it - and there's the implication, too, that really it's all a bit self-indulgent. I have taken issue with such remarks more times than I care to remember.

And yet, I have come to think that there may be more to such remarks than insult or ignorance. Therapy is, I believe, much more akin to a form of friendship than it is to anything else. What is being expressed when people compare therapy and friendship is a belief in what friends should be able to do, what friendship might consist of - and a complaint of what it too often does not. Think of the elements of a good friend. He is someone who has our interests at heart, who has a sense of our history and who respects us. She does not suspend criticism, but is nevertheless tactful. He is someone who can stand back from what we are describing, who can talk honestly and openly to us, who has time for us, who is attentive and thoughtful and appreciative and can keep his own feelings out of, say, any predicament that we might be describing. These are, to be sure, ideal qualities. Anyone who has them is lucky indeed; their friends are luckier still. But they are, I suspect, what we long for, in ourselves as in others. Are they not also the qualities, or some of them, of a good therapist? I believe they are.

"A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud," said the philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. And this, precisely, is what therapy is about, an opportunity to voice your thoughts, however abhorrent, unacceptable, unformed, confused or painful you might think them, without fear of judgement or retribution. You voice them in the hope that you will be understood, and so come to a deeper self-understanding.

To say that therapy is a form of friendship is not to suggest that therapists invite their patients or clients to the cinema, to come for a meal, to ring up and discuss a television programme, to give us presents on our birthdays, and so on. The word to be emphasised here is "form". Not all friendships are the same. There is the friendship of lovers, of family, of colleagues, and of many different degrees, of the people we call friends. Each has its own boundaries and conventions, its own sense of what is appropriate.

The negotiation of these regulations and conventions in a friendship is, of course, a struggle and a challenge for both parties, and it is to do with whether a person wants, or can even tolerate, the degree of closeness and intimacy desired and offered. So, too, must you deal with the disappointments and differences inevitable when two people try to meet each other.

There is, of course, a major difference between most forms of friendship and therapy. A social friendship that does not involve a degree of reciprocity, at least over time, is unsustainable. A lack of reciprocity is, I suspect, why so many friendships founder on a reef of resentment of one kind or another. Therapy, on the other hand, is not reciprocal. As a therapist, I am there for the other person and responsible to them; they are not there for me. But this does not make the relationship any less a friendship, and it does not preclude a reciprocity if this seems appropriate, in the sense of a sharing of your experience or thought.

The fact that one often pays for therapy is a sign that the relationship has its limits, a statement that it is ultimately a professional reltionship. And yet, all the qualities of a good friendship - a welcome, an acceptance, an attunement, an attentiveness, a suspension of self-interest, a questioning, a criticism, a distance that does not yet pretend to objectivity, a faith in the other, a commitment to truthfulness, and above all perhaps a responsibility to the other - these surely are the qualities also of an ethical therapy.

In the end, however, these can no more be a guide than there could be a guide to friendship. The content and the form of a particular therapeutic relationship - just as the content and form that cannot be prescribed in advance but must, it they are to be meaningful, be negotiated by the people involved. In the end, whatever the style or orientation of the particular therapist, therapy is a relationship, or at least the offer of one.

Paul Gordon is a psychotherapist and author of `Face to Face - Therapy as Ethics', published by Constable, price pounds 15.99

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam