I remember first studying psychology back in the 70’s when there was a movement afoot (there were so many movements in those days, weren’t there?) called radical psychology or radical psychiatry, take your pick. One name I remember is that of Thomas Szasz, who wrote an article about mental hospitals in which he called them the “resort of last resort” for people who couldn’t afford a real vacation. He argued that “mental illness” was just a label that a secular society came up with to label behaviors it found vexing, troublesome, or inconvenient. I can’t categorically disagree with him.
Another idea was that a therapist is “just a well paid friend” who will listen to you and support you. That seemed like a valid criticism to me at the time, but as I learned more about how to be a therapist, the more I realized that there are a few key differences. For one thing, a therapist will tell you when you don’t really have a problem. An ethical therapist, in particular, is bound to tell you, “You’re not suffering rom the problem you came to me with, you can stop coming now.” The goal of therapy is for it to be over. The goal of friendship is for it to go on. Pretty huge difference. If you destroy a friendship, your friend can tell you to take a hike. If your therapy is going badly, your therapist has an ethical obligation to refer you to someone who can do better. Major differences, yes?
Another obligation a therapist has is to watch the big mouth. A friend of mine dropped his therapist when he got in an argument and the practitioner told him, “Congratulations, you’re just as big an asshole as your dad.” Wow. I wasn’t there, of course, and I side with my friend against the unknown therapist, of course– another difference between a friend and a therapist– taking sides. But let’s imagine for amoment that my friend was being exactly like his dad, and had previously told his therapist he thought his dad was an asshole. . What’s a therapist to do? Lots of possibilities, people, but not to call your client names. Just another thing friends can do to each other that therapists aren’t supposed to do. Well, we’re making wonderful progress on this isse, but that’s all the time we have for right now. copyright James Matter 2013