Everyone does it - we have a problem so we talk it out with a friend. But when does this become unhealthy? A healthy friendship is give and take in equal measure, and if you are taking more than you are giving, the relationship is almost certain to become unhealthy.
'Emotional Labour' has been a bit of a buzzword recently, but what does it actually mean? Emotional labour was a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in 1983 to describe those moments when you have to "induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others."
In other words, emotional labour is that feeling when you are angry or upset or hurt, but you can't show it because you work in a job that requires you to be a smiling face to the customer - i.e. in retail or the food service industry.
Perhaps the same might apply to a friend who is treated like a therapist. Let's say that your friend is constantly sharing their problems with you - to the point where you don't want to share you own problems with them because it is made clear that they can't support the weight of your problems as well as their own. You would start to suppress your own needs in favour of theirs.
This is where therapy is different from talking to a friend.
What is different about Therapy?
The media portrays only a small portion of what therapy actually is - conversation. And therefore many people question why you would want to pay someone for therapy when you can just as easily talk to a friend for free. It may be financially free to talk to a friend, but you could risk the friendship itself.
So, what is different about going to therapy?
1. Conversation is only the surface layer of therapy
Conversation is only one small part of what therapy is. Therapy goes much deeper than conversation. Therapy is about exploring previously unexplored areas, thoughts, and perspectives.
It is about learning how to manage your emotions in a healthy way, about challenging negative beliefs that impact your life, it is about exploring both healthy and toxic relationships, understanding how your past impacts upon your present, and how to be more authentically you.
Therapy is also about recognising the symptoms of mental ill health, about learning how to deal with the symptoms of mental illness, and preventing the development of mental illnesses.
2. Challenge with no real danger
Therapists are meant to challenge the way that you think - they won't always agree with you. Therapy is not about someone sitting opposite you and silently listening and nodding along. It is a conversation, and sometimes a difficult one.
A trained therapist will have the skills to improve your mental health without risking any real damage to the relationship - it's what you are paying them to do. However, some friendships will not stand up to the challenges that are sometimes required. Often a friend will agree with what we are saying, in order to preserve the relationship, even if it means missing an opportunity for growth.
Although friends try not to judge, it can be difficult sometimes. Our friends often have a personal stake in what we decide to do, and whether they mean to or not, they may unduly influence our decisions when we confide in them.
Sometimes we can feel a level of concern about opening up to a friend because of a fear that they will criticise us or think differently of us.
Many clients feel more able to be open and honest with a therapist because there is no fear of being judged or criticised. A therapist will not chastise you, they will simply listen and explore alternative points of view or options.
A therapist has no emotional stake in the client's life - yes, a therapist wants the best for their client, but they have no involvement in the client's life outside of the therapy room. The therapist only knows what the clients allows them to know and can only see what the client wants them to see.
What does this all mean?
It is perfectly fine for you to talk to your friends over a coffee or a glass of wine about a colleague who brings smelly food to work or a partner who works too many hours. It is perfectly alright for your friend to come to you with their problems and vice versa. I;m not saying that friends cannot rely on each other - in fact I'm fully in support of that.
What I am saying is that when the friendship starts to become one-sided, it may be time to start thinking about seeking out a therapist.
As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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