Can't I just talk to a friend instead of a counselor?

Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, MFT
Marriage & Family Therapy

A counselor (or therapist) can do many things that a friend can’t do.  First and foremost, therapy is completely confidential – so you can speak freely, without fear that your story will be gossiped about. Many people get a lot out of the privacy that a therapeutic relationship is bound by.  If you have very strong feelings about something, such as fear, anger or shame or embarrassment, you can talk about them freely and openly.

A counselor is also trained to see your patterns, both good ones and ones that may not be working very well. These patterns can be pointed out to you, and then together with the counselor bring out more of the good learn to avoid the not so good. For example, many people keep choosing the same type of partner over and over and need to learn to make better choices both in their own behaviors and in their mates. 

Friends may not be totally honest with you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.  A counselor does not want to hurt your feelings either, but knows how to be straightforward and direct, and knows how to say things in ways that won’t be so painful. If the feedback is painful, the process of treatment can also be used to help you feel safe.

Some people seek counseling for advice.  A friend may or may not be helpful with this.  A counselor will help you figure things out for yourself. He or she can help you look deep inside to find your own answers which works much better long term than another person telling you what to do.

Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine

Friends can be a great support in times of need. But friends cannot do what counselors do. Counselors are skilled at helping people change the way they think, act, and feel. Friends don't have this training, so they can miss important aspects of what you tell them. 

Friends can offer practical advice, but they often do not know how to help you get to the core of your problem. Also, friends are not objective in helping you with your problems. In addition: 

  • You can't always tell a friend everything you can tell a counselor. 
  • Your friend may have trouble dealing with your problem. He or she may share your problem with others to get advice. Your counselor is bound by law to keep your problems private. 
  • A counselor is trained to help you get at your true feelings and to help you cope with your feelings. Friends often just support how we feel. 
  • Your problem may come from ties with family or friends. 

You can do both - for different goals. A licensed mental health practitioner is trained to not only help you manage symptoms that are causing you distress but also apply techniques that you can benefit from in the long term. But most importantly, the therapeutic space is a structured space - governed by an empathic but also objective clinician - while friends are stakeholders in your life, and will often give "advice" that draws upon their experience and what they want for you and for them. Friends can offer comfort, laughter, a shoulder to cry on and things that a mental health counselor cannot, however it can often be bad for your health to let significant distress go without consulting a professional.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.