NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Why Your Psychotherapist Can't Be Your Friend

Many clients who are new to psychotherapy don't understand why they can't have a personal relationship with their psychotherapist.  To clarify this issue, my goal in this article is to address why psychotherapists can't be friends with their clients.

See my articles: 

Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference). 

Your Therapist Can't Be Your Friend

Psychotherapists have a code of ethics that they must follow.  One of the items in the code of ethics is that therapists and clients can't become friends outside of the therapy sessions.  The purpose of this stipulation is to protect the client from boundary violations and to protect the therapeutic work that the therapist and client are engaged in.

While it's understandable that clients might have a desire to become friends with their therapist, it's up to the therapist to explore this desire, try to understand how it's connected to the client's problems and history, help the client work through this issue, and maintain a professional boundary.

There are times when psychotherapists get caught up in enactments with their clients.  Enactments are usually unconscious on the part of the client and the therapist and often related to prior personal history that gets played out in the therapy.

Mutual enactments are common and exploration and resolution of these enactments can deepen and enhance the work.

The following fictional vignette is about a case where these issues come up in therapy:

Fictional Vignette: Why Your Psychotherapist Can't Be Your Friend and Understanding Mutual Enactments in Therapy

Jane moved to New York City to start a new job after she completed graduate school.  Although she loved her new job and New York, she felt very lonely on weekends because she didn't know anyone other than her coworkers and they were all married and led busy lives.

She tried various social groups and participated in local events, but she had no luck in forming friendships among the people that she met.  This reinforced a longstanding feeling that she had about herself that she wasn't lovable or good enough for people to want to care about her.

After several months of feeling increasingly lonely, Jane began therapy at a psychotherapy center where they offered sliding scale fees.

After her intake, Jane was assigned to a new woman therapist who was part of the center's training institute, and Jane began attending therapy twice a week.

Jane liked her therapist, Susan, from their first session, which was unusual for Jane.  Usually, she felt shy and awkward when she met someone new, but Susan had a way of helping Jane to be at ease.

Jane looked forward to her therapy sessions on Mondays and Wednesdays.  She liked talking to Susan and felt better afterwards.  But between sessions, Jane still felt lonely.

A few months later, a friend from graduate school, Dee, moved to New York and reconnected with Jane.

Jane and Dee were friends in graduate school and they usually enjoyed each other's company, but now whenever they got together, Jane found her mind wandering back to Susan.  She noticed that she was comparing Dee to Susan and Dee would always fall short.

As time went on and Jane continued to compare Dee unfavorably to Susan in her mind, she spoke to Susan about it in one of their therapy sessions.

Susan was already aware from the way Jane complimented her and how much Jane said she enjoyed their sessions that Jane was idealizing her.  So, she wasn't surprised when Jane told her that she was comparing Dee unfavorably to Susan.

Jane told Susan that she would really like it if they could be friends outside the therapy sessions.  She told Susan that, after all, they were close in age and she suspected that they probably had a lot in common.

Susan listened attentively and then normalized Jane's wish.  She told her that many clients feel this way about their therapists and this was part of an idealizing transference.  She also explained why it was important that they maintain their therapeutic relationship, as opposed to a personal relationship, in order not to cross boundaries and sacrifice their work together. 
On some level, Jane knew that she and Susan couldn't be friends, but she felt hurt and rejected when she heard Susan tell her this.  She told Susan that she didn't think their therapeutic work would be compromised in any way and, in fact, she thought the work might be enhanced if they became friends.

As Jane and Susan continued to explore these issues, Susan talked to her training supervisor about this issue.  Susan was clear that she wasn't going to violate an ethical boundary, but she felt herself defensively pulling away emotionally from Jane, and she was afraid that this would ruin their work together.

Susan and her training supervisor talked about how Susan could remain balanced in her approach with Jane--neither too friendly nor too distant--to maintain a therapeutic rapport with Jane.

During this time, Jane missed a therapy session.  She was aware that the psychotherapy center's policy was to give at least 48 hours notice (unless there was an emergency) and that she would be responsible for the fee if she gave less than 48 hours notice.  But she left a message for Susan an hour before their appointed session time saying that she wasn't feeling up to going to their session that day.

When Jane returned to her next session, Susan asked Jane about the missed session, and Jane responded that she just didn't feel like coming to therapy that day.  She offered no other explanation.

When Susan reminded her about the center's policy about broken appointments, Jane told her that she didn't feel she should be charged for the appointment because she had come to all her other appointments and this was the first appointment that she missed.

Susan sensed that something had gone awry between Jane and her and that it was probably related to their talk about why she and Jane couldn't be friends.

But when she tried to explore this with Jane, Jane said that her missed session had nothing to do with their discussion and she would rather that they "move on" and talk about more important things than continue to talk about her missed session.

Susan knew that Jane's idealizing transference wouldn't last forever and that an idealizing transference often changes to a negative transference since no therapist could live up to the idealization and remain on a pedestal indefinitely.  But she was surprised that this change happened so quickly.

Susan was also concerned that if there was a negative transference that it would interfere with the work, which she wanted to avoid.

As a new therapist and without the benefit of being able to speak with her supervisor beforehand, Susan told Jane that she would overlook the broken appointment fee this time, but if Jane had another broken appointment, she would have to pay the fee.

When Jane left another message the following week indicating that she wasn't coming to their appointment on the same day as the appointment, Susan spoke with her supervisor about it.

During their supervisory session, Susan and her supervisor talked about "enactments" between clients and therapists.  She explained to Susan that, like many therapists, Susan got caught up in an enactment with Jane when she agreed not to charge her for the missed appointment despite the fact that Jane was well aware of the center's policy and had signed an agreement about broken appointments.

Susan's supervisor told Susan that it appeared that Jane wanted to feel "special" in Susan's eyes and if she couldn't be friends with Susan, she might have unconsciously created this situation where she could feel that she was a special client to Susan where Susan would break the rules for her.

The supervisor encouraged Susan to address and explore this issue with Jane and to explain Susan's role in getting caught up in this enactment.  She also told Susan that, based on the center's policy, Susan would have to collect the fees from Jane.

Jane felt embarrassed about her role in the enactment, but she also understood that she was a new therapist, she was still learning, and that even experienced psychotherapists unconsciously get caught up in mutual enactments with therapy clients.

When Jane returned for her next session, she didn't offer a reason for the last cancellation, so Susan brought up the issue and suggested they talk about it.

Initially, Jane was defensive and told Susan that she didn't want to waste her time talking about this when she had other more important things to talk about it, "And, anyway, isn't it my session to talk about anything that I want to talk about?"

Susan explained why they needed to talk about the cancellations and the unpaid fees.  She started by acknowledging that, as a new therapist who wanted their work to go smoothly, she made a mistake allowing Jane to break the rules.

When Jane heard Susan admit to making a mistake, she softened somewhat.  She still liked Susan and she was concerned that she might have gotten Susan "in trouble" with the center (see my article: Ruptures and Repairs in Psychotherapy).

Susan explained that she wasn't in trouble with the center, but she needed to address the mutual enactment that occurred between them so they could understand the meaning of it.

Reluctantly, Jane admitted that she felt hurt and angry when Susan told her that they couldn't be friends, even though Jane was already aware of the rules.  She also admitted that she could have come in for her therapy sessions, but she was annoyed and decided to skip those sessions.

This discussion led to Jane talking about how she always wanted to feel special with her mother, but she was aware that her younger sister was her mother's favorite, which left Jane feeling that she wasn't good enough or lovable enough to be her mother's favorite.

This lead to their talking about why Jane wanted to feel special to Susan.

Although, as a new therapist, Susan initially feared that what started as a negative transference would lead to the demise of the therapy, she now saw that discussing it was key to getting Jane to open up and get to more core issues.

Jane agreed to pay for the missed sessions, and they continued to work on the core issues of her feelings of being unlovable and not good enough (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

The therapeutic relationship is a unique relationship unlike any other because it's focused on you.

It's common for clients to wish to have a personal relationship with their therapist--either a romantic/sexual relationship or a friendship.

It's the therapist's job to recognize these transferential issues, address them in therapy, and maintain a professional boundary.

It's not unusual for clients' transferential experience to change from an idealized transference to a negative transference, especially since no therapist remains on a pedestal indefinitely.

Addressing transference issues and mutual enactments, if handled well by the therapist, can enhance the therapy by helping the client to address the core underlying issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're feeling stuck in your life, you could benefit from working with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to overcome your problems (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

There are also times when you and your therapist can get stuck in mutual enactments, including boundary violations, when you could benefit from a consultation with another therapist.

Rather than struggling on your own, you could work through your problems with an experienced therapist who has the skills and knowledge to help you overcome your obstacles (see my article: Choosing a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist with over 20 years of experience who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.