Dear New Shrink,
My husband thinks that I need to see a therapist. He says it is a new year already and I have had the same problem for the past three, and every year say I am going to take care of it, but I haven’t. It’s pretty personal so I would prefer to open up to some close friends, but I am wondering if that is the best choice. He really thinks I should see a professional who doesn’t know me. Why couldn’t my friends help?
Friends are very important and are critical in terms of social support, but they cannot replace a professional. I don’t know what the problem is so I can’t say for sure what you should do, but there are some things you should know.
There are three things that are guaranteed with your psychotherapist that cannot be promised with a friend. The first is confidentiality; this is your legal and ethical right with a licensed psychotherapist. Friends sometimes gossip.
The second is the education and experience of the therapist; this brings a knowledge base that most friends will not have. A minimum education for a master’s level therapist is six years of university and 3,000 hours of supervised experience before they can take their boards to practice on their own.
Psychologists with a doctor of psychology have at least seven years of education and the same number of supervised clinical hours before taking the boards. Ph.D. psychologists often have 10 to 11 years of university and again, the same number of hours before being able to take boards. Psychiatrists have gone to medical school before doing a residency in psychiatry, which is another three years.
Your friends know you as they see you through their own eyes and have life experience, but even well educated friends who are not studied in this field really do not have the same objectivity and ability to spot problems the way that a therapist can.
Another reason to have a therapist over a friend, and this is really important, is that your therapist will not have an agenda for you, friends do. An example would be that a therapist does not care if you marry someone, get a divorce, change jobs, or move; they are only interested in what leads to your happiness. Friends and family often want you to do something that (subconsciously) benefits them but may not be best for you.
So if you have emotional or relationship problems, or perhaps just some important decisions that you are finding difficult to make, a therapist can provide you with confidential, educated help that is not biased because their only desire is to help you make your best choices and to be happy and healthy. This simply is not something that you can expect from a friend. Even the best of friends are unlikely to have all of these ingredients, so to speak.
The short answer is something only you really know, but here are some guidelines for when deciding to see a therapist:
• Is there something you have wanted and tried to change for awhile now but to no avail? This might be anything from dieting, quitting smoking or another bad habit, dealing with a relationship problem or deciding about making changes in your career.
• Are you depressed a fair amount of the time and either do not know why or you think you do know why but it doesn’t change anything?
• Have your loved ones or friends been concerned about you or perhaps been angry and upset with you for things you have said or done, or for something that you do not truly understand?
• Do you feel frightened or anxious more days than not and either do not know why or cannot seem to change it, even if you know the reason?
A good therapist will have the right questions that will guide your discussions in a way that you will begin to find your own answers.
Therapy is not always easy, but it does lead to relief and feeling better about yourself and your life, if it’s done well and you and your therapist both work together.
I say make 2013 a good year, a year you finally take on that problem and work your way toward freedom from it. Find a therapist, pick carefully and give it a chance: I recommend at least six sessions. If you don’t feel like it’s going anywhere, change therapists or try something else. I do not mean that all will be done in six sessions, it will just give you a sense of whether you can work with this therapist and if the discussions make sense to you. If you feel like you are on the right tract, stick with it.
Good luck and happy new year!
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood, Calif. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or e-mail anonymous questions and replies to firstname.lastname@example.org Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters, because it does!