I came across a meme the other day that said, "Major shout out to the friends who stay up to talk you through things, answer immediately when it's serious, drop everything to help, and act as basically a therapist. You don't get enough credit, but you're important." I agree. Our natural supports are important for wellness.
As a therapist, though, I smiled to myself at the line, "and act as basically a therapist." This comparison between natural supports and therapists suggests a lack of understanding about what makes therapy different than a conversation with a friend. Actual therapy is very different than talking to the natural supports of friends and family in our lives.
I think of the difference this way: I know how to change the oil in my car. I know how to fill up the tires with air. I can change my car's battery if it's needed. I have a friend who knows how to change an alternator. I have the skills to do basic maintenance on my vehicle, and I have friends who can fix things beyond my ability to manage. If my vehicle experiences a more significant problem, however, I need a mechanic. My ability to manage the normal maintenance of my car is no substitute for the technical knowledge and skills of a trained and fully certified mechanic.
We all have a natural resilience that makes us capable of handling most situations that life throws at us. We also have natural supports in our lives like friends, family, community groups and church support that can help us navigate some more difficult situations. Therapists' technical knowledge and skills are specialized services that help us navigate life's more complicated problems that overwhelm our capacity to cope or that seem to persist beyond a reasonable amount of time.
When we have a bad day at work or an argument with a spouse, we can rely on friends to blow off steam. If the work environment is toxic or a person is a target of abuse, a therapist can help navigate how to establish effective boundaries, find safety and maintain self-worth. The loss of a loved one is painful. Friends and family can help us heal. If after months of trying to manage the grief, we still find ourselves mourning, isolating or not taking care of ourselves, therapists may be needed to help process what is happening. A person struggling with more severe mental health challenges like drug, alcohol or behavioral addictions; bipolar disorder; major depressive disorder; trauma; or schizophrenia require more professional knowledge than natural supports can provide. Therapists also work with the family and friends of people who struggle with these mental health challenges to help them understand and navigate supporting someone with mental illness or addiction.
The ideal is that people will be able to navigate life's bumps in the road without the help of a therapist. The ideal is that I would never have to take my car to a mechanic, too. While that is the ideal, the lever to set my emergency brake is broken, and I need a mechanic's help to fix it. The importance of friendships and family cannot be overstated. When we have strong, healthy, natural supports in our lives, we can navigate many of life's challenges. Sometimes along the road of life, though, we need the assistance of individuals who are highly trained with specific knowledge and a specialized skillset. That's what makes therapy different than just talking with friends.
James Smith, PhD, is a licensed professional counselor with SSM Health Medical Group Outpatient Behavioral Health. To make an appointment with Smith, call 573-681-3249.