Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Friend Becomes A Therapist: Oh My!

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 28, 2013


Julia and Rebecca, both fifty-nine, have been friends for fifty years. Ten years ago, Rebecca, after getting divorced decided to become a psychotherapist.  Now, Rebecca has a private practice, but she has noticed that her relationship with Julia suddenly took a strange turn. “You are not trying to analyze me,” Julia will say to Rebecca, with hostility and fear. Rebecca, disarmed by the comment, and scared, in turn, about the hostile feelings being transmitted, “You have known me so long, do I sound any different than I did before I became a therapist?” Rebecca asks, trying to deflate the intensity of the moment. Julia does not answer. Rebecca comes to me for help, trying to understand how her new professional identity is impacting her relationships in general, and with Julia, in particular. “I think some people forget what I do for a living, whereas other people get very anxious, as if I can read their mind, and others still, seem to hope that I will say something brilliant, even though I am tired and trying to relax. ” Rebecca says, reminding me how surprised she feels that a change in her career has this unintended consequence. “I wonder if those of your friends and family feel like you can glimpse at their unconscious, then maybe that scares them.” I say, highlighting the issue that the unconscious can rise and fall in awareness, and that Rebecca’s presence might remind them of this undulating experience. “Yes, but what am I to do?” Rebecca asks impatiently. “Maybe you need to make sure there is mutuality in the relationship so that the asymmetry of a a therapeutic relationship is not replicated in your personal relationships.” I say, knowing personally, how hard this is, and thinking about my own experiences in this regard. “Yes, but I want to listen and yes, I also want to be listened to,” but when I do listen, I feel like I am making Julia, in particular, uncomfortable.” Rebecca says with frustration and sadness. “Like any other bump in a relationship, it seems like you need to put it on the table.” I say, suggesting that an open dialogue could ease the flow. “I wish I had thought about this before jumping into this career.” Rebecca says, perhaps suggesting a major regret, but I am not sure. Here, Rebecca is a therapist, a patient, and a friend. As such, she is struggling to become comfortable or fluid within all of these relationships. This fluidity will help her balance her life in such a way that she is more comfortable in her skin. Maybe her unconscious desire to become a therapist was a search for meaning in all of her connections and so now she is despairing to think that her career path might, in fact,  scare  her loved ones.  This discussion will be for another time.



2 Responses to “The Friend Becomes A Therapist: Oh My!”

  1. Ashana M said

    When I was a librarian, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking me where something was. If I was in the drugstore, they wanted to know where the shampoo was or the athlete’s foot powder. Now that I am a teacher, I find myself teaching long division on the bus. (Precisely this scenario has happened twice, in fact, which isn’t so often except I am guessing that no one under 12 has ever asked you to show them how to divide–anywhere). Our professions seem to change how we behave even when we aren’t intentionally practising our professions. They seem to remain our identities all the time, and we behave accordingly in a way that even strangers can see. The public perception of an analyst is sometimes that they are judgmental and critical, rather than supportive, and that they can in fact read the minds of other people–you need to destroy the ego in order to rebuild it, in a sense–and that may be what Rebecca’s up against. But the other problem would be if Rebecca also believes it, because then she’ll end up playing that part out.

    • Thanks, Ashana. You bring up some interesting points such as how the therapist is unconsciously listening in a different way, Rebecca in this example, and as such, people may respond to her in ways that are different than before Rebecca became a therapist. You also remind me of the negative view of therapists as judgmental and critical, which of course, is disturbing to hear, but I take your point. I would rather our profession be thought of as folks who like to take an in-depth point of view, without being judgmental or critical, but rather, being honest about the landscape.

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