Do you have counselling skills you use on your friends?


As we are becoming more and more emotionally literate, it is only natural that we would want to use our new-found intelligent skills on the people close to us: our family and friends.  However, some people confuse matters and start to feel that their ‘free’ therapeutic counselling skills are part and parcel of their role as friend, or even might feel under-rewarded in the friendship for having exerted and given that much more over the long run. 

A friend is not a therapist and a therapist is not a friend; but the two roles might be embodied within the same person.  The two roles, in fact, do have contradictory qualities which could lead to friction, confusion and tension within the friendship.  But there are ways to subtly change and blend the two roles to avoid this: setting boundaries is also very important. 

One danger sign of it affecting your relationship is one friend feeling a greater tilt of power, or level of giving, towards one friend rather than it being balanced between the two friends.  A friendship is best when it takes the form of give and take in balanced measures over the long term. 

Read on to discover more about how to build counselling into your friendship without harming it.

Should you play shrink to your friends?

Psychologies | self
July 2011
Hannah Borno

We all like to feel needed, but what happens to a friendship when one person is constantly supporting the other?  What lies behind our compulsion to counsel, and how can you change your role?


Sympathy or therapy?

In today’s emotionally literate culture, the cosy moan over a cup of tea and biscuits can easily morph into a deeper arrangement.  It’s those who have a little bit of extra insight, either from having been in therapy themselves, or having read about these issues, who are more likely to take their sympathy to the next level.

However, dabbling as a part-time therapist has its occupational hazards: a therapist isn’t a friend – it’s something else.  The therapist tries first of all to understand the client’s world view, and then, at a certain point in the process, will begin to challenge that and their behaviour.

It’s this second phase of therapy, the ‘challenging’, that could prove problematic.  ‘What defines a friendship more than anything is loyalty,’ says Dorothy Rowe, author of Friends & Enemies (HarperCollins).  ‘And if you start challenging your friend as a therapist might, your friend might think, “I thought you were on my side and you’re not.”  Indeed, attempting to give your friend therapy might be a good way to ruin a friendship.’

While Rowe advises against it, Virginia Mallin a psychotherapist ( believes a legitimate case can be made for challenging the behaviour of our friends.  ‘We can say something such as, “Hang on – you’re crying again.  It’s awful, but you’ve been here before.  Why do you think you keep ending up like this?”  If this is done in a loving, empathetic way, it can be very effective,’ she says.

There is no guarantee of success, however.  ‘It’s impossible to change people unless the person has already decided to change,’ says Rowe.  ‘If they’re not ready, then talking about themselves becomes a kind of hobby, which makes them feel better.’  Both parties can find themselves locked in what Rowe calls ‘a continuing soap opera’, without reaching any kind of resolution.

Feel-good counselling

Giving our friends ‘free’ therapy fulfils very different needs in us.  We might be the martyr-like, exploited ‘giver’ who puts in the time to assuage our guilt.  ‘Responding to a plea for help brings out our nurturing, giving and rescuing self and makes us feel good,’ says Mallin.

Another ‘therapist personality’ is the bossy ‘fixer’, such as Rosalyn, who enjoys bringing clarity to a messy situation.  But if we examine ourselves closely, we may discover a less attractive type – the ‘superior’ friend who uses this dynamic to feel powerful.  ‘This happens when we are always measuring ourselves against the other person and building up our personal pride,’ says Rowe.  In the worst- case scenario, the ‘powerful’ friend can feel hurt when the weaker one finally sorts out her problems and moves on.

Warning signs

In a healthy friendship, the therapist role is one we should play only occasionally.  ‘The aim of a therapist is that the person changes and stops coming to see you,’ says  Rowe.  ‘If you have a friend who keeps coming to you to talk about her problems, you need to ask yourself, “Is this the kind of relationship I want?” because she is using you, and that’s not a friendship.’

So, feeling angry or irritated because we feel exploited is an excellent warning sign.  ‘When we don’t get anything back, we may feel anger for feeling used,’ says Mallin.  ‘But we need to think, “Have I put myself in that position so that I’m always the powerful one, or the one who gives so I feel better about myself?”

Yet when we do get the balance right, counselling our friends can greatly enrich our life.  ‘When you know that your support and your advice have helped a friend through a bad time, it can feel deeply gratifying,’ says Jen.  ‘And I hope one day they’ll be there fore me.’


Virginia Mallin, psychotherapist (
Dorothy Rowe, author of Friends & Enemies (HarperCollins)


How to counsel without ruining your friendship

  1. Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  2. Rather than analysing your friend’s behaviour outright, share your own experiences and draw parallels.
  3. Ask them questions such as: ‘What do you really feel inside?’, ‘How do you think you could move forward?’ and ‘What is your real instinct?’.  This will help your friend see the merit of their own counsel.
  4. Set a generous time limit, but stick to it.  Ensure that you speak to your friend when it’s convenient for you, so if she rings you up and you’d rather not talk, set another time.  Then, when you do speak to her, tell her you’ll have to go after 45 minutes.
  5. If you feel you’re stuck in a rut of endless analysis, suggest a different activity to change focus.  Stop meeting for coffee and go to the cinema instead.
  6. Learn  to tolerate other people’s difficult feelings.  It’s hard, but if someone is crying or in deep emotional pain, try not to jolly them out of it and cheer them up.  Instead, stay beside them, allowing them to feel what they are feeling without judging them.
  7. Feeling resentful or angry is a sign that the friendship is out of balance, so make sure that, over time, you are getting back as much as you put in.



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