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why your friend can't replace your therapist, iStock illustration

Why You Should Talk to a Therapist (Instead of Your Friends)

A local mom’s story about the benefits of professional help—something she learned the hard way.

It was the day I dreamt of for as long as I could remember: my wedding day (my first, to clarify, if you happen to know me personally). Except it was nothing like my dream. In place of joy and happiness, I was filled with anxiety, worry and what ifs.  

But it was too late, at least in my mind. I had to go through with this. Things would get better, I told myself. After all, that was everyone’s consensus. Friends and family were full of supportive quips like “It’s just nerves,” or “Things will settle down after the wedding.”  So, I ignored all the warning signs, said “I do”—and 18 months later, I was divorced. And while the marriage was relatively short, the collateral damage lasted much longer. Deeply hurt feelings. Severed friendships. Broken confidences that morphed into false information.

“I’d shared my concerns with my closest friends and listened to the advice of the people who knew me best. Where did I go wrong?”

I was angry (at myself) and ashamed, and I wondered how I could ever trust myself to make big life decisions again. I’d shared my concerns with my closest friends and listened to the advice of the people who knew me best. Where did I go wrong?

Kelly Wooley family photo, photo courtesy of Kelly Wooley
Pictured: Kelly Wooley with her second husband, Shawn, and their daughter, Avery; photo courtesy of Kelly Wooley

That question is much easier to answer in hindsight. For one thing, I hadn’t shared the truly hard stuff, the multiple lies and deception. And what I did share wasn’t addressed to the right person. The people I talked to loved and cared for both me and my former husband. They  wanted it to work, regardless of the facts. Plus, being the people pleaser that I am, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by not taking the advice.  

I finally decided I needed professional help. Therapy gave me the unbiased guidance and perspective I needed in such an emotional and traumatic situation.

Professional Therapists Offer What Friends Don’t

Of course, I’m not alone in the way I first tried to deal with hardship. Denise Jenkins, a psychotherapist at Rabjohn Behavioral Institute in Mansfield, says many people who come to see her get there the hard way—by trying to work through serious issues with well-meaning but off-the-mark help from loved ones.

Denise Jenkins, Rabjohn Behavioral Institute, photo courtesy of Diana Raines Photography
Denise Jenkins, LCSW, photo courtesy of Diana Raines Photography

“Friends and family may unknowingly give you biased advice,” Jenkins says. “Feelings can get hurt if you don’t take their advice, and friends also have limits as to how much of someone else’s drama they can handle. At some point, your friend may become overwhelmed and naturally back away from the friendship, which can feel hurtful to you.”  

And, like me, you can become the subject of gossip. “As a licensed therapist, I’m legally and ethically obligated to keep anything you tell me confidential,” explains Jenkins. “When you talk to a friend about something, they may innocently share information with others that you didn’t want shared.”  

When I visited my own therapist, I felt able to air all the dirty laundry I’d been hiding, a lot of it for several years at this point. The shameful moments no self-respecting woman would tolerate. Discoveries I’d made after the invitations I sent out. All the stuff I hadn’t felt comfortable sharing with my friends and family.

All this doesn’t mean you should shut out your inner circle. “It’s just important to know when your own personal support system may be unqualified for what you’re going through.” 

Verbalizing the things I’d never told anyone was both awful and freeing at the same time. We worked on my self-confidence and coping mechanisms for the stressful situations I knew would come with filing for divorce. My therapist wasn’t there to be my friend but to help me come to my own conclusions through certain exercises, pointed questions or specific types of therapies. She gave me homework between sessions and kept me accountable for the goals we defined in our first session. Getting therapy was, no exaggeration, life changing. 

Some people can work through an issue quickly. Others stick with therapy for the long-term, either because the issue warrants it or because they just like to share their innermost thoughts and concerns without judgment.  

Still, “many of life’s curveballs can be handled without therapy,” Jenkins adds. “But when emotions become overwhelming, your daily functioning is significantly impacted, it feels impossible to get out of bed, you stop taking care of yourself, or are drinking or doing drugs to cope with the pain, it’s time to seek professional help.”   

All this doesn’t mean you should shut out your inner circle. On the contrary, “friends and family can be incredibly helpful,” Jenkins says. “It’s just important to know when your own personal support system may be unqualified for what you’re going through.”  

RELATED: Does Your Kid Need Therapy? How to Recognize Their Emotional Well-Being


How to Find a Good Therapist 

First things first: If you are a danger to yourself or others, or are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911. Otherwise, here are tips for finding a therapist. 

Keep in mind: Online bios can give you a sense of the “fit”—but if you’re not a match with the first therapist you visit, don’t give up. Just like you may have interviewed multiple pediatricians for your little one, it could take a couple of tries to find your own best match.

  • Explore DFWChild’s Mom-Approved providers. Each year, we survey local moms about health care professionals, including counselors and therapists, they recommend. Visit dfwchild.com/doctors for providers and client comments. 
  • Check with your doctor. Your primary physician or your OB-GYN likely has some recommendations. 
  • Ask around. If you need more therapists to consider, this is one way friends and family can help, if you feel comfortable asking. Belong to a mom group on Facebook? That’s another source. (Believe us, you won’t be the only one who has looked into therapy.) 

Illustration: iStock