Finding a great therapist is similar to finding a great physician or hairstylist. If you mention to a friend or family member that you’ve been searching for one, you might get an enthusiastic, “Oh, you should try mine!” But you might be wondering: Should you actually enlist the same therapist as someone close to you? It might feel instantly weird, intriguing ― or both.
This is a complicated, yet very common issue in many therapy practices, according to Chamin Ajjan, a therapist based in Brooklyn, New York.
“Referrals from current or past clients account for about 25 percent of my caseload,” she said. “In many cases, they are the best referral source for us, because the person you are treating is speaking highly of your skill and credibility just by disclosing they are in treatment with you and referring their friend to you.”
Examining The Perks And Pitfalls
There are both positives and negatives to sharing, according to experts. While some people are wary, others would rather be referred to the therapist of a close friend or family member.
“There is a sense of comfort knowing that the therapist has been helpful and supportive to your friend, and that feeling of familiarity can help sharing personal information feel less awkward,” Ajjan said. “Searching for a therapist that is a good fit can also be time-consuming, and a referral can streamline the process.”
However, you might also feel some reasonable hesitation to call on your friend’s therapist, especially if you two are tight, said Karla Ivankovich, a clinical counselor based in Chicago.
“From a client’s perspective, it might be concerning that your friend or family member knows more about you than what you have let on to the counselor in your own individual sessions,” she explained. “This might also mean that your counselor knows your ‘dirt’ from your friend, especially when there is drama that involves people within the same counseling practice.”
“From a client’s perspective, it might be concerning that your friend or family member knows more about you than what you have let on to the counselor in your own individual session.”
This reality might unnerve you as you get to know a new figure in your life, but don’t worry: The therapist will never reveal your secrets to a friend or family member, or vice versa.
“As a counselor, we are sworn to uphold the confidences of our clients unless they are of harm to themselves or others,” Ivankovich said. “Bringing friends into the practice often makes the referring client feel as if they have the right to know things that may be going on in their friend or family member’s session, but that is simply unethical for us to discuss.”
However, the “middle man” issue is especially common when there’s a big issue in a family or among friends. This is where the problem-solving process may start to get counterproductive.
“When friends or family members share the same therapist, and crisis exists, clients bring it to the therapist to process,” Ivankovich said. “In doing so, you might have several people’s hands in the puzzle, making it difficult to address the primary issue.”
You want your therapist, in some ways, to be “unbiased” and “impartial,” ideally, Ajjan said, which is really tough to maintain if she’s getting information from multiple sources.
“And if there is ever conflict or an issue with your friend or family member, triangulation may occur,” she said. “You may both draw your therapist into your relationship to deal with discomfort or communicate with each other.” This can be “problematic” if it’s the expectation because your therapist for individual counseling is not a mediator to solve full-blown issues between parties not speaking to one another.
So, Should You Really Do It?
The answer is likely “perhaps” or “it depends how close you really are and how comfortable you feel.” But Ajjan is cautious of the practice.
“I do not think it is a good idea to use the same therapist as a close friend or family member,” she advised. “There are just too many ways it can become complicated or ineffective.”
Ivankovich explained that occasionally one of her patients will make a referral to solve an interpersonal problem or conflict. (This, of course, is different from something like family or relationship counseling, which thrives on both parties being present with the therapist.)
“In this case, I will typically refer to another therapist in the practice,” she said. While one goal is to have a great therapist, and someone you know well can help you find that person, another is to have an effective therapist. Your therapist’s totally impartiality to issues can only help you come to better solutions.
“Trust in your therapist is the basis for all counseling relationships.”
Using the same therapist as, say, your cousin’s co-worker or an acquaintance you know only in passing could be your best strategy, according to Ajjan. “There is less of a personal connection with the referral source, but enough familiarity to feel a bit more at ease starting this important new relationship,” she said.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to the patients involved in counseling. “If the referred friend is dealing with a life issue, and it has nothing to do with the other friend in my practice, it’s all about their personal comfort,” Ivankovich said. “I will see them again and again.”
And unless you choose to tell your friend information you also tell your therapist? “My confidence is never broken,” Ivankovich said. “Trust in your therapist is the basis for all counseling relationships.”
So, if that’s your only worry before you call up a referred therapist, you can rest easy (and dial away).