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Worshiping at the Shrine of a Really Good Shrink

I put myself into psychotherapy for the first time when I was a teenager, and have returned at various times over the years when I’ve been overwhelmed by whatever.

But when a friend compared my attitude about therapy to a fundamentalist’s attitude towards religion—implying that it is unyielding and intolerant of questioning—my feelings were hurt.

Eventually, though, I had to concede that she had a point.

My belief in therapy, as long as the therapist is worth a damn, has always been absolute. Even when therapy and its attendant revelations have made my life hell in the short term—and they have–they did good in the long term. I credit talented therapists with saving my life. I’ve never for a moment questioned therapy’s efficacy, even after I’ve quit therapists who felt like a bad fit. And I’ve seen therapy (does it sound less threatening if I call it counseling?) help other people, too.

This friend was going through a rocky period and facing very difficult decisions, and I was one of her primary confidantes. I listened and tried to be thoughtful and wise, tried to be helpful, tried to maintain appropriate boundaries. I hurt for her, worried about her, wanted to see her happy again. I did my best.

But after a while, I got frightened. The issues she faced were serious, the implications of the decisions she had to make were enormous, the reasons she had reached this point in her life were complicated. I feared saying something wrong, sending her down a wrong path. I didn’t want to make her angry or hurt her feelings. (Both of which I managed to do anyway.) I found myself trying to think like a shrink, which felt tantamount to practicing without a license. I was overwhelmed and growing exhausted with the effort of being helpful and hopeful and careful.

Finally, I told her all this, explained that I had to back off as her sounding board, urged her to speak to a professional.

Things went quickly south from there. She didn’t like the idea, felt her own formidable analytical skills and the help of friends and family were enough. She accused me of pressuring her. Felt–not unreasonably–that I was abandoning her in a dark hour. She said I got prickly any time she expressed doubts about therapy and spit out the comparison that hurt my feelings.

I apologized and apologized and she finally accepted my apology, but I’m scared that our friendship will never completely recover. I’m sad and ashamed.


Am I wrong to think that no matter how wise and compassionate a friend tries to be, a trained and objective professional can do a better job helping us find our way out of a thicket when we are lost?

I turned to the research to reassure myself but didn’t find what I was looking for.

While the efficacy of different types of therapy has been studied, I found nothing comparing therapists with sympathetic friends.

There are lots of reasons for this. For one thing, you can’t create a control group of people who are talking to friends and family rather than a professional because denying professional help to people in crisis would be unethical.

And even if you use the same therapist for the experimental group, how can you make comparisons with the control when friends’ or loved ones’ skills as sounding boards are bound to vary?

And how long do you continue the experiment, when some people may find relief quickly while others have a longer road?

And how do you figure out who is  genuinely “better” at the end of the experiment, and who is not?

And is one better better than another?

I haven’t found confirmation of my belief and for the time being, at least, have only my own experience to stand on.


I don’t downplay the importance of having friends and family to lean on. No doubt they have an important place in shining a light during dark times. But when things are really hard,  I believe a competent therapist is better than even the dearest friend for providing substantial help, because friends and family:

  • may have an agenda
  • may be shocked by things you disclose (or you may choose not to disclose salient information for fear of shocking)
  • may fear hurting your feelings or making you angry (or may get their feelings hurt or get angry)
  • may offer bad advice
  • may grow impatient
  • may be offended if you don’t follow their advice (admittedly one of my problems)
  • may reveal personal disclosures to others

A therapist, on the other hand:

  • is doing a job, not a favor
  • knows what questions to ask
  • will call bull%#& on you when necessary
  • doesn’t fear your anger
  • will help you find your way and no one else’s
  • has heard it all before
  • has education and tools to help rather than just sympathize

I didn’t mean to abandon my friend. I truly wanted to help and offered the best idea I had. I wanted to be able to offer loving support for her journey without being so deeply involved in it.

My good intentions backfired on me, big time.

Still, I can’t argue with her. I believe, even without scientific proof, that in times of serious emotional crisis, a therapist is more useful than even the most loving friend. That, no matter how you cut it, is just blind faith.

After this experience, I will be more careful about bearing witness. But I will never stop believing. With all my heart. And so be it. Amen.

P.S. Speaking of worship and therapy, here’s an essay by pastor/writer Adam McHugh titled “Why Pastors Should Get Their Heads Examined.” Good stuff.

Worshiping at the Shrine of a Really Good Shrink

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Worshiping at the Shrine of a Really Good Shrink. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 May 2011
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