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Monday, April 15, 2013

Motivational Mondays: Why Your Parents Were Wrong When They Said, "Don't Talk to Strangers"

Thought for the Day: Three things have been impacting me over the last few days. First, I have been thinking about the psychological impact of friendships since I began this series last Monday. It has been leading to multiple questions about the therapeutic process. Although my clients are not my friends, the therapeutic relationship teaches clients how to trust & therefore helps them be able to develop healthy relationships including friendships. The second event that relates to friendships was a funeral. It was my sister-in-law's 90 year old mother who passed away following a long slow loss of her physical abilities. She was my late brother Larry's mother-in-law, therefore, the loss brought back the sadness of my brother's death. Friends & family came together to celebrate her life & share in the grief of her death. From the sad beginning of the week with a funeral, this weekend brought the joy of my nephew's wedding. At the wedding, there was a coming together of my younger brother's amazing group of friends from childhood & college days, my nephew's childhood & college friends, our family & the bride's family & friends.

I have been blessed to have grown up in a family that encouraged friendships. Our home was always open to friends. My brothers & I learned to develop & stay connected to our friends. In times of sorrow we lean on our family & friends & the sorrow is easier to bear. In times of joy our friends are there dancing & sharing in the joy, making it even more joyous.

When I brought up the topic of friendship with LinkedIn colleagues, they brought up the paradox that therapists are not friends with their clients. There are clear boundaries that are necessary, however, in many ways clients become something even more significant than friends. Therapists are privy to their clients' most intimate aspects of their lives. We become the keepers of their "secrets;"  however, they are not privy to their therapists' lives. Although therapists are not total "strangers," in many ways they are strangers. Clients slowly build trust in their therapists & share the issues that have lead them to seek help. One LinkedIn colleague, Tamara H., M.S., a psychotherapist from Pennsylvania, wrote that friendship "is essential in all of our relationships. You cannot have a good marriage without friendship, you cannot have a good mother-daughter relationship without a friendship, & you cannot offer an authentic counseling experience to your clients if there isn't an appropriate level of friendship as the foundation. Friendship, with appropriate boundaries, is always useful." Another LinkedIn therapist, Sharon Aumani, an RN who with Mental Health specialty from Portland OR, wrote,"The "with appropriate boundaries" is an important piece & may be loosely defined by some. I have a less traditional relationship with my counselor that I have greatly come to appreciate, but there are still clear boundaries." Psychotherapist Eleanor Avinor noted that,"Friendship is very important to mental health: it enhances our feelings of belonging & acceptance. It is a mirroring of the good parts of ourselves. It is another form of attachment & can build on early attachments & even help repair early attachments that were not satisfying enough." 

It is understandable that parents teach their children not to speak to strangers, however, if they never talked to strangers they would never make friends. All friends were once strangers & every stranger could become a friend. As we grow up, we observe our parents speaking to strangers. My father could find something interesting about every person he ever met. He would talk to a salesman in a store or a doorman at a hotel. He would find out where they were from & how they landed the job. then he would tell us about how interesting they were. When we traveled around the country, he would look in the phone book & call people with our last name to see if they might be from the same part of Russia where my grandfather grew up. They were strangers who happened to have the same last name, but my father would simply introduce himself & try to get to know them. 

My mother encouraged us to bring our friends into our home, especially new friends. It was her way of getting to know our friends & making sure they would be good influences on us. If they did not like someone that we befriended they were able to talk to us carefully about their concerns. We were always taught to judge people by their behavior & not their looks, religion or race. My younger brother learned not only how to make friends, but also has been able to keep close contacts throughout his life with a circle of at least 50 childhood friends (from around the United States & beyond) who have continued to get together several times a year. Their children are also friends with my brother's friends' children. I stay in touch more loosely, but whenever I see my friends, it feels like no time has passed & the friendship is still strong.

This kind of gradual education both in my own relations with childhood friends & observing my parents' interactions with strangers & friends, taught me how to decide who to befriend & who to be more cautious about befriending. I am grateful to my family for teaching me how to develop friendships with people who were first strangers. In the therapeutic relationship, clients are also learning how to build trust & believe that trusting relationships can be developed. In future posts, I will share thoughts about what else is needed to develop healthy friendships.


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