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Counseling is Rehearsal, Not Replacement

By Brayton Wooters, MA, PLPC, CRC. Co-Host of Mentor Moments

In my work as a Youth Therapist, I sometimes find myself at the receiving end of statements like, "Mr. B., you're a great friend to me." Now before you roll your eyes, I promise this article is not to highlight my immaculate therapy skills. That said, these affirmations do highlight the strong rapport that myself and so many other clinicians are able to build in therapy. As my role requires, I often face the delicate task of clarifying relationship boundaries with clients, along with the added difficulty of explaining those boundaries to adolescents. When clients ask if we can be friends on social media, play online games together, or hang out outside my office, I must gently explain why that just isn't possible.

For a long time, I struggled with how to navigate these conversations in a way that made sense to children, teenagers, and myself. It wasn't until I read "The Gift of Therapy" by Dr. Irvin D. Yalom that I found a perspective that aligned well with my own definition of the therapeutic alliance. Dr. Yalom, a seasoned existential psychiatrist, emphasizes a crucial concept: counseling is rehearsal, not replacement. He presents the idea that therapy inherently revolves around relationships—whether with others or to oneself. While the therapeutic relationship is unique and profound, it isn't intended to substitute for the other relationships in a client's life.

Dr. Yalom portrays the therapeutic relationship as a distinct entity. It may feel like a friendship, a parental bond, or a mentorship, but fundamentally it remains a relationship between a therapist and client for no other purpose than therapy. That said, there are sessions in which I use approaches that can be found in parenthood, coaching, or friendships. Where I differ is my goal. My goal is therapy, not to coach, not to parent, not to hangout, but to provide quality counseling. Just like how I may use techniques from other types of relationships, my clients have the opportunity to do the same!

For example, consider a teenage client who has difficulty sharing feelings of anger around adults. In therapy, they may practice setting boundaries, expressing their needs, and navigating conflicts in a safe and supportive environment. The most important factor in that environment is the secure relationship between that teenager and their therapist. Through these “rehearsals”,the client develops skills and confidence to apply these communication techniques to their own relationships. The therapist provides guidance and feedback, helping the client to refine their communication skills and emotional intelligence along the way

Understanding this concept allows me to explain to my younger clients why I can't fulfill the role of a friend in the traditional sense. While I deeply value our bond and the trust they place in me, my role as a therapist is to facilitate growth and skill-building within the therapeutic framework. Our work together enables them to practice social skills, emotional regulation, and relational dynamics, preparing them for meaningful connections beyond the walls of my office. In other words, clients can rehearse pieces of friendship in session to prepare themselves for the full thing.

In essence, therapy serves as a rehearsal space where clients can explore, experiment, and refine their interactions. It equips them with the tools and insights necessary to navigate the complexities of relationships with peers and adults. By embracing this perspective, I can honor the therapeutic process while fostering a supportive environment for my clients’ personal growth and development. So, while it is touching to hear my clients call me their friend, I remain mindful of the importance of maintaining the therapeutic boundaries that support their progress and relationships outside my office.

Here is a brief sample of something I may say when setting boundaries with one of my clients. Of course, this is not a fool-proof method and I recommend all clinicians seek support from their team or supervisor when discussing relationship limits. Feel free to substitute “friendship” with the role that your client may ascribe to you. As always, use your clinical judgment and utilize the supports around you!

“I’m sure there are parts of our time together that do feel like a friendship/guardianship. Because I care so much about being your therapist, I simply can’t be your friend too.” (More explanation may be required. Consider sharing how taking on additional roles may make therapy less effective or enjoyable for the client.) “I’m wondering what parts of our relationship feel like a friendship? Are there parts of a friendship that are difficult for you? How can we prepare you for those parts when you leave my office today?”

Looking to get connected? Shoot me an email at I also have a monthly newsletter, Wooters’ “Wisdoms”. You can subscribe here! Finally, check out the Mentor Moments podcast hosted by Dr. Michael Kiener and myself.

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