A Clash With Friendship And Witnessing

by Johanne Schwensen

Throughout my life I’ve experienced two major clashes. A clash with a friend and a clash with the therapeutic set-up.

These clashes not only ended up revealing and informing each other, they also kind of ended up, if not healing each other, then at least helping me cope with them both. So let me take one clash at a time, explaining to you what I learnt from them.

My Clash With A Friend

First, the clash with my friend happened probably because we conceptualized friendships very differently. I saw a sustainable friendship as two people willing to spend time togetherand share a space togetherwithout having too many requirements for that space. She, on the other hand, wanted our friendship to result in somethinga product or a work of art. Our friendship had to be of some sort of use. It had to be worthwhile.

Knowing how deeply supportive and healing a friendship can be when a friend sees you, understands you, and holds you in high esteem, but then also experiencing how isolating it felt to have a friend who wanted something out of me that felt very specific and superficial, made me wonder why there isn’t more research about friendships within the field of psychology.

This is not to say that “friendship” is a generally underexposed topic, so in order to better grasp what this clash was about, I turned to the realm of philosophy where I found many significant works on friendships that I, and perhaps also the field of psychology, could learn from.

Probably most significantly, there’s Aristotle’s, the philosophy of friendship’s first mover. In one of his most popular works Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses a variety of subjects in order to find virtue and moral character and one of these subjects is friendship. He categorizes friendships into three types, depending on what the foundation of the friendship consists of:  utility, pleasure, or virtue.

He explains that the utility and the pleasure friendships are characterized always by a degree of uncertainty, because the motivation for being in these relationships are based only on the extent to which they fulfil our needs. They are built on the underlying contract that they must give both parties reciprocal profit by means of utility and happiness, and thus they are also characterized by an inherent risk of disappointment and clashwhich is exactly what I experienced with my friend, when our friendship wasn’t of any particular use anymore.

But then there’s the third kind of friendship: The “good” friendship, which is built on a more stable foundation than the other two, because the “good” friends prioritize the friendship, also when other considerations get in the way of the utility and the pleasure. Besides, the wish for a good life seems to be most defining of the good friendship, which according to Aristotle is the life where the person is able to develop her most virtuous and humane side. A person, he says, can only develop in relation to others, and more than anything else are we able to develop as human beings in the good friendship, where the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours vanish and the relationship turns into selfless love. It was a distinctive feature of Ancient philosophy that good relationships were a premise for individual happiness.

Now if we fast-forward to today, our conditions are pretty much as different as can be from those existing in 350 BC, but surprisingly the friendship figures that contemporary philosophers point to in today’s arena are quite similar to Aristotle’s friendship types.

In fact, in his book Friendship in a Time of Economics, the American political philosopher, Todd May, identifies two figures which can be seen as contemporary and economic versions of Aristotle’s’ pleasure and utility friendships: Instead, he calls them the “consumer” and the “self-entrepreneur”.

The consumer relationships are those that we participate in for the pleasure that they bring us in the present moment. The entrepreneurial relationships are those that we invest in, hoping they will bring us some return in the future. And his point is that these two types of relationships reflect the lives that we are encouraged to lead by the neoliberal discourses of our time.

And this leads us back to the clash I had with my friend. Our friendship, you could say, crumbled under the pressure of the dominant neoliberal discourse, when questions like “what is this worth, am I having fun, what do I gain from this?” began to dominate the relationship. And if these are the primary questions being asked, my belief is that the friendship takes on an economic character that in fact isolates people more than it connects them.

But like Michel Foucault says, “where there is power, there is resistance”, and in this light, what Aristotle calls the virtuous friendship, and what Todd May calls the true friendship can stand as a challenge to the opportunistic Zeitgeist.

This third kind of friendship is the non-economic one, and it’s the one that allows us to see ourselves from the perspective of another. It’s the one that can open up new interests or deepen current ones, and maybe most importantly, it’s this kind of friendship that supports us during difficult periods in our lives. Shared experience, rather than just common pleasure or progress, is the foundation of the true friendship.

We might say about the true friendships that they are a matter of meaning, not only of amusement or advancement. And at the heart of this type of relationship is vulnerability and a unique significance that springs from being friends with this or that particular individual. Like the French nobleman and father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) said about his friendship to Étienne de la Boétie: If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.”

So, if a friendship can work as a motor of meaning and as support, even when we are neither fun nor useful, isn’t it odd that it is not one of the most researched of all human practices within psychology and the social sciences?

And if friendships are the least institutionalized and thus the most voluntary human relationships out there, based on reciprocal sympathy and support all things that are understood to have a positive effect on the individual’s well-beingthen why aren’t practitioners more focused on friendships in their therapeutic work?

This question leads me to my second clash.

My clash with the therapeutic set-up

You’ve probably all noticed that unless a problem is directly shown and manifested in a relationship, it is only normal to go to therapy aloneyou don’t bring along a friend! 

The setup across the different schools of therapy is rather that the client enters a context secluded from the concrete external conditions that make up her everyday life to “look inward” and work on herself for about an hour. What this also means is that it’s mostly up to herself to try and incorporate the potential insights and potential self-work she makes into her everyday life.

Whether the therapeutic approach is cognitive and “tool-based” or psychoanalytic and depth-oriented, the therapeutic set-up shares a set of objective realities: Originally, it entails one therapist who’ll hold a certain kind of expert knowledge, and one client with a more or less specific problem, that she wants help with. These two people are placed on each of their seats, often with a table in between them. And on the table there is very likely a box of Kleenex.

The problem is that when the session is over, then a used Kleenex might be the only concrete artifact that the client takes away from the conversation. When the client leaves the room, she so to speak leaves behind the twosomeness that has been established with the therapist. Whether the insights that the twosomeness resulted in will be implemented in the client’s daily life is entirely up to the client in most therapeutic set-ups. The client alone bears this responsibility.

But what if the therapist makes it her biggest priority not to reproduce the notion that it is the individual’s sole responsibility to feel better in her everyday life? What if the therapist instead strives to counteract the all-encompassing Western ideal of individual self-responsibility and self-improvement? Is this even possible?

When I searched the landscape for alternative therapeutic set-ups with a bigger focus on the social character of the identity and of problems, I came across what is known as “definitional ceremonies” or outsider witnessing practices.

It has been practiced and made popular by the Australian social worker and psychotherapist Michael White, who in his work often would invite witnesses into the therapy room to help the client reclaim or redefine her identity.

Long story short, the witnesses, who often were recruited from the therapist’s index of earlier clients, are asked in different ways about what it means to them to have witnessed the therapeutic conversation and how it resonates with them. The point is that the witnesses’ retelling will strengthen or “thicken” the client’s preferred identity narratives, by giving them a more social character.

This kind of social “identity work” that lies within the definitional ceremonies, was actually first described by the American anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff in 1976, when she participated in a research project about social contexts for aging, and hereby came across a recurring theme: elders’ invisibility in our society.

In Venice, California, she met a group of older Jewish immigrants, who had lost their families to the Holocaust and therefore felt isolated and invisiblefeelings that manifested in depression and physical debilitation. What she experienced was that these people were really eager to present themselves, to be noticed, and to communicate their stories to a broader world. More than anything, they longed for an audience, because without being witnessed, they would be forgotten–as would their culture. Therefore they did all they could to gather witnesses, and Myerhoff decided to support these efforts.

She would participate in the creation of small spaces, where the older citizens could reclaim their raison d’etre by witnessing and retelling each other’s life stories. In this community, the elders had the possibility of being visible on their own terms, “the old Jews (…) managed to convey their statement to outsiders, to witnesses who then amplified and accredited their claims”. It was these spaces that she called definitional ceremonies, and it was these spaces that she found contained the power to reduce the isolating and individualizing effects that different contemporary societal structures and discourses and hereby problems can have on people.

Especially the narrative (and systemic) therapies, with the aforementioned Michael White as a front figure, have made witnessing a central part of the therapeutic set-up. Outsider witnesses are invited into the session to resonate with the client’s story in a non-judgmental and curious way–to engage with the story without prejudices, so that the client’s preferred narratives are affirmed on her own terms, and the client hereby is empowered to develop her own expertise and have her agency strengthened.

This kind of ceremonial practice tries to counteract the traditional therapeutic set-up’s risk of unintentionally confirming the client in being alone and isolated with her problems within the secluded therapeutic room. It assumes that our identities are socially constructed and thus, since helpful therapy equals successful identity work, it tries to create a therapeutic set-up that is more social and inclusive.

But even though the identity work is explicitly social in the outsider witnessing practices, the question is still whether its abstraction from the client’s everyday life will result in the work not being properly translated to the client’s daily life.

Consider, for instance, that though the identity work might be going really well, and the client might be feeling more empowered and in touch with her values, will this matter if she isn’t the least supported in these changes by her surroundings? If her surroundings don’t back her up and affirm her in these changes, those changes might not ever sediment into her daily lifethis is my main worry.

Which brings me to the last part of my presentation.

Between Friendships and Witnessing: Merging the Clashes

The friendship contains a potential of witnessing and support that only rarely is used within the therapeutic set-up. This is a shame, I think. A therapy that doesn’t include the conditions and the relations that make up the client’s everyday life, undermines the significant impact that people and events outside of the therapeutic context has on the therapeutic outcome.  And if the therapeutic work feels too abstracted from the client’s daily life, the client risks feeling isolated and alone in the process going on in between sessions, and might not even get anything out of the therapy.

A way for the therapy to incorporate a link between the sessions and the daily life, would be to try and ensure that the insights of the session are being accepted and supported by the people that the client‘s newly appropriated narratives would normally be shared with. The inclusion of the friendship in the therapy would contribute to this kind of support.

I’ve made a very simple model to illustrate the relationship between therapy and the client’s daily life, and I’ve tried to show with this model how witnessing and friendship place themselves in an interacting relationship. I’ve demonstrated the seclusion of the therapy from the client’s daily life with two vertical linesand the therapy’s impact on the daily life as well as the daily life’s impact on the therapy is visualized with the two arrows going in opposite directions.

What I’ve tried to conceptualize with this model is what might happen if a client was offered to bring in a good friend to affirm her in her identity work. As a witness, the friend could act as a supportive link between the therapy room and the client’s remaining life. Hereby the witnessing friend could help ensure that the insights made in session are translated to the client’s everyday life.

So let’s go back to the therapeutic set-up and then let’s try to add a chair. Because today the client has decided to take her friend with her. It’s not because the client’s problem lies within the friendshipthat’s not why the friend has joined. On the contrary, the friendship, with its inherent witnessing potential and its ability to counter the individualizing structures of our times, could become part of the client’s solution. 


Brinkmann, S. (2006). Questioning constructionism: Toward an ethics of finitude. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 46(1), 92-111.

Dreier, O. (2002). Psychotherapy in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

May, T. (2012). Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. New York: Lexington Books.

Myerhoff, B. (1984). Life Not Death in Venice: The Transmission of an Endangered Tradition. 1984 Festival of American Folklife, 36-38.

Parker, I. (1999). Deconstructing Psychotherapy. London: Sage.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


Johanne Schwensen

Stillpoint Counselor Johanne Schwensen initially presented this work at Der Versuch, Stillpoint Spaces’ annual international forum in Berlin. More infos about the project: www.derversuch.com. The program for the 2017 edition will be launched soon.

Find Johanne’s counselor profile here, or visit our Lab page for all upcoming events.

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