Have you ever joked that your hairstylist knows more about your personal life than your family does? Or, perhaps a friend has said her hairstylist fixes more than just her hair. Stylists definitely hear this from their clients: “You’re like my therapist!”
What is the difference between talking to a hairstylist and talking to a therapist? And, more importantly, whom should you talk to? (We promise to bottom line the answer to this question at the end of this article!)
Hairstyling appointments can resemble psychotherapy sessions in a few ways. Both involve you seeking help from a trained professional. Both occur in an intimate space. Both take about an hour (unless you go for those lilac highlights!). And, both usually involve you talking about your life (a little or a lot) while a professional listens.
Let’s break these down to see the similarities and differences.
For both hairstyling and psychotherapy, you may know exactly what you want, generally what you want, or simply what you don’t want. With a stylist perhaps you’re ready for bangs, you want to look more professional, or you’re just tired of your current look. Either way you want the professional to understand your need and use her expertise to meet it.
Though there is a bit of back and forth with a stylist—“Bangs will look great on you, but I suggest we make them a bit longer.”—hairstyling is essentially a transactional service. You ask for something, and the stylist provides it.
With therapy you may know you want to be in an intimate relationship, want to be happy, or want to feel different. An issue you bring to therapy, however, is likely to be more complex and have deeper roots (pun intended) than you are able to see by yourself. While hairstyling is a transaction, therapy is about what happens between the therapist and the patient over time. The therapist cannot simply handover a treatment. The relationship itself is the treatment.
The spaces in which you meet with a stylist or a therapist share some similarities. There is closeness. There is focus on each other. There is a bubble in which your work together resides. The hairstyling bubble, however, is not usually contained in a private space, and hairstylists, though perhaps individually discrete, are not required to maintain confidentiality. They may refer to you by name to other clients or say something, albeit benevolently, that would identify you to other clients.
Therapists, by law, ethics, and clinical best practice, cannot share anything about you to anyone (with few exceptions). The implication here is probably obvious. There is a greater sense of safety in a therapy room than in a styling salon. This emotional safety may take time to develop with a therapist, but ultimately there is more freedom to express, and thus understand and process, feelings such as shame, anger, worry, confusion, sadness, and hopelessness.
Haircuts take approximately one hour. Similarly, therapy sessions are usually 50 minutes. Aside from duration, however, time also involves frequency. Salon appointments are recommended every 6-8 weeks. Therapy, on the other hand, occurs at least once per week if not multiple times per week. Does this difference matter?
Hairstyling is an immediate “fix” to a problem: split ends, dulled color, or an outgrown style. Therapy extends beyond symptom relief to psychological development. This might include the capacity for meaningful relationships, the ability to maintain a realistic sense of self-esteem, or the facility to face challenges with more creativity. Developing these capacities not only takes time, but also happens in the context of a consistent, regular relationship. While support from your stylist every other month can feel great, you’re not likely to resolve your trust issues while getting shampooed.
Talking While Being Listened To
In an intimate setting people tend to chat. It’s sort of a cultural norm. Some people will share a little. Some will share a lot. A few will not talk at all. Those who do talk may share personal or emotional material. Others may prefer a less personal interaction. Some may focus on the other person more than on themselves. Obviously there’s a wide range of possibilities.
Regardless of what a person says (or doesn’t say), how the listener listens determines how they respond, and, thus, what the talker receives. Of all the differences between hairstyling and psychotherapy, this may be the most important. In fact, our title question is probably better asked as: who should listen to me?
Hairstylists are likely listening the way most of us are. They hear the content of your story. They hear your emotions. They likely want to protect, support, and encourage you. As a result, they are likely to empathize with you, “side with you,” and give you ideas about what you should do.
Therapists, and particularly those practicing psychodynamic psychotherapy, hear the story and the emotions, but also listen on a variety of deeper levels. They listen for your underlying needs, such as the need not to be infringed upon, but also not to be left to figure out difficult things on your own. They listen to what may be too scary, shameful, or unknown to be expressed. They listen for how you relate to your own mind and emotions.
These various ways of listening enable the therapist to help patients know themselves, process their thoughts and emotions, and develop psychological capacities. Over time, patients are better able to understand and tolerate their own thoughts and feelings, leaving them equipped to live with more freedom.
So, who should you seek help from?
SEE A HAIR STYLIST IF you want a haircut, hair color, new style, or updo with a side of chatting, empathy, listening, and perhaps tidbits of advice.
SEE A THERAPIST IF you are struggling with relationships, not feeling good enough, having trouble making decisions, experiencing regular distress, resentment, or worry, or are feeling lost or hopeless.
 Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98-109.