How Healthy Mentorship Can Replace Therapy
Part 2: Parts of Therapy That Can Be Attained Through Mentorship

The general thesis that I laid out in my last post, and plan to continue working towards here is the following: Solid mentorship can replace therapy, in many cases. Within my last post, I discussed the problem of overcrowding in community mental health clinics due to so many people wanting therapy services, and also covered some helpful definitions of therapy, mentorship, mental health, and mental illness, in the hopes of laying the groundwork to show what aspects of mental health needs can, and cannot be addressed through a healthy mentorship relationship.

The primary focus of this section will be to continue making the case for mentorship replacing therapy in many cases, by discussing three primary aspects of therapy that can be covered within the context of a healthy mentorship relationship; seeking advice, processing events, validating experiences, and practicing accountability.


For one, seeking advice. Much of therapy is based in skill-building. Teaching people how to cope with what they have experienced or are currently experiencing, so that it does not continue to affect their lives in a negative way. This is not unlike a coach giving a player tips about how to get to the basket or score a goal more efficiently. It could also be like a father telling his son how to change his car’s oil. Or like a pastor sharing an anecdote from their life to show how they coped with a difficult situation that may be similar in some ways to what their congregant is experiencing. In most modalities of therapy, self-disclosure is encouraged so long as the therapist can use such disclosure to challenge their client to make helpful changes based on what the therapist has experienced themselves. Mentors should feel encouraged to speak out of their expertise– or at the very least, their lived experience. The tight-rope line to walk here is for mentors to be careful not to make assumptions about how the world works for others because of their own experience, but rather to share how their choices impacted their lives, and could impact the lives of others… hopefully for the better. If more people could seek and receive helpful, loving advice from a mentor figure about managing emotions, dealing with stress, or improving their relationships I believe that therapy clinics would be less crowded.


Additionally, mentorship relationships can fill the role of a large part of the therapeutic process. That being “processing” difficult thoughts/ emotions/ events. We throw this concept around a lot and I don’t think people always realize what it means– “I need to process this with someone”, “I didn’t have a chance to process this”, “I need to process my emotions” etc. I have come to believe that processing thoughts/ emotions/ events can be extremely helpful based on my own experience. The question that I find coming to my mind is, why exactly is this helpful, and do people need a professional therapist to officially “process” something difficult. My life experience would suggest no. Through my training in the fields of trauma, mental health and therapy, I have come to understand this concept of “processing” things as a form of what is known as “exposure”.

Exposure is a process in therapy where clients are asked to talk about difficult situations, feelings, thoughts, etc, even when it is difficult. The theory behind exposure is this: person experiences distress→ person does not like the discomfort of the distress→ person avoids distress→ person is crippled because the action of avoiding distress causes further problems. This pattern therefore must be interrupted so that the person does not continue to experience such problems in life. One way to interrupt such a pattern is by showing the person’s body/ brain (the amygdala, and the natural fight or flight response that creates the feelings we experience as anxiety/ fear/ anger) that the stressor is not truly dangerous. The example I always use with my clients to explain how this works is to think about your first day of high school. For me, I was very nervous. I knew where to go and how to get to my classes but I was scared to be in a new environment with a lot of upper-classmen that I did not know. My body was shaky, I had butterflies, and I was on high alert. Flash forward to my 123rd day of Freshman year, and none of those symptoms occurred. I simply walked in, went through my classes, and all was normal and as it should be. Why the change in reaction? I got used to it. My body was exposed to the same situation over and over again until, eventually (and probably well before the 123rd day of school) my body realized that high school was not a threat, and that the fight or flight response was not necessary.

When we process difficult things (again, thoughts, emotions, events, etc.) we are essentially creating a space for our mind and body to be re-exposed to those difficult things. The more we are able to “let things out” and process them in a healthy, safe, and loving atmosphere (a therapist’s office, or around a coffee table with a trusted friend or mentor), the quicker our body and mind stop producing drastic– or at the very least unhelpful– emotional responses (fight or flight) when we think about the difficult experience.

Mentors (and friends) can provide a space for this processing to occur. By simply sitting with someone who is going through emotional hardship, and allowing them space to talk about it, share their raw experience; thoughts, feelings, and all; mentors allow their mentees to expose themselves to such hardships by talking about them, and therefore reduce the mental and physical discomfort that such hardships have created for them through the process of gradual exposure just by talking about it.

Now, I do feel that this is a point where we need to pay special attention to the line between processing that should be coached through with a licensed therapist, and processing that could occur with a mentor. I think that as with most things, the question comes down to the concept of “acuity”. It is no secret that, while exposing oneself to the stressful feelings that hard experiences bring is… well… stressful. That being said, it is not surprising for a trained trauma therapist to see an increase of problem behaviors, or “subjective units of distress” (SUDS– essentially, how stressed out a person feels) in their clients after processing traumas. That being said, not all stress or even problematic behaviors create acute concerns for the safety or well-being of a person. For instance, if talking about being frustrated with someone’s family causes a person to feel a little overwhelmed, or angry, or down as a result, and coping with these feelings involves the person crying, or taking some space from others for a day, or even raising their voice (in a safe space), this would be a pretty normal and healthy stress response that I think most professionals would agree does not require a licensed therapist to be present to assure safety. On the other hand, if talking about one’s family leads to someone having to stay home from work for days because they are so down, or to suicidal thoughts, or violent actions towards others, or excessive drinking, etc. Safety is at risk, and it would be wise to have a licensed professional involved in the processing of such things so that the provider can apply their expertise to judge the safety of the situation, and intervene with other higher level skills if necessary. So essentially, when the level of safety regarding someone’s responses to processing their immediate stressors comes into question, consult a professional.


Another core part of the therapeutic process that can occur within a mentorship relationship, is validation. Validation is when someone’s feelings, or experiences are approved as having meaning, and value. I always use the example of a coupon when explaining the concept of validation, something like the following: “If you take a Burger King coupon to McDonalds, they will tell you that it is ‘not valid’, essentially, that it has no value there (because you are in a McDonalds and not a Burger King… silly you…) But, if you take that same coupon to a Burger King, they will accept it, it will have meaning, and you will get your French fries at a discount.”

Showing our clients that their feelings and experiences have value can be incredibly impactful. Conversely, not validating a person’s experiences can be incredibly harmful. The cool thing about validation is that it doesn’t even have to equal agreement with a person’s beliefs or actions, you just have to be able to acknowledge that the other as a person who has experiences that have led them to believe or act or feel a certain way.

In the DBT manual, Marsha Linehan describes six types of validation. The first two types essentially boil down to paying attention. When we actively listen, pay attention to one another, and show people by our responses that we heard what they said, it shows the other person that what they are saying is valuable to us, simply because they are another human being. The third form of validation involves noticing what hasn’t been said in a conversation. For instance, “you look down today”, or “whoa that must have felt frustrating”. When we are able to show through our observations (right or wrong), that we are working to pay attention to another person’s feelings, we again show that they have value to us.

The fourth and fifth levels involve helping that person to feel as though they are a part of the human race, and not an alienated being. When we acknowledge how past experiences affect the present: “I wonder if going through that caused you to act in [such and such] a way”, and normalize the experiences of others we can validate by showing that they are able to be understood, and included.

Finally, the sixth form of validation involves just talking to the other person like they are an equal. Imagine your hero saying hi to you, now imagine your hero talking to you as if you are an equal. Or your favorite celebrity. It would be great and all to have an autograph, better yet to have a signature where the person writes something specific to you, and better still to get coffee with them and have them share a little bit about their real life with you, the stuff that is deeper than the media portrayals and cameras. This is part of what made Dialectical Behavioral Therapy groundbreaking in the ‘80’s– it encouraged therapists to treat clients like an equal, which sometimes meant talking about the therapist’s real life– children, spouses, etc. (so long as this did not cross any professional or personal limits). When people know that they are valued as an equal, they feel a greater sense of self worth. It’s also a similar concept to a man getting frustrated at another man calling him “buddy” (this is one of my pet peeves for sure), or (one of my wife’s pet peeves) when a woman is called “sweetie” by another woman.

All of that to be said, using these ways of validating the experiences of another person can be a great way to create a therapeutic environment, even in a mentorship relationship or setting, because it allows a person to process what they have been through, gain self confidence, and clarity about their own experiences.


Alongside of the concept of validation, the concept of accountability is also a key piece of the therapeutic relationship that can be met through a mentorship relationship. As a therapist, I consider pushing people to make healthier decisions a big part of my job. A lot of times this involves accountability. For the sake of this post, we will define accountability as holding someone to an agreement that they made, usually to improve their health in some way (whether that is their mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health). I often do check-ins with my clients about whether or not they did their “homework” from the previous session. And if the answer is “no”, there is usually a long conversation not condemning the person, but to work through the barriers that kept the person from making or following through with the decisions that they agreed would be helpful for them. In DBT treatment, this is called a missing links analysis. Mentor relationships can function in similar ways. When mentees are able to verbalize their goals (whether that is to walk around the block once a day, stop watching porn, pray more, eat better, have a tough conversation with a parent, stand up to their boss… you name it) to a mentor, accountability starts. With the right skills, a mentor can partner with a mentee in pursuing these goals in a way that is therapeutic, regardless of the fact that the mentor is not a trained therapist themselves. Accountability increases the chances of behavioral change because (to get all technical about it) it adds an aversive stimulus; a positive reinforcer (of celebrating with someone when the goal is achieved), and/or a natural punishment (having the awkward conversation about why the thing didn’t get done with their mentor). All of these factors will naturally make a behavior more likely to occur.

The key to accountability is balance, because feelings of overwhelming shame about not accomplishing a goal can drive someone away from pursuing the goal. If the act of trying to achieve something new is worse than not trying at all and staying in the state one is currently in, that person would have no motivation to pursue the goal anymore. That being said, healthy shame is at the end of the day, society (or evolution, god, whatever fits)’s way of pushing us towards healthier behaviors. When we do something and others look at us with that scoffing or disapproving expression, we stop the behavior, because we naturally don’t like that. The Bible speaks briefly to this concept as well in 2 Corinthians 7:10 when it says “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Essentially, the right kind of accountability, and the right levels of shame can drive us towards healthier behaviors, and a better lifestyle. For mentors and therapists alike, the key is to strike the balance of validating people and stepping into their experiences, while also pushing them in love towards healthier choices and a better life as a result.


While therapy is by no means limited to the four above skills that can be employed in a healthy mentorship relationship, much of the therapeutic process can and does take place by using those skills. If people were able to utilize these skills in mentor-mentee relationships, real and effective healing could absolutely take place, whether or not the mentor has a state licensure to do therapy. That being said, there are absolutely limitations to mentorship, and expertise needed to address the problems that come with mental illness, and some of the struggles of mental health in general. In the next post I hope to address those limitations, and also conclude with instructions on how to seek out a healthy mentor relationship when needed.

I would love to hear people’s thoughts and comments about the effectiveness of using these skills– advice, processing, validation, and accountability not only in mentor relationships, but also in other types of relationships. Please feel free to reach out with comments as always!

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