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The Psychology of Hair Salons & Stylists: Therapy for Free

Some people prefer to use their stylist as their therapist.

Let’s be honest: Hairstylists know way too much for their own good. Imagine your own hairstylist driving home at the end of the day, tired not only because she’s stood on her feet and exercised more muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers than a non-stylist could ever imagine, but also because she’s spent hours listening to her clients and providing advice about a wide range of emotional problems. Hairstylists are the go-to therapist for countless men and women, providing two services—a haircut and therapy—that everyone needs on a fairly regular basis.

Recently, I talked with a friend who’s a hairstylist, and she shared her experience of listening to clients’ personal problems and subsequently dishing out some much-needed advice. I’d heard from others stylists who’ve cut my (low-maintenance) hair over the years that they often feel like therapists, but I never understood the lengths to which clients at the salon reveal personal details until my own stylist friend gave me some examples. I started thinking about why men and women would feel so comfortable sharing such personal—and often painful details—of their lives with someone who hasn’t received mental health training, and I came up with a few simple reasons.

First, reflect for a moment about the physical positions a stylist and client maintain during a hair-cutting session: they’re not facing each other. The client looks into the mirror and can see the reflection of the stylist standing behind, but it’s far less threatening than the dynamic in psychotherapy in which the therapist sits across from the client and looks directly into the client’s eyes. In other words, the mirror creates the illusion of distance which makes the client feel more comfortable as he or she shares deeply personal details.

The position each maintains also makes questions the stylist asks less intrusive. For example, if a stylist asks into the mirror, “Why would you do that?!” it’s much less off-putting than if a therapist in a serious-looking office were to ask the same thing. Simply put, the physical positions at the salon put some clients at greater ease than the traditional therapist-client positioning in a therapy office provides.

Second, most people need to talk to some degree about conflicts they have in their lives, but they don’t necessarily want to go deep. (Come to think of it, sharing your sins with your stylist isn’t that different from a quick trip to confession where a congregant drops a bombshell behind a closed door with a priest, and goes back out into the world feeling better—and absolved—10 minutes later.) At the salon, a client can share tawdry details but not have to worry that the stylist will hold them accountable and encourage them to change their negative behavior.

In therapy, of course, the therapist feels the pressure to remove the negative behavior. In traditional therapy, a client spends forty-five minutes exploring the motivations for bad behavior and client and therapist work together on increasing accountability and mapping out a plan for change. For someone who wants to talk a little—but not a lot—about what’s going wrong in life, the hair salon provides a helpful band-aid as opposed to the harder work—the metaphoric surgery—that comes with longer-term psychotherapy.

Finally, men and women get personal and share—or overshare?—with a hairstylist because stylists, quite honestly, are fun. They often have big, extravagant personalities, and they’ve fine-tuned and crafted their sense of humor after spending thousands of hours mastering the art of conversation while clients sit in their chairs. In contrast to a life-of-the-party stylist, therapists can seem a little …boring. And if “boring” is not the right word, “appropriate” certainly is.

While people want their therapists to be professional, stylists have the freedom to be serious and catty, or outrageous and sweet, in turns. If these professions were culinary dishes, the stylist would be spicy and aromatic, while the therapist would be healthful and low-calorie. Hairstylists are like girlfriends you want to have cocktails with, while therapists are like dependable parents you want to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner.

As a therapist who tries to be open-minded, I believe there is value in sharing your thoughts and feelings with hairstylists—even if they haven’t been trained in mental health issues. The truth is that many of the people we listen to the most haven’t had any mental health training at all (Oprah, anyone?), but their experiences have taught them an awful lot about human behavior. Similarly, hairstylists spend hours listening to clients and often have helpful feedback to share.

The ultimate point is to talk openly about what’s bothering you so that your anxieties don’t negatively impact your life. My only hope is that you seek out a trained mental health professional if the emotional problem you’re dealing with becomes a pattern and requires more time than a monthly haircut allows you.

Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter.

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