Friendship is a deeply intimate relationship that doesn’t compare to any other form of human connection. These relationships can be a foundational piece to healing, cultivating community, and, in many ways, they can also feel spiritual–like a tethering of souls between two people who naturally feel connected. When trust, respect, safety, and reciprocity are present, a given friendship can thrive in many ways. But sometimes, a strong level of trust and safety can create a dynamic that’s rooted in a lack of boundaries. And for anyone who’s ever felt as though their friend treats them like a therapist first and a friend second, creating those boundaries may be key for all parties involved and the health of the friendship in question.
We’re living in a climate where many of us are becoming big advocates for our mental health, which is moving us in the direction of seeking therapy and talking more openly about our issues, struggles, and setbacks. Although that is great, it’s also important to remember that not everyone is mentally equipped to take on and manage our own personal emotional struggles. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that your friend is not a replacement for therapy. And you do not need to function as your friend’s therapist.
Your friend is not a replacement for therapy. And you do not need to function as your friend’s therapist.
The hard truth is that no matter how much we care for and want to support our friends, we will not always have the energetic capacity, resources, availability, knowledge, or insight to tend to their mental-health needs. One person cannot be everything to you, which means that you have permission to not be everything to your friend.
With this in mind, to preserve both your own mental health and your friendship, it’s important to be clear with your friend that you are not equipped to essentially function as their therapist. Below, find three ways to establish boundaries with a friend.
1. Communicate your limits
As much as we want our friends to know better, when people have poor boundaries, it’ll show in their behaviors and their expectations of others. And since your friend won’t know your limits unless you communicate them, it’s important to be forthright with this information.
Sometimes, we wait for other people to figure out information that we have the power to share. Be willing to communicate what your boundaries are.
2. Suggest other resources
While it’s not your responsibility to do the healing work for other people, you might well be aware of helpful resources that your friend in need doesn’t know about. For instance, if you’re able to refer to a friend to a certain therapist, therapy group, or a support group that you think might be helpful, that might resonate and help you create effective boundaries in the process.
If you have a resource in mind that a friend could benefit from, consider using supportive language that helps to define your limits while suggesting it. For instance, “I realize that I don’t have the insight to help or offer advice, and I really want to support you. I know of a resource called x and I think it would be great for you to consider reaching out to them for additional support.”
3. Be honest about what you can give
When we see our friends struggling, it’s only natural that we want to be as supportive as possible. However, we must be honest with our friends about our limitations and whether we are the appropriate person to offer support and help.
Being honest with ourselves is also critical because unless you are a trained therapist, you can potentially be giving your friend bad advice and enabling problematic behaviors or thought processes. Most importantly, when your friend is in a very difficult situation that might require more intense care, you have to be willing to know when it’s time to take a step back for their best interest.
Ultimately, friendships don’t come with a rule book. There are many ways to be supportive to a friend that does not require self-sacrifice. If helping others causes you harm, then it’s time you re-evaluate how much you are giving to others, and the many ways you may need to start giving to yourself. Strong friendships last when there is honesty and communication–but most importantly, realistic expectations.
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