One of the perks of friendship is having someone to confide in, share your news with (both good and bad), and turn to for support. But sometimes, if may feel as though a friend thinks of you not only as their pal, but as their therapist as well — constantly turning to you to listen to their problems, and, in some cases, offer advice or solutions.
And while it may seem like you’re doing the right thing, ultimately, this arrangement isn’t ideal for either of you. In an article for Well+Good, Minaa B., a therapist and mental health educator from New York City, discusses why a friend is not a replacement for a therapist, and how to set boundaries in your friendship, when necessary. Here’s what to know.
You are not your friend’s therapist
If your co-worker or an acquaintance you saw frequently started talking to/at you on a regular basis with the expectation that you’ll listen, process what they say, and provide advice, you’d probably let them know right away that the arrangement isn’t working for you. But when it’s your friend who is struggling, it’s much (much) harder to say no.
As Minaa B. points out, we’re living at a time when we’re encouraged to speak openly about our mental health, including our 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,” she writes.
It’s entirely possible to care about your friend deeply, but not have the energy or emotional bandwidth to provide them with the kind of support they want or need.
How to set healthy boundaries in your friendship
Here are three tips from Minaa B. for establishing necessary boundaries with a friend who treats you like their therapist:
Let them know that you have limits
Unless you tell your friend that you have limits as to how much emotional labour you can handle in the friendship — and that you’ve reached them — they probably won’t know you feel that way. “Sometimes, we wait for other people to figure out information that we have the power to share,” Minaa B. writes. “Be willing to communicate what your boundaries are.”
Point them towards resources
Even though you can’t act as your friend’s therapist, that doesn’t mean you can’t point them in the direction of information they may find helpful. If you do come across a resource that you think would be useful to your friend, Minaa B. advises using supportive language to reinforce the boundaries you’ve created while making the suggestion.
“For instance, ‘I realise 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,’” she writes.
Be honest with your friend (and yourself)
Unless you’re a trained therapist yourself (in which case, you wouldn’t take a friend on as a client anyway), as much as you mean well, there’s always the potential that your advice could steer your friend in the wrong direction, or put them in a situation without the type of support they need. For this reason, Minaa B. stresses that it’s important to be honest both with your friend and yourself about these limitations — it’s in everyone’s best interest.