If you’re passionate about mental health, known for being a good listener, or maybe just enjoy helping people, there’s a good chance you have a reputation among your friends as the “therapist” of the group. People trust you with the intimate details of their lives, and you’re the friend people turn to when they’re feeling blue or need to talk through something major.
It’s true that deep, supportive friendship includes being there for each other through difficult times. Sharing about ourselves and our lives can also bring us closer together. However, if you’re feeling burned out from always listening to your friends’ problems and helping them find solutions, you might have fallen into a “therapist” role that you never signed up for — a role you likely are not qualified for, nor emotionally equipped to handle.
If you want to get your friends to stop treating you like their therapist, read on for some tips on how to approach the situation.
Understand Healthy vs. Unhealthy Support
The first step in changing an unhealthy relationship dynamic is to recognize that it exists. You might find yourself wondering if the type of support you’re offering friends is typical of healthy relationships, or if it has crossed a line.
Your own feelings are a great clue here. If you find yourself feeling depleted more often than not after interacting with someone, this is a sign that the relationship may not be healthy or reciprocal. Characterizing the relationship as stressful or burdensome is another sign that you might be expending a lot more emotional labor than is expected in a healthy friendship.
Another indication that a friendship has crossed into unhealthy territory is when a friend has extremely high expectations for the time and energy you devote to them. They might become upset if you don’t text back right away, or want to talk on the phone for hours every night. Unrealistic demands like these are hallmarks of a relationship that has become codependent.
Talkspace therapist Dr. Amy Cirbus says another red flag is over investment. “If one person is angry that their advice is’t followed, or when they absorb their friend’s feelings as their own, an unhealthy line has been crossed.”
Being a supportive friend means listening, being present, and offering help, but only to the extent to which you are able to do so without burning yourself out. Once you recognize that a relationship is exhausting you, it’s time to make some changes.
Set Relationship Boundaries
The most important and effective way to change the dynamic of a lopsided friendship is to set boundaries. Relationship boundaries are limits that we set with other people that lay out subjects that are okay to talk about, the support we are comfortable providing, and the amount of time we are able to spend on the friendship.
It can feel uncomfortable to explicitly set boundaries with someone, especially if you don’t have much practice doing so. If you’re able to push past this initial discomfort, the payoff is rewarding: a healthier friendship. Communicating our needs and limits is an empowering experience that allows us to reclaim the agency that we might have lost in the course of the unhealthy relationship.
Once you’ve gotten clear on the boundaries you want to set and are ready to speak to your friend, Cirbus says to be clear and kind. “Let the person know that you want to be there for them, but can’t offer them the time or skill to really give them what they need,” she says. “Let them know how it makes you feel, while also offering ways to show up that feel healthy to you.”
Some examples of boundaries you might set with a friend who is treating you like their therapist include:
- “I want to be there for you, and I am also not always available. I can’t commit to texting back while I’m at work.”
- “I want to help you navigate [XYZ], and I also am feeling depleted when it is the only thing we talk about every time we hang out. I’d like to make sure we talk about other things when we spend time together.”
- “I want to support you with [XYZ], and I also do not feel comfortable giving you advice about it.”
It would be great if people honored the boundaries we set with them without fail, but this doesn’t always happen. If friends choose to ignore or push your boundaries, remind them of what you talked about. Kindly but firmly communicate that you will not tolerate a relationship that is not respectful of your boundaries.
Help Them Seek Professional Help
There are two main reasons you shouldn’t play the part of your friend’s therapist. The first, as we’ve addressed, is that it can be extremely draining for you. The second is that it’s an ineffective way for your friend to have their needs met when what they really need is the support of a mental health professional.
“Therapists are trained in how to provide support, offer feedback and guidance, and they’re skilled at boundary setting,” Cirbus says. “A primary benefit of going to a therapist is to have an unbiased third party offering perspective in a safe space. The relationship is structured, with a clear understanding of the purpose.”
Friendships, on the other hand, are mutual, rather than beneficial. “We can’t offer our friends objective feedback because we often have vested interests and personal reactions to a friend’s life choices,” Cirbus says.
With this in mind, one of the kindest and most helpful things you can do for a struggling friend is help them get started with therapy. You can send them resources to find a therapist, make a consultation appointment for them, or just check in with them before and after their first session. Starting therapy can be a confusing and tiring process, and it makes a big difference having someone to support you through it and hold you accountable.
Remember, though you may pride yourself on your great listening skills and excellent advice, it is not your job to be a friend’s therapist. In the process of trying to be one, you’ll likely sacrifice your own emotional health. So, recognize unhealthy behavior for what it is, set boundaries, and help your friends access real therapy — with Talkspace they can start therapy as soon as today.