Friend or Therapist? How to Support a Needy Friend
Being there for friends when they are going through a tough time is usually a no-brainer. Not only do our friends appreciate our help and advice, but it also feels really good to support someone when they are struggling. However, when a friend becomes overly dependent on us for support, it can start to feel like the line between friend and therapist is blurred as it’s not always clear what we should say or do.
So, how can you tell if your friend is over-relying on you?
The relationship is unbalanced.
One of the key ingredients of a healthy friendship is a sense of balance. Good friends usually have a way of evening out conversations (either in the moment or over time) so that each person has the chance to share their own thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes our friends don’t actually need advice. They might just be looking for reassurance that they’re doing the right thing or that their feelings are valid.
Feeling like you don’t have space to talk about your own experiences (the good and the bad) because a friend is monopolizing the conversation is a major warning sign that a friend is over-relying on you.
It feels like a burden to keep things private.
It’s no surprise that friends like to share personal information, secrets, and gossip. And for the most part, we usually have no trouble keeping the important things private. However, it’s really tough to support someone when we’re personally affected by what they are going through. When a friend shares concerning news (about their mental health or well-being or a difficult family situation, etc.), we can sometimes feel overwhelmed and unsure about how to be supportive. We might even feel like telling someone else for their perspective or to deal with our own reactions. Feeling like it’s a burden to keep our friend’s situation private is another clue that a friend might be overly dependent.
You keep giving advice but it just isn’t working.
It goes without saying that receiving unsolicited advice isn’t always a pleasant experience. However, it’s equally frustrating to feel like we’re giving good advice and, for whatever reason, our friend just isn’t listening. After a while, it can start to feel like we’re spinning in circles when a friend keeps asking for and refusing advice. Not only is this a sign that a friend is over-relying, it makes it difficult to know how we can actually be helpful.
The reality is that sometimes our friends don’t actually need our advice. Instead, they might need reassurance that they’re doing the right thing or that their feelings are valid, something we as friends aren’t always able to give. So what else can we do when we feel like our friend is over-relying on us?
What can you do if a friend is treating you like a therapist?
It can be really tempting to ignore the situation and hope things will get better over time. Although totally understandable, this isn’t necessarily helpful to you or your friend. After all, how helpful can we really be if we’re constantly feeling drained or overwhelmed? Also, repeatedly discussing or rehashing problems with friends without coming up with a new solution and moving forward (a process known as co-rumination) can actually increase symptoms of depression, especially for women.
Another option is to withdraw support entirely. However, it isn’t easy to cut someone off, especially when it comes to friendships. Often, what we’re really looking for is a way to support friends without feeling frustrated. This balance between addressing our own needs while respecting a friend’s needs too is the key to managing this difficult situation. Here are some suggestions that might help you to achieve this kind of assertiveness:
Focus on your own reactions and feelings.
Instead of telling your friend all the ways he or she is being too needy or dependent, focus on what it is you are feeling. Try something like: “I don’t feel like our conversations are helpful. I want to do my best to support you but I don’t think this is working and that isn’t fair to either of us.” This can help you get your point across without making your friend feel blamed.
It’s one thing to say you aren’t happy with the way things are going, but if you aren’t coming up with solutions, you’ll likely both end up frustrated. If there are specific and realistic changes that would make a big difference to you (e.g., not calling at specific times, avoiding certain topics that make you uncomfortable) it’s probably a good idea to share those. Make sure to mention how these changes will help both you and your friend. Also, don’t feel like you need to come up with all of the solutions on your own. Ask your friends what they might find helpful, whether it’s doing an activity as a distraction, engaging in some much needed self-care, or having someone else to talk to.
A word of caution: Suggesting that your friend speaks with a professional, such as a psychologist, can be delicate. We each have our own comfort level with therapy and friends can sometimes feel like this is our way of getting rid of them or that we think they’re unstable in some way. If you think the situation is serious enough that your friend should talk to someone, it can be helpful to phrase it as a question instead of a recommendation (“Have you thought of going to speak with someone about this?”). Sharing that you want the best for them and reassuring that you’ll still be there as their friend can also help you to gently deliver the message.
Good friends usually have a way of evening out their conversations (either in the moment or over time) so that each person has the chance to share their own thoughts and feelings.
Gradually withdraw support.
If you decide to withdraw some of your support to protect your own well-being, it’s usually best to do this gradually. This way, your friend will stop relying on you so heavily without feeling abandoned. Reinforcing your friend when he or she is able to cope without you can also help them realize that they can handle things on their own better than anticipated.
Create your own balance.
Finally, finding ways to create more balance in your friendship will also help you feel less overwhelmed by the situation. One possibility is to suggest that you do other types activities together. Investing in other areas of your friendship and creating new shared experiences together is a great way to restore some of the balance in your friendship.
It might also be worth asking yourself if you’ve been holding back from sharing your own experiences or self-disclosing. If it’s been a while, it might be time to try again. Try something like: “I am here for you but I also want to talk to you about some of the things going on in my life.” This can go a long way toward creating a more equal relationship.
Adjust your expectations.
If, at the end of the day, you decide not to address the situation, the only thing you can really do is to adjust your expectations. The great thing about adult friendships is that one person doesn’t have to meet all of our friendship needs. Focusing on what you’re getting out of this one friendship and reaching out to others for the needs that aren’t being met can help you feel more satisfied and better able to continue being the supportive friend that you are.