Friendship Diaries: How Do I Get My Friend to Stop Treating Me Like Their Therapist?

Welcome to our new Friendship Diaries series, where we’re answering your most pressing friend-related Qs! Have a friendship issue you’d like us to tackle? Leave a comment at the end of this article with your question or fill out this form to ask your question anonymously!

person answering friend's text

Dear Friendship Diary,

How do I get a friend to stop treating me like their therapist? It’s draining my own mental health, and I don’t feel like I’m equipped to give them the support they need!

Dear Friendapist,

I can definitely relate to your experience and want you to know you’re not alone in this challenge. As a therapist who knows many therapists, the line between being supportive and therapizing can be thin. I imagine you’re an excellent listener with a deep capacity for empathy, but if you’re pouring from an empty cup, it’s easy to burn out.

Something that might be worth reflecting on is how you set boundaries. According to social worker and writer Nedra Tawwab, “The presence or lack of boundaries determines your quality of life.” It sounds like adding some boundaries to your friendships may improve your quality of life in relation to your mental health.

One boundary to set in your relationship with your friend who may be treating you more like their therapist could be about how they approach you with their needs. Right now, they’re likely reaching out and immediately diving into their current needs.

You can set a boundary by asking that they check in with you to see if you’re in the space to provide support before bringing up their needs. This allows you to be open to that conversation or to ask that they seek support elsewhere.

This might sound like your friend saying, “Hey Jeana, I had such a rough day. Is it cool if I chat with you about it?” with you responding by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear that you had a rough day. I actually am working through my own stuff right now and am not sure I’d be able to support you as much as I’d like. Can you reach out to your sister or another friend?”

Setting this boundary prior to your friend having a need can create safety so that your friend isn’t blindsided by your request.

A way to go about this boundary-setting conversation is through assertive communication. When we communicate assertively, we express our needs clearly and without aggression.

Therapist Nicole Arzt outlines how to use assertive communication effectively in her book Sometimes Therapy Is Awkward with the acronym ARC:

  • A: Acknowledge your part
  • R: Report the issue
  • C: Collaborate on a solution             

In the scenario we’ve been discussing, using ARC might sound like this:

  • A: I realize that I haven’t brought this to you before and that I’m usually a ready listener when you need to talk to someone.
  • R: I’ve noticed that I’ve not always had the emotional energy to be a supportive friend when you come to me with your needs.
  • C: I’m thinking we could ask permission before bringing up heavy topics. What are your thoughts?

With these tools, I’m hopeful that you can get back to being a friend and not a therapist. Good luck!

At Home Live Mental Health Think & Feel

About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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