Picture it—I stand before you, perfect erect posture, an ornate hat placed upon my head and bedecked in some sort of religious garb. I beckon you to come forth and hear my wise words and you are hypnotized by the image before you. The atmosphere mimics the final scene of that one movie where Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johansson’s ear and the audience is none the wiser but desperately wishes they were. This time you get to be privy to information. I gently say to you, “Stop being the therapist friend. It’s not necessary. Just be, like, a good supportive friend.”
You’re stunned. Silent. Let it sink in. Wash over you. But in all seriousness, I cannot stress to you enough, dear reader, that you stop taking on all your friend’s problems. Session after session I have clients who boast about being the “therapist friend” among their peer group. The one who is known as the sage advice giver, vessel of all things trauma and overall emotional dumping ground. They love being the secret keeper, the trusted ally, the paternal figure.
And it’s slowly killing them. Okay maybe not like, actually, killing them but it is causing a lot of psychological harm. Their stress levels are significant, they’re coming to see me (an actual therapist) to work through their issues and struggle with how to remain sane.
I felt compelled to write this blog because being the therapist friend is not okay.
Consequences of being a therapist friend:
- Increased feeling of stress
- Disruption of sleep habits (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep)
- Increased muscle aches/tension
- Decrease in ability to implement self-care/coping mechanisms.
Being a therapist in any capacity (licensed professional therapist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical psychologist, etc) requires at the very least a graduate degree. I went to school for 3 additional years after my undergrad. I earned 60 hours of Masters level coursework to do what I do. I also received appropriate training on how to professionally and ethically listen and support others and provide therapeutic interventions to empower them through their struggles. That’s not to mention the thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience that taught me how to effectively set professional and healthy boundaries with my clients. I say this not to brag (because all this work has put me into tremendous student debt so who’s the smart one here, really?) but to make the case that listening to your friends without setting appropriate boundaries is a quick way for you to be burned out.
What’s the remedy, you ask? How do I stop being the therapist friend without alienating everyone in my life? Boundaries. Sweet, sweet boundaries. I’ll pause for the disgusted eye roll I typically receive when I mention boundaries in session. For the life of me I have no idea how boundaries got such a bad rap. They are the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. You are not being a bad person if you set boundaries. You are giving those you love the exact criteria with which they can remain close to you without you feeling absolutely depleted after every gathering.
What exactly is a boundary? Well, dictionary.apa.org says this,
boundary. n. 1. a psychological demarcation that protects the integrity of an individual or group or that helps the person or group set realistic limits on participation in a relationship or activity.
When you set a boundary with someone in your life you are letting them know what they can expect from you and what you expect from them in return. It’s a generous act that creates trust between two people or even a group of people. It alleviates any uncertainty and can be renegotiated at any time as you grow and develop as a human being or as the relationship grows.
What sort of things can we set boundaries around? Healthline.com states,
We can set boundaries for our
emotions and thoughts
stuff or possessions
time and energy
culture, religion, and ethics
Anything you hold dear in your life is fair game for boundary setting. Not a hugger? You get to say so! Don’t feel comfortable talking about your sex life with that rando you just met on the bus? You don’t have to! Feeling exhausted and just invited to a get together a friend’s house? You can decline!
Boundaries are liberation!
How to Set Boundaries:
- Ask yourself, "What do I need?"
- Notice the things that don't feel good to you in your relationships as well as the things that do.
- Practice your communication skills--ask for what you need or let people know what is okay and not okay with you.
- Hold firm--if people continue to push your boundaries remind them this is important to you and you won't be bending.
How do we set boundaries with the people in our lives? Through communication. First, you must ask yourself, “What do I need?” That can be a scary question to ask yourself, especially if no one in your life modeled that question for you when you were growing up. There is no clear-cut answer which means you’ll have to lean into trusting yourself and know that what you ask for is exactly what YOU need.
Boundary setting is going to be a lot of trial and error, too. Maybe it’s resolving to spend time alone at least 3 days a week to recuperate from your busy professional life. At first saying no to friends and family may feel wrong, or like you aren’t being a good friend. But quickly you’ll come to experience how much better you are for taking that time for yourself. You can be more present when you do decide to spend time with those you love rather than feeling as though you’re burning the candle at both ends.
How do you share your personal boundaries with the folks closest to you? That can look like saying, “I would love to grab that glass of wine with you after work, but I am exhausted. Let’s meet up this weekend instead” or, “I really want to hear more about what’s going on with you, but I’m in the middle of an errand—can I call you back when I’m able to give you 100% of my attention?” You can also model appropriate boundaries by checking in with friends before starting a conversation, “Hey, I’m going through some difficult stuff right now, do you have the energy to hear about it?” Or by asking permission to touch them, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” For folks you are not necessarily close with and who boundary cross in ways that don’t feel safe to you, a simple “no” is sufficient. If you don’t like what a stranger is doing you have every right to assert your boundary and walk away.
What about friends who come to you with their mental health concerns? You may feel compelled to sit and listen and offer supportive feedback. You may also feel overwhelmed, underprepared and drained. Instead of allowing people in your life to inundate you with all of their personal struggles and trauma, you can model for them what you need and want from the relationship, “It sounds like you are going through a tough time. I want to support you as a friend, but this feels like it requires a professional's touch. Could I maybe help you find a therapist so you can get the support that you need?"
Boundary setting takes practice.
Sometimes it goes smoothly and those important to you will graciously abide by the boundaries set forth. In other instances it may not be so easy. It is realistic to expect push back from folks who have developed a habit of expecting more from you than you can feasibly give. That's not to say that you should give up, instead, this is an invitation to gain a better understanding of your dynamic with said person. You can acknowledge their feelings, and still hold true to the boundaries you've established. If anything, you're modeling to them how to develop their own.
If you have found yourself to be in the Therapist Friend role and are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders--give me a call. I love helping my clients identify and implement their personal boundaries so that they can develop into the supportive friend they wish to be.