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How to be the “Therapist” Friend Without Losing Yourself in the Process

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m an around-the-clock therapist. I always pick up my phone because I never know who could be calling me with an emotional emergency; I often relay advice about everything from relationship drama to resumé editing, and I’ve seen almost all of my friends in tears at least once. I pride myself on the fact that people have always felt comfortable sharing their difficulties with me. There’s a running joke about the “attorney-client privilege” between me and my friends, and I have literally received texts for Mother’s Day. 

All that being said, as much as I love being the person other people come to for advice and emotional support, years of always being “available” left me drained and jaded about other people’s issues. These feelings not only negatively affected my life, but also diminished the quality of help I could give to my friends. I realized that as much as the people in my life opened up to me, I wasn’t able to be vulnerable with them in return. A lot of my listening and indulging people about their lives was actually compensating for the lack of my openness with them.

So, from a full-time “therapist friend” still figuring things out for herself, here are some tips on how to best offer advice and emotional support without allowing yourself to be swept away in the process.

Ask people what they want from you.

It may sound counterintuitive to ask a question to someone who wants you to listen. However, I’ve found that a simple “do you want advice or do you want me to just listen?” can be one of the most effective ways to make sure you don’t overstep your bounds. Being someone’s shoulder to cry on can mean just doing that, or it can mean being the person that wipes away their tears and helps them back to work. However, knowing what someone needs out of a “session” allows you to help them in the best way possible — without stressing yourself out in the process.

Cater your response to the person you’re talking to.

Not everyone can or should be advised in the same way! The key to really helping other people is knowing how to approach them when they’re going through different things. Some people need an emotional response; they need to be comforted before they’re receptive to your advice. Others need straightforward and practical solutions to their problems without any sugar–coating. Perfecting your approach to each person will make your help that much more valuable and time–efficient.

Don’t think “what would I do?”

This should go without saying but is often misunderstood. When you’re making good decisions for yourself, you need to balance emotion with logic and consider the circumstances; in the same way, you can’t consistently advise people by telling them to do what you would do. Firstly, we often don’t even make the best choices for ourselves. But second, what works for you won’t for everyone else, especially since you can never truly put yourself in someone else’s situation.

Pause before picking up the phone or replying to a text. 

Sometimes, it’s necessary to prioritize your mental health over others. Is it 2 A.M. and do you have a huge test tomorrow and you know your friend’s romantic drama can wait another day? Go to sleep. Have you been struggling with something and haven’t received the same support from your friends? Maybe don’t bear the burden of their problems on top of yours. 

Make sure to have someone you go to for help.

This goes hand–in–hand with the last tip. While you can be everyone else’s person, you need to have your own person or people, too, for your sanity. Whether it’s your mom or your best friend, having someone to lean on can make all the difference. A support network will also make sure that you open up to other people. Never get so busy helping other people that you can’t be vulnerable yourself because the most valuable relationships are founded on trust.

Remember you can’t “fix” everyone or everything.

Last but not least, not everything can or should be “repaired.” First off, you’re not a professional. If someone comes to you with serious mental health difficulties, you can and should support them, but you also can’t handle everything alone. It’s best to recommend a professional, someone who has the experience and training to really help. However — and this is particularly important for relationships — just because you’re accustomed to helping people, doesn’t mean you can “change someone else for the better.” If you try to force someone to change when they don’t want to, it’ll only hurt both of you in the long run. 

Being the person that others come to when they’re struggling can be a huge privilege, but it’s also a significant responsibility. Make sure to give advice the right way and reserve enough emotional strength at the end of the day to deal with your own problems. Good luck with your counseling, and remember to be kind to yourself and those around you!

Lexi Boccuzzi is a Penn sophomore in the College majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Stamford, CT. She is an avid country-music listener, reader, and fan of all things Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Gilmore Girls. She loves to chat about politics and is also studying classics and legal studies.
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