Your Friends Are Not Your Therapist: How to Tell if Your Dynamic is Unbalanced

Throughout all the friendships I've had in all the different points in my life, I've somehow always managed to get designated the advice friend. I can't tell you if it's my face or my no-judgment type of love, but somehow I'm just always the friend who gets the 3 a.m. sobbing FaceTime requests. And let me just say there's nothing inherently wrong about being that friend. After all, I love my friends, and I'll happily miss my deadline to give a pep talk, but that's where the problem is. Like everything good, there's a "too much" side of the spectrum, and you might not be aware that you're operating on it. Here are some questions I've come up with to help you determine if you're not functioning in a healthy place with your go-to support friend.  

  1. 1. Are You in The Moment?

    I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of times I’ve found myself looking at the clock and realizing I’ve spent every minute I’ve hung out with a friend talking about them. Knowing you’ve lost your afternoon to talking about someone else’s boy drama isn’t something anybody wants to experience, but the realization that you had an active role in letting it happen in the first place feels so much worse. 

    We’re all guilty of needing to lean a little more on our friends from time to time, and if you read that and thought of a time where you were the one with the drama, that’s fine. I’m not here to condemn you for being a little selfish that one time with that one situation, I’m here to help you grow if you’re realizing this dynamic pretty much defines your relationship (yes, I’m even being your therapy friend and we don’t even know each other). A good tactic for catching yourself when you might be leaning too heavily on your friend is to get in the habit of doing in-the-moment check-ins with yourself. How much time has passed? Have the two of you only been talking about your problems? Can you name any new updates going on in your friend’s life? If the answers to those questions are making you feel a bit guilty, it might be time to engage with them about their life.

  2. 2. Are You Making Space For Them Like They're Making For You?

    In all fairness, creating space can be awkward sometimes. If you talk about your problems for an hour only to follow up with a forced “so how’s your life!” your friend will probably not feel like you’re genuinely interested in their answer. 

    Transitioning the subject can feel hard when your brain is still on your own issues, so my best tip is to make a brief exit before attempting to give your friend the spotlight. My go-to is a quick trip to the bathroom to powder your nose, but really any excuse you can make up will work so long as you’re giving both parties time to breathe from the topic at hand. Once you return to the conversation, try honing in on one point of interest rather than a general question. If your friend is used to your previously-unbalanced dynamic, they’re likely to simply dismiss a broad “how are you” question with a lukewarm shrug. 

    If you’re feeling up to being really constructive in your relationship, you can always just acknowledge the dynamic. Telling your friend up front that you recognize you haven’t been putting in the same effort they have and that you plan on changing that can be exactly what they need to hear to really open up to you. 

  3. 3. Do You Have Boundaries in Place? Are You Violating Them?

    No, it's not something we were taught in school, but that doesn't make it any less true: boundaries are crucial for all healthy relationships. In my personal experience, establishing boundaries in relationships that previously had none has saved countless of my friendships. If you're already hesitating to have that conversation with your friend, ask yourself why that is. 

    If your main concern is that you're not sure how to have that conversation-- good news: that's fine because setting boundaries is something you can definitely learn. But if your concern is something more anxiety-related, that could mean there's a bigger underlying problem in your relationship, and it's worth analyzing. If you're not sure if this feeling is exclusive to one relationship, think about what boundaries you'd like to establish in other relationships and see how that idea makes you feel. Anxiety about establishing boundaries can be a marker of a lot of things, including feeling unsafe in the relationship or low self-esteem, so it's worth talking to a professional about it.

    If you already have boundaries in place, ask yourself (or, if you're feeling constructive, your friend) if you're guilty of violating them. If your friendship has been defined by an imbalance for a long time, the other party might not feel comfortable enough to reassert the broken agreement or even acknowledge the violation. If this is the case, it might be best to simply communicate that you've realized your error and that you fully intend on honoring that boundary moving forward, as your friend might feel pressured to assure you it's not a problem when really that's not the case. Of course, people can need different things at different times, and your friend might want to take that boundary back, but since that's something they decide, it's best to assume their mind hasn't changed just because you had a misstep. 

Your friends aren't your therapist because they're not licensed professionals. Yes, sadly, your friends haven't received extensive counseling training, but that doesn't mean you can't start seeing someone who has. Therapy is a great option if you're struggling with something out of your friends' depth, and I promise you going to therapy can help with all of your relationships.