• Resolving Problems

My friend needs more than I can give her

December 18, 2015 | By | 18 Replies Continue Reading
What do you do when an anxious friend needs more of you than you can handle?

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I have had a very close friend for the past eight years. She has always been the needier person in the relationship; she likes to talk on the phone for hours, and wants to meet up several times a week, often asking me to travel an hour to see her. My friend struggles with depression and anxiety, and so these phone calls and meet-ups usually become one-sided conversations in which I listen to her problems.

In the past year, she has come close to attempting suicide several times. Each time, I managed to convince her not to go through with it. She got a therapist after the first incident but now even her therapist is a source of anxiety for her. I feel guilty, but the constant crises are starting to wear on me and I don’t know how much more I can handle.

Everything – even good things – is turned into a problem in her eyes, and I always have to be the one to calm her down. If I don’t check my phone throughout a day, sometimes I’ll come back to several missed calls, texts, and even emails. I have a job and take night classes, and I’m often so tired when I get home that I dread getting another hour-long phone call. Even thinking about her is enough to make me anxious and unhappy.

For my own sanity, I need to limit how often we talk or see each other, but I’m worried that it will push her over the edge. She has often told me that I am the only steadying influence in her life, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I start to pull back. What can I do?

Signed, Angie

ANSWER

Hi Angie,

You sound like a very empathetic and understanding friend but this friendship is taking its toll on you.

It would be helpful to both you and your friend if you told her that you want to remain friends but need to set some reasonable limits regarding the amount of time and energy you can commit to “being there” for her.

For example, you can explain that you come home tired from your work and classes, and need to limit your evening phone calls to no more than 15 minutes x times a week. You can also tell her that the number of calls, texts and emails you receive throughout the day are having an effect on your own mental health and productivity. Let her know that you can’t be on duty 24/7. You need to be clear and direct.

It’s unfortunate that your friend is feeling so depressed and anxious, and it’s great that she’s in treatment. In addition to her therapist, does she have other family and friends who can take some of the burden off of you? What does your friend do all day? Can you help her get involved with a support group or self-help program of some type?

If you feel responsible for your friend’s safety and well-being, you have gone from being her friend to being her counselor.

It would be cruel to suddenly cease all contact but if you don’t make serious efforts to set reasonable boundaries, it is going to continue to have adverse consequences for you and the friendship.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Depressed friends, Needy friends, RESOLVING PROBLEMS

Comments (18)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jackie says:

    My youngest passed away after an undiagnosed illness. Have been diagnosed with MDD and PTSD. No vibrancy left just a sad person who doesn’t inflict her really bad days on her friends. Leaving me alone heart broken and wondering why im still here

    • Irene says:

      So very sorry for your loss, Jackie. It’s understandable that you would feel heartbroken and depressed. Have you spoken to your physician? That might be a helpful first step. Best, Irene

  2. Tracy says:

    Thank you. I never looked at it that way. I hope she is continuing with therapy because that may help her see how damaged our rela became on several levels. Whether she reaches out to me is yet to be seen.

  3. Tracy says:

    This is not the other poster Tracy.

    I haven’t read all the comments just the OP’s problem. I think the last paragraph of your letter says it all. You are afraid if you dial back your support it will push her over the edge. That statement gives clarity that you have moved from friendship to taking on responsibility for her well being. That’s not a good idea. You really need those boundaries in place because even more than this being exhausting for you – it is dangerous for her. She might feel that you are her answer and you cannot afford to have her rely on you in this needy way. Her relationship with her counselor needs to build so that she can get help there and not become a burden to you – a friend.

    • Sandra says:

      Tracy, your advice here is wise and absolutely spot on. I had a neighbor-friend with a mental health issue that got worse as time wore on. She began leaning on my friendship to the point where it was more than i could bear. At the advice of our pastor then, who knew the situation, I was told — for my safety — to end the friendship. I wish I hadn’t allowed things to get to that point.

  4. Becky says:

    Hello there

    I have been dropped by my friend, she dumped me by text didn’t explain. She just said she could not give me the support I needed, that is nothing personal. It was really cruel and it hurt me so much, its broken me to be honest. My father had just died suddenly 3 weeks before, I was grieving and was just mess, but wasn’t leaning on her much at all, I always tried to keep everything as positive and light as I could even though I was in pain. Shortly after myself and my partner broke up.

    I have soul searched and tried to get her back as a friend but she went no contact. There is nothing I can do.

    I feel hurt that she didn’t come and talk to me like a grown up and treat me with respect, even if we had some distance for a while that would have been less cruel, cold and hurtful.

    I have avoided going to events she goes to coz I am still hurting.

    I suppose it’s like anything. Time heals as they say.

    I focused on meeting new people and have made some great new friends, but am just feeling a bit reflective also.
    Best of luck hope it works out.

    Becky

    • Shaz says:

      Hi Becky,
      I lost my dad a few years back and I found some people just evaporated because death and grief makes them uncomfortable. It forces people to confront what they don’t want to. I honestly felt like I was walking around with a black cloud hanging over me. I did have a great support system at church, but unfortunately I found that one or two other people who reached out in friendship (work etc) ended up turning everything around to be about them and their problems and that was way too much for me to handle at that time. I was so full of anxiety.

      Even at church, most of the people my own age steered clear, or seemed to make flippant comments (argh). But, I’m still in touch with one girl there who moved away, but was there for me through it. Not through words, but just being there so I had someone to stand with at coffee break when I wanted to hide in the toilets or run away.

      Your focus on meeting new people is a really good idea. I took myself along to some classes to meet new people and to just do something fun and it really helped my state of mind.

  5. Tracy says:

    I empathize with the poster and all the feedback is actually helpful to me. It is so easy to become too available when one is a kind, open hearted person such as yourself.
    I am in this situation with my sister and because of her resentment towards me pulling back, we haven’t spoken in person since August. We have exchanged texts where I set heavy boundaries and she becomes combative and mean. So I then have to block her texts.
    I feel sad and guilty at times but I also know I don’t miss the drama and constant draining of my emotions. One day I hope to be in contact but with new relationship rules in place. For now I am still in protective mode.
    When the relationship crosses over in to you being the pseudo therapist it can bite you in the rear.

    Good luck. You have support here.

  6. Barbara says:

    Angie, this is going to sound like an extreme response, but your story makes me think of this one – you’ve probably seen it:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3368629/Scheming-student-faked-terminal-cancer-web-lies-led-college-tutor-losing-marriage-home-job-jailed-two-years.html

    The girl in this story just wanted someone to look after her, and was prepared to do whatever it took to keep that someone looking after her. She didn’t mind lying and manipulating – she probably made exceptions for her behaviour to herself as she did those things. She almost certainly didn’t plan. She just took advantage, but she took as much advantage as was available.

    I’ve had a friend who took advantage of me. She was in a pretty bad situation, with three boys and a personality disordered ex-husband in jail. Two of her boys had problems, and she was on the other side of the world from her family and not permitted to return home and take the children from their father. I was available for her – she was very sweet, and wept if pressured. If she thought she needed me, she was shameless in her requests. I became exhausted. My family and my health suffered.

    She didn’t give back, even when she could, and our conversations were all about her. Still I gave, because of her need, and because she was so sweet. Then one day she said something to me about a new medication for one of her sons, and I recognized a tone in her voice. She was using her son’s problem as social currency and was eager, even excited, to get attention about it, while pretending to be upset.

    I withdrew, and she complained. I helped get her home to her parents, and I don’t contact her.

    I have come to understand that some people, perhaps without knowing it, are looking for that special friend with a big heart and open arms. I feel that that’s what a friend should be, so that’s what I’ve been. But if you are that type of person, a friend in need will find you and fall into your open arms, and cling to you. If you collapse under the strain, the friend will find someone else, probably. It sounds as if your friend needs more support than you can give her.

    If your friend is not giving you equal time and attention, withdraw. You MUST set healthy boundaries and look after yourself.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi Angie, you sound like a wonderful friend. I agree with the other posters that your friend needs more help, and that is professional help. This is not what a friend can give. Can you help your friend reach out to a professional? If she doesn’t want to, that is your friend’s decision. A friendship is different than what is going on between you and her right now. Does she have family she can talk to and who can help her get the professional help she needs? I wish you both the best.

  8. Whitby says:

    Angie, I am just going to reiterate what everyone else here has said. But my own personal experience (as both a sufferer from depression and the go-to “friend”) has illustrated how powerful guilt can be (at least for me), so I thought that reinforcement might be in order. First, Ben is completely right – no matter how much support you provide, you cannot “fix” your friend’s disorder. Only she – with appropriate medical and therapeutic care – can do that. Second, being a friend and being a counselor are two completely different things – and they should be. When in similar situations, I have aways founds it helpful to remember that I am not a trained therapist, and therefore cannot provide what this person would need. And you do really need to take care of yourself. No one else in this world will or can – and would the world or your friend be better off if you developed a full-fledged anxiety disorder? I agree with Irene – set some boundaries. Don’t just drop her (that would be cruel), but tell her that you can’t be there 24/7. Figure out what time commitment you can reasonably make, and insist upon it. Otherwise, she will suck you dry – and for decades to come.

  9. Amy F says:

    Hi Angie,

    You and your friend have gotten into an unhealthy pattern in your relationship, which has created a power imbalance. In such situations, resentment can easily develop. By being a de facto therapist for her, you may be inadvertently preventing her from using her professional treatment team and her own internal resources. What she might think she needs in the short term could very well be impeding her long term progress.

    You’ll be doing her a kindness by being direct, rather than simply stepping back. I’d say something like this, “I’m feeling frustrated by the amount of time and energy in our relationship that focuses on your depression and anxiety. This isn’t about you, but about what I need to feel comfortable. Next time you have a crisis, I ask that you call your therapist or a crisis line. I need this from you.”

    If she becomes angry or manipulative, I’d say, “Please respect my boundaries. I’ve told you this is what I need.” Then I’d end the conversation. Don’t engage in a lengthy conversation. If she threatens suicide, tell her you’re going to call 911 if she can’t keep herself safe, they will help her. You wouldn’t be
    calling to be mean, but to be helpful to her.

    Good luck. I hope this works out.

    • Amy F says:

      Oops I thought it didn’t post the first time.

    • Ruth says:

      I agree with everything Amy said. I want to add that because of what happened it’s time to examine your own contributing behavior to the problem in order to not allow a friendship to get out of hand again.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I had a similar situation with a neighbor who also used to be a coworker. For a while, everything was fairly normal and our relationship was good. She was a lovely person, but years of alcohol abuse and depression caught up with her after she learned her husband had an affair.

    As things in her life got worse, little by little, she began to rely on me like your friend does, Angie. My friend was later diagnosed with bipolar depression, which explained many of her outbursts and unrealistic expectations of our friendship. In the meantime, whenever I tried to back away, she would bombard my family with emergency phone calls — and it terrified my young son at the time. One time, after she was released from the emergency room following an emotional breakdown, she had the cab driver drop her off at my home.

    That’s just a little of what went on before I finally had to end the relationship — for my own safety and the well-being of my family. Your friend should be getting help from a therapist — and you should not have to endure emotional blackmail for protecting yourself.

  11. Amy F says:

    Hi Angie,
    Sometimes being too available for a mentally ill or needy friend can actually enable that friend from seeking or utilizing professional treatment. While trying to be helpful, you may inadvertently be impeding her recovery.
    Unequal relationships are always difficult. Because of the power imbalance, resentment can easily develop. It would be one thing if over the 8 years of your relationship the balance between giving and taking shifted back and forth, but you and your friend are in a dysfunctional pattern that’s not healthy for either of you.
    I would be direct and honest, if this were my friend. I’d say something along the lines of, “I’ve been frustrated lately with the amount of energy in our friendship that’s geared on your depression and anxiety. I care about you and want to be your friend, nor pseudo therapist. Im going to ask you to call your therapist or a suicide helpline next time you have a crisis.”
    Her reaction is not your responsibility. If she makes threats or goes into manipulation mode, don’t engage in the discussion. Say, “My boundaries are about what I need from the relationship. Please respect them.” If she threatens suicide tell her you’re going to call 911, not so they can protect her because you care.
    Good luck.

  12. Ben says:

    Having experienced major depression before I can tell you no one could have rescued me or made me feel better about me. When I was suicidal no amount of well-wishing or compassion changed my outlook. If your friend needs professional help all you can do is point them in that direction. Depression screws up one’s perception so that the brain does not have the capability to process information compared to someone who is not depressed. Even the bible says, “a depressed spirit, who can bear it?” The truth is no one can. You are not responsible for anyone else’s well being but your own. If you can be a friend just do what you can and leave it at that. You are not responsible for that person’s misery or responsible for meeting her needs. If they react negatively to your backing away that’s on them as well.

  13. Lisa says:

    Hi Angie,

    This is a delicate situation. I have had the same scenario, it drained me until I could no longer take it. I reached out to her therapist and told them what was going on. I felt that I was sure she wasn’t telling the therapist how often or how much demand she was placing on me. They did not know this but, have included in therapy to not depend on me so much. I think this could be something for you to think about. Your mental state and health are depending on this. I felt I needed help in order to salvage the relationship. There might need to be a medication adjustment or change. I wish you the best in this situation.

Leave a Reply