How to establish emotional boundaries but still help depressed friend?
October 23, 2012 7:12 AM   Subscribe

How to establish emotional boundaries but still help depressed friend?

I have a friend that I'm pretty sure is depressed. I am a "helping" person and have some mental health background, but am realizing it does no good when it comes to friends. So far I've mainly just listened to her, but I walk away feeling emotionally upset for a while. I spent most of my youth/young adulthood in a fog of negative thinking and low self-esteem (I think it was depression but it was never diagnosed) and have been feeling much better in my adult life, so I think it also shakes me up to hear and see my former self in her. We're at very different places in our lives and listening to her makes me feel guilty about it (there's a good deal of, "everyone else I know like you has x, y, and z, and I have nothing" - which of course can be challenged but I tried and it was a mistake to do so).

Our friendship is not all gloom and doom, I genuinely enjoy hanging out aside from these talks. I think I just need to know how to put up emotional boundaries to protect myself but still be there for her.

We've talked minimally about therapy and it didn't go well. Sorry I think this post is a little vague which I am doing on purpose.

Also I think it's a good example of why I'm a "wannabe" counselor and not a real one, ha.
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What about getting your friend to do things that occupy their thoughts? Exercise helps a lot. Hobbies too. Give them something else to focus on.
posted by gorcha at 7:17 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll use to think about the things that your friend complains about and prepare yourself to say, "let's not talk about that. I end up feeling bad afterwards and you release some steam but never make the changes needed to effect real change so it's a cycle that does neither of us any good." It'll be really hard but if you want to keep the friendship and your mental health then you'll have to do it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:22 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

"let's not talk about that. I end up feeling bad afterwards and you release some steam but never make the changes needed to effect real change so it's a cycle that does neither of us any good."

Another way to do this is to just let her say what she wants to say, but not engage with it--to not reason with her, to not argue with her, to not invest in her logic, whatever it is. If you can just listen without feeling compelled to problem-solve, it can be easier.
posted by liketitanic at 7:31 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Now is the time where you can be a "real friend" or keep perpetuating this cycle.

Here's what I'd say:

"Friend, I really enjoy your company and lately it seems that you're expressing a lot of negative thoughts and emotions. I'm not a professional, but I went through a period of depression myself and it really helped to discuss my feelings with a doctor and a counselor. Our talks lately leave me feeling guilty and uneasy. While I want to support you, being a sounding board for your unhappiness isn't a good place for me to be. Is it possible that when we're together that we can focus on other topics?"

If your friend would rather wallow, a bit of distance would be good for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:40 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My boss has a rule: you can complain to me, but you can't whine at me. That's a rule everyone should have, because whining is unproductive. At least complaining vents a little steam.

Another thing I've noticed is that a lot pf people, depressed or otherwise, will call their helpful friends and lay out their troubles for them, hoping the friend will offer to help. Stop offering help. That doesn't mean stop helping, it just means you have to subtly force these people to focus outside of their own heads long enough to verbalize what they want.

(I'm not saying you shouldn't offer help in the normal way. Rather, stop responding to the "solve all my problems for me" implications, like:

You: Hi, what's up?
Them: So, my car is broken and I don't have any money.... [waiting for you to offer money or repair help])
posted by gjc at 7:46 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're at very different places in our lives and listening to her makes me feel guilty about it

You have felt guilty listening to her, but you don't have to. If you think about it, you'll realize you have nothing to feel guilty about. Then you will be able to listen to her without feeling guilty.
posted by callmejay at 8:39 AM on October 23, 2012

Could you have meetings or phone times with pre-set endings? E.g., have lunch before your 2:00 p.m. meeting or appointment. Talk on the phone 15 minutes before you need to go somewhere.

Or have an activity -- let's go to a movie or an art exhibit. So there might be depression sharing before or after, but during the movie or at least partly during the exhibit there is another topic. And definitely have a time when you leave so that you can manage the amount of time you do the listening part.

I also agree that you can listen and nod yet not fully empathize with every painful thought. I mean, I'm not saying be a robot, but you don't have to fully immerse yourself in the depression experience. It's her depression, not yours.

Also agree that you can explicitly set limits: "Okay, in a few minutes I think we need to switch topics or take a break. It's getting hard for me to listen and engage, because I am managing my own depression/memories of depression, and talking about this for too long gets painful for me." or "I want to support you, and I am happy to listen as a friend, but I can only listen for so long. if you need more then I think you need to speak with a professional."

Good luck! These are good skills to learn I think.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:50 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your friend, in addition to being generally depressed, maybe has some legitimate reasons to be frustrated with her life right now. She's comparing herself to her peers and her life doesn't seem to measure up. She's not meeting some expectations she had set for herself. That's a problem for a lot of people at various times in their lives -- and I think it's a problem for more people than usual in this economy.

I think if I were you, I would focus on being PREEMPTIVELY cheerful and encouraging, and building up your friend's sense of self-worth. Engage your friend in activities she enjoys and is good at -- board games, hiking, baking cookies whatever. Talk up her strengths, in a truthful and encouraging way -- not when she's fishing for compliments, but just randomly when opportunities arise. Say things like, "Oh, I love that shirt with those shoes. I wish I had your sense of style" (if that applies) or "You always pick the best movies to watch" or "You make the best spaghetti ever." Whatever actually applies. All the time. Not just when she's talking about how bad she feels about herself.

Make her feel valuable by giving her non-stressful opportunities to feel like she's helping YOU. Like, "Could you recommend a good book to me on subject X? I know you know a lot about it" or "Could you teach me that card shuffling trick you do? It's really cool."

When she's feeling down and needs to rant, listen for a little while, but not so long that you feel like you're drowning. Put an end to it by saying "It sounds like you really need cheering up," and then propose something to do (a walk in the park, watching cheesy TV shows, having a picnic indoors, whatever she CAN do easily and would enjoy, that won't cause her financial or emotional distress).

Maybe you could also find a way to bring up the fact that you used to be depressed in a conversation that is not about her, and say that you wish you had tried therapy to get through it faster. That way it doesn't sound like you are trying to tell her what to do with her own health.

Don't feel guilty about your own recent success in life. It has put you in a position to be there for other people who could use a good friend. That is a good thing!
posted by BlueJae at 9:07 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

With my friend who is like this, I started asking her "are you venting or do you want my advice?" She knows I think she needs therapy, she knows I think pining for her f-buddy is unhealthy, she knows I think she's a diva about her work so her work-drama is within her control to change ... she already knows those things so I don't repeat them. I just say "you already know what I think, I will support you with whatever you choose to do to make yourself happy." And that's that. If she compares herself to others (and she does) then I say "everyone has struggles, you just don't know theirs." These days she usually prefaces what she's saying with "I'm just venting" so all I have to say is "that sucks, sorry you feel that way, bummer, yay retail therapy," etc. And then I say "ok now it's my turn" and I bitch about my life or talk about my kids or whatever.
posted by headnsouth at 9:30 AM on October 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

Stay in touch with her. Suggest doing simple stuff together, along the lines of 'let's grab lunch' or 'let's get coffee'. (Is there a park she likes to go to or something?). Talk to her about things that interest her - gossip, politics, science, the environment, feminism, whatever. The topics will depend on your friend, but things she's interested in and will warm up to and chatter about if the subject's brought up.

If she gets off on a 'my life sucks' spiel, definitely tell her you've been there and understand how she feels. Try not to be dismissive of it, but don't encourage it. I think the best way to think about this is not so much 'how do I keep her from talking about how bad she feels', but 'how do I get her talk about other stuff'.

Basically the idea is to try to get her out of the house beyond the routine of going to work, coming home and maybe buying groceries, and helping her stay engaged with things outside of herself she's interested in.

I've been through some pretty serious depression myself. My friends handled it in various ways. What I've described is what some of my friends did that actually seemed to help.
posted by nangar at 10:23 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having been in the position of your friend, I think what would have, or did really help was having activities, company and reassurance.

If she is reluctant to try antidepressants, buy her vitamin D3 tablets (2000 iu is a good place to start) and molecularly distilled omega 3 tablets and tell her to take them every day because ultimately she is going through a chemical imbalance that can be rectified with time.

Try to objectify depression as a disease and detach yourself from what she is saying because it's her demons that make her think like this, and letting it out helps her to purge the negative emotions from her mind. She has a lot of those right now, so she has to do this often, and ask her questions so she can untangle her thoughts and clear out her mind!

Listen sympathetically when you can but if it starts to upset you, tell her (gently), reassure her that things will get better, and suggest doing something fun to take her mind off things e.g. watching a funny movie together or some form of exercise-- be it on the wii, going for a walk or run or playing some squash together.

Also something that really helped me was just filling my time with activities and people. If it is not too much commitment, hook her up with an activity, like a photography or volunteering club or choir or church service. send her moral support texts and only intervene when she is having a bleak day with hot tea, a funny movie and a tuck in.

Don't overcommit yourself because obviously you must have your own priorities and goals, but going through this with someone can be very bonding, and she is very lucky to have a friend who is kind enough to be willing and even wants to be there for her through such a dark time.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 10:43 AM on October 23, 2012

Decide what you can offer her. Maybe you can listen to her vent for 10 minutes. Express that to her so she knows what you can offer her. That way, you don't offer more than you can give and she won't be expecting you to give something other than that which you can. She can then look to others to fulfil the rest of her needs.

Also, ask her what she needs. If she expresses a need for something that you can offer her ("X"), then decide how much of X you can give, tell her how much that is and then give it to her. If she wants something that you can't offer ("Y"), then let her know that. You'll both be better served because there won't be a mismatch between expectations and reality.

Make sure that you're not trying to give her something that you can't give. I know it's tempting to jump into this sort of situation feet first. Someone is hurting and you want to stop them from hurting. The thing is, even trained therapists need time to help their patients. They can't just solve every problem immediately. And that's assuming that the person wants to change. Wanting to help someone doesn't mean that you can, or that they're even in a place to be helped.
posted by Solomon at 1:22 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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