We’ve all likely had a friend who leans on us a bit too hard for support. And ordinarily, you don’t mind, because you want to be there for them. You want to be a good friend.. But just lately – or perhaps it’s been going on for a while – they’ve started asking even more of you… You’ve found yourself giving more of your time and energy to deal with their problems – to manage their life – and you’ve left yourself with nothing to fill your own cup. You want to continue to be supportive, but they keep on making huge withdrawals from your emotional bank account.
And so now, you’re in the red… But it doesn’t have to be that way. You need to set boundaries, but at the same time, you don’t want to abandon them. And while it might seem like an impossible situation, you can navigate this obstacle and strengthen your friendship at the same time – if you approach it in the right manner. And that’s by being completely transparent about your needs while also respecting their integrity. Your friend will respect your honesty and you can rest in the knowledge you’ve done the best thing. Both for you and them…
Discerning the Reason for Why It’s You
If your friend is making a request for emotional support in whatever the circumstances, it could be a relationship, financial issues, family or whatever else. It doesn’t matter what. First, you need to understand why they’ve chosen you to ask for support. What is it that you offer to them? This is vital to figure out, because it may actually be they consciously recognise you as someone that has very loose boundaries and is very giving of their time and so that’s why they’ve chosen you. In which case, you can save yourself a lot of guilt-tripping and self-shame when you set boundaries. However, it could be that you have specific qualities that make you the best person to seek support from. Maybe you know their situation better than anyone else? You’re more compassionate and empathetic – and therefore can offer them better advice.
Next, you make sure you know the nature of their issue. You need to understand exactly what’s being asked of you and why. Are you being sought out for validation of their thoughts and opinions? Are they looking for direct advice? Do they want you to make all their decisions for them? Do they just want to dump all of their emotional baggage on you to relieve themselves of their burden? Are they here simply to project onto you with no motivation to ever change or take responsibility for their life?
These are some tough questions, but you need to get clear on exactly what the dynamic is between the both of you, so you can properly set boundaries in a way that makes clear the unevenness of your current exchange, but that does so in the kindest possible way.
Setting the First Boundary
When it reaches the point where you’re ready to set boundaries for the first time, you need to be delicate. Tread lightly. And know that you’re holding someone’s feelings in your hands here. It’s a big responsibility. So, imagine how you’d like to be treated if the roles were reversed. Allow them the space to express themselves as they normally would. Make sure they feel listened to and fully understood before you come in with what you want to share.
The Roleplay of Setting Boundaries
Now, the response…. You want to make sure that whatever you do, you don’t say or do anything that would trigger them emotionally. This is obviously going to vary on a person-to-person basis. So be sure you know how you’re going to express yourself before you commit to what you want to say. What’s said can always be forgiven, but it will never be forgotten as the old saying goes. Make sure you’ve reflected back to them what they’re feeling and then ask if they’d mind if you surfaced something about your dynamic, as you’ve wanted to share something for some time and haven’t known how.
This request and telegraphing of what you want to share creates an expectation that the floor is now yours. You’re pretty unlikely to be turned down. And it softens the blow of what’s to come… Then comes the hard part. Honesty. You can’t sugarcoat things here. You have needs, too. And they need to be honoured and acknowledged, as well. But the best way of handling this is the proverbial ‘crap sandwich.’ Or, a somewhat politer way of describing it would be the ‘bad news sandwich.’ You probably know what this is already. You’re likely received one of these in the past. But if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s where you deliver a compliment to someone – something validating – followed up by the bad news followed up by caveat to the bad news if possible or something else positive about the person. This is the key ingredient here, and will ensure that your friend doesn’t feel abandoned when you set boundaries.
So here’s what it might look like in practice. You remind them how much they mean to you as a friend, and also mention how humbled you are that they’ve chosen you as their confidante to help them with their problem. The fact that they trust you really means a lot. (You can phrase this part however makes the most sense for your friendship). But lately, you’ve found it hard to remain as present – and you’ve got other responsibilities that are demanding of your energy. So you can’t continue to offer yourself in the way that you have been for so long.
Phrasing it in this way makes them seem like less of a burden, and it being more circumstantial that you can’t offer yourself in the same any more. Again, phrase part however is most appropriate to your dynamic. If you can be tactful. Be tactful. But if it’s one of those friends that just won’t take a hint. You’re gonna have to drop a bit of a truth bomb. But that’s your call. However, you’ve approached this, once you’ve got your bad news filling, you need to top it off.
And here’s your chance to show that you still support them. Make a suggestion of where else they might turn to for advice. Make sure you have your answer(s) ready and have a good argument for why whatever option you’re presenting them with would be a much better solution to their problem. But, at the same time, reassure them that you are there for them. You can even say, you’re not abandoning them.
You can still socialise and do things together, but you just can’t allow whatever problem they have to dominate all of your interactions. Because it just feels too heavy and dense for you to continue on like that… Again, you’re going to have to use your discernment here. This isn’t a prescription to solve everyone’s boundary issues. It’s intended to be a loose outline that will offer some insight as to how to navigate your own friendships.