My friends keep dumping their problems on me!

Originally Published: January 25, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I'm the peacemaker among my friends, the introverted listener. But lately I find myself dealing with my friends and their problems more than ever. The problems drift from abuse in their homes, relationship problems, suicide, and MORE! It seems like I'm walking around with the weight of the world on my shoulders — literally, and its making me dive headfirst into depression. Don't get me wrong, I like being trusted and thought wise for advice I give, but sometimes I know I'm just being used, and all I need to do is listen. But I also feel helpless towards many of the situations, example, drug abuse or violence in their homes. They're expecting my help most of the time! I can't suggest counselors, because it's un-thought of here, my friends usually have been to more than their fair share in their years, and it flat out doesn't work. Our school counselors are bogus, teachers really don't listen, and I'm a small girl who can't necessarily take on the world!! On top of trying to help friends of mine (close and not-to-close)I've got my own problems too! It's insane.

—The Shining Knight in Armor-NOT!

Dear Shining Knight in Armor-NOT!,

Someone once said that you cannot help others if you cannot help yourself. This down-to-earth advice may seem difficult to heed when a friend comes calling, however taking care of yourself is the surest way to be the best friend you can be. By venting, unloading, complaining, crying, and sharing feelings humans are able to process emotions and relieve ourselves from some of the weight of day-to-day problems. It's wonderful that your opinion, advice, or sometimes just your listening skills, are so needed and appreciated by others. However, while you are providing your friends with a critical service, you have limits, and as you point out, you may also need someone to vent/cry/complain to from time to time.

When the weight of friends' woes starts to drag you down, it may be time to try saying no. The simplest solution would be to gently let your friend know that it is not a good time for you to talk and suggest another friend for them to turn to. Something like, "I really am concerned about your problem, but it's not a good time to talk, I'm not able to focus on this conversation right now. Can you call [insert appropriate name here]?" If you find it difficult to draw the line at first, you might consider presenting an excuse, such as having homework you need to get done. Alternatively, if the situation permits, when your friend is through unloading you could turn the tables a bit and start telling them about your own problems. After all, a good friendship is a reciprocal one, and your friend might feel better knowing s/he is able to help you.

While you are no doubt a great listener, the problems your friends describe — drug abuse, violence, and depression — are serious enough to require the attention of a professional. Teachers and counselors are often a good starting place, but since you haven't had much luck so far at your school you may want to speak with other adults, such as a dean, a trusted coach, or other administrators. If you are at Columbia, you can encourage a friend to make an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services (call x4-2878). What's more, if you are feeling like a damsel who needs to de-stress you could make a counseling appointment for yourself to strategize ways to avoid overloading your own plate with friends' problems.

Other organizations including your church, temple, mosque or local community center may have resources your friends can pursue. Additionally, there are links in the Related Q&As below that refer readers to cheap or free services, which includes but is not limited to counseling. Armor or not, don't beat yourself up too much: you've done all that you can for your friends, making you worth infinitely more than your weight in gold.

Alice