My friends keep dumping their problems on me!
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 can't help others if you can't help yourself. This down-to-earth advice may seem difficult to heed when a friend comes calling, but 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. Clearly, you care a lot about your friends, and they seem to value your opinion, advice, and your listening skills. However, while you’re providing your friends with a shoulder to lean on, you may also need someone to vent, cry, and complain to from time to time.
You mention that sometimes you feel “used” by your friends. Though it may be uncomfortable, saying no, especially when you feel overwhelmed, is a healthy way to set boundaries in your friendship. On occasion, turning down a front-row ticket to your friend’s vent session doesn’t mean that you’re selfish or don’t care about them. It means you need some space to take care of yourself. Continuing to hear your friends out when it’s weighing you down can lead to resentment, which doesn’t support a healthy friendship. The simplest solution would be to gently let your friend know that it isn’t a good time for you to talk and suggest another time to talk or friend for them to turn to. Some suggestions may be, "I really want to support you, but it's not a good time to talk,” or “I'm not able to focus on this conversation right now. Would [insert appropriate name here] be able to help?" 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.
Something else to consider is the nature of your friendships. After all, a good friendship requires give and take from both people involved. Do you feel like you can confide in your friends when you have concerns or problems? Do your friends offer to talk to you if you seem to be having a hard time or a bad day? If you haven’t already, sharing your feelings might make your friend(s) feel better knowing that they're able to help you, too. If you aren't able to share in a reciprocal way, you may consider which friendships are also meeting your needs versus which ones are simply draining you. While some friendships may be lifelong, others only last certain periods of time, which is also okay.
If you’re feeling like you aren’t getting support from your friends and are feeling burdened by being there for your friends, you could be experiencing vicarious trauma. Also sometimes called secondary trauma, this is when a person empathizes heavily with someone who has undergone a traumatic experience and finds their own emotions and mood being affected because of this. A few questions you can ask yourself to gauge the impact of always being there for your friends include:
- Do you feel anger or sadness over your friend's situation? Are you becoming emotionally involved to the point where it's affecting your own life?
- Do you feel guilt, shame, or feelings of self-doubt over your friend's situation, or begin to feel like you're losing hope?
- Have you found yourself trying to avoid listening to additional traumatic experiences from others by distancing yourself from your friends, or numbing or detaching yourself from the conversation when they speak to you?
- Have you been overextending yourself to be there for your friends, beyond your set personal boundaries?
Even if these questions don't seem to relate exactly to your situation, there are some coping strategies that can be helpful to people suffering from vicarious trauma that are also great for your general mental health. Engaging in relaxing activities; having hobbies or interests separate from your friends; and taking breaks or space apart from your friends when needed are all possible ways to find some relief when you're feeling overwhelmed from constantly being there for your friends.
While you're no doubt a great listener, the problems your friends describe (drug abuse, violence, and depression) may be better suited to the support 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. What's more, you might think about making a counseling appointment for yourself. Speaking with a mental health professional may help you 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. Peer support can also be a fantastic resource, with possible benefits such as greater psychosocial support, having a shared space to talk comfortably and feel heard, an opportunity to release your frustrations instead of holding back, and being able to grieve and decrease your own stress levels as needed. Studies have shown that victims of vicarious trauma who attended peer support groups were able to feel less alone, find community, and feel supported.
No matter what you decide, self-compassion and self-care are two practices that can help relieve some of the weight on your shoulders. Self-compassion can help you work towards being more resilient and improving your communication and relationships with your friends. Practicing self-care through strategies such as taking time to do things you enjoy or find relaxing reminds you to prioritize yourself and make sure you're at your best before trying to support your friends. Armor or not, you’re a shining example of a great friend—but for now, you might consider coming down from your stead to your own aid.
Originally published Jan 25, 2008
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