How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Taking Care of Friends

If you have ever travelled by plane you may have noticed that the safety instructions state that in the event of an emergency, you should put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. It makes sense, right? It is hard to assist someone else if you are not stable or are struggling to breath yourself. The same principle applies to supporting a friend who is struggling: in order to help them effectively, you need to take care of yourself first.

As good as this advice is ,we all know that it can feel selfish to put ourselves first, but in reality, supporting a friend who’s struggling might require a lot of time, energy, and effort, and taking care of your own mental health will help you sustain yourself—and be a better support for your friend in the long run.

What To Do If You Are Having a Hard Time Supporting a Friend

Helping a friend or a loved one who’s struggling may bring up many different—sometimes even conflicting—feelings. You may feel empathy or sadness over what they are going through, or confused by why they are struggling so much or by what might be the most supportive thing to do. You may feel guilty that you didn’t help sooner, that you can’t do more for them, or that you feel reluctant to get too involved. If they are refusing help or not responding to your concerns in the way you’d hoped, you may feel frustrated or angry. And, as time goes on, you may just feel exhausted.

Feeling any, or all, of these emotions doesn’t make you a bad friend. All of these reactions are natural and understandable. Taking care of a friend or loved one who is struggling emotionally can take a toll on your own mental health. Plus, if you’re feeling frustrated or burned out, it will be harder for you to keep being supportive as your friend reaches out to you. So if you’re starting to feel like taking care of your friend is negatively impacting your own mental health, here are some ways you can take care of yourself.

Be Realistic About How Much You Can Give

Sometimes your friend might need support that you don’t have the bandwidth to give. It’s okay to be honest about how much you can give of yourself, whether you’re talking about time, emotional energy, or even practical support—like taking notes in class, covering a shift at work, or helping them find a therapist. Being upfront about how much you are able to give can help you from feeling over-extended, and can help your friend make decisions about their own support network.

It’s also okay if how you show up for your friend changes over time. For example, you might be willing to give more time and energy when your friend is experiencing a crisis, but as the crisis resolves, your friend might not need the same level of support—or may need long-term mental health support that you can’t provide. Or if you’ve been actively supporting a friend and something happens in your life that requires more of your time and attention, you may need to step back from helping your friend in order to take care of yourself. It’s important to continue to be honest with your friend about how much you can give.

Set Boundaries—And Stick To Them

As frustrating as it can be when a friend doesn’t respond to your efforts to start a conversation, it can also be overwhelming if a friend suddenly needs a lot of support. Knowing what your limits are, and communicating your limits clearly, can help you establish healthy communication during difficult times, and prevent resentment or pent up anger that could come out in hurtful ways.

In addition to setting boundaries about how much of your time and energy you are able to give you can set limits for other things, such as:

  • Telling your friend when they are behaving in a way that you find upsetting or worrying. Remember to use “I” statements and to focus on the particular behaviors and not vague descriptions. [link to advice for talking sheet]
  • Knowing what your own triggers are, and letting your friend know what you are and aren’t comfortable discussing. This is especially important if you are struggling with similar challenges.
  • Most likely, this friend isn’t the only person who relies on you. Maybe you are living with someone who has a mental illness, or you have a demanding job. Understanding your other responsibilities can help you support your friend in a way that won’t negatively impact the role you play in the lives of your family, colleagues, and other friends.
  • Knowing when to encourage your friend to seek help outside of conversations with you, or when it might be time to ask others for support.

Encourage Your Friend to Seek Help Outside Your Friendship

As a friend, you’re there to support your friend in figuring out to manage their challenges and improve their mental health. When you start a conversation with your friend, your goal is to encourage them to open up about what they’re struggling with and, if needed, prompt them to seek help from a mental health professional.

If you find that your friend is only coming to you with their difficult feelings and every conversation you’re having is about what they’re struggling with, it’s okay to set a limit with them. For example, you might say something like, “I’m here for you in whatever way I can be, but you’re working through something bigger than I can support alone. It’s going to be important for you to reach out to your support network and find things you can do, like self-care or finding a therapist, to start taking control of your own emotional health.”

Bring In Others to Help

In addition to encouraging your friend to expand their own support network, it’s important for you to remember that it’s not your sole responsibility to be there for your friend. If you start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of support your friend needs, it’s okay to reach out to family members, coworkers, mutual friends, or other adults you trust and see if they can help you support your friend while they’re struggling.

Talk To Someone About How You’re Feeling

If you’re concerned about a friend, you may suggest that they find a therapist or counselor they can talk to. If you’re concerned about your own mental health, the same goes for you. If you’re struggling to cope with the stress and anxiety of caring for your friend, or if you need help coping with other challenges in your life, it’s important to take care of yourself by seeking help. When you’re taking care of someone else, it can be easy to neglect your own needs, but it’s critical that you find the support you need to stay mentally healthy.

And if you have a positive experience with a therapist or counselor, you can share your experience with your friend and encourage them to seek help—it may make a difference in their perception of mental health services.

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