Advice from therapists: How to set healthy boundaries with your neediest friends

Illustrated by Laura Breiling for Yahoo Lifestyle
Illustrated by Laura Breiling for Yahoo Lifestyle

For people in the helping professions — like nurses, counselors, or social workers — boundary-building can be challenging, to say the least. Contrary to the impression that these professional helpers are bottomless vats of compassion and objectivity, they are human beings first, explains psychologist Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais.

She says that many in her social circle operate on the assumption that she will always listen, be there, and put up with anything, because isn’t that after all what a therapist does? “If I did that, I would have nothing left for clients,” she says.

Sound familiar? That’s because humans are hardwired for empathy, and it’s part of our nature to genuinely want to connect with others. But navigating the murky waters between listening and being a springboard for others to vent their frustrations can be tricky for the people-pleasers among us. Even qualified helpers who take care of people for a living struggle to find the line between their personal and professional lives.

To help you avoid these energy-draining pitfalls, we asked therapists to share advice about how they set healthy boundaries with friends and family. Here’s what they had to say:

Stay Grounded

Sure, this one might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to get sucked into the role of problem-solver for those we love. But, as Singh Bais says, the very act of establishing boundaries is compassion in itself, “because you’re fostering a healthy sense of individuation and doing away with dependency.”

Not everyone’s going to be thrilled you’re no longer on the the people-pleasing path, she says, but that’s on them. “I use the analogy given to us every time we fly: In the event of turbulence, you put the oxygen mask on yourself first,” she said. “If I am not centered, I am of no service to others, and it defeats the larger purpose of our lives.”

Remember Friendship Isn’t One-Sided

We all have people in our lives who might take a little more than they give, but the point here is whether our interactions always revolve around them. “Some people fuel you and help to replenish your energy, but others can drain you dry,” says Jill Howell, a licensed counselor and author of the book Color, Draw, Collage: Create Your Way to a Less Stressful Life!

She cautions us to carefully choose who we spend our time with while it’s always important to be a good listener, it’s equally important that our friendships aren’t one-sided. Give a bit of advice, but not too much, she recommends. After all, a good friend needs to let you unload too.

Follow Your Gut

And in case you can’t be sure who the energy-suckers in your life are, Howell wants to remind you to follow your instincts you already know when you are giving too much, she says. “Imagine that whatever you said yes to was suddenly canceled; are you relieved? This is a sign that you shouldn’t have said yes to begin with,” Howell explains. “Of course, there are always things that we just have to do that we would rather not. Use your judgment. Spend your time with the people that lift your energy not the drainers!”

Learn to Say No

Learning to say no is incredibly difficult for us people-pleasers, but it’s also incredibly worthwhile. Sure, it might make our hands sweat, but setting and maintaining boundaries means that we must be comfortable with saying no, says psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish. “Anyone who loves you and truly cares about you should be concerned with your comfort level and feelings,” she says.

And if the word “noseems downright scary, she recommends gently using phrases such as, “I’m not comfortable taking a position on that,” or “It doesn’t work for me to take a side.”

Flip the Switch on How You View Self-Care

For psychologist Dr. Juli Fraga, taking care of yourself is taking care of your family. “As a people-pleaser myself, I’ve realized it’s all too easy for me to say yes to helping others when I forget to reflect on my own needs,” she says. While we may feel guilty or selfish for saying no, erasing one’s own needs to take care of someone else is a precarious setup, which can lead to feelings of exhaustion, resentment, and burnout, she explains.

Fraga says to ask yourself, “What are my needs, and how will they be affected if I say yes to helping my family member or friend?” The key here is paying attention to how you are feeling.

“If you’re not in a solid emotional place, everyone suffers,” she explains.

Don’t Try to Fix People

Hoo boy! Hands up if you’ve done this. Turns out, it’s a big no-no (are we surprised?). “The biggest way that clinicians separate work with clients from their personal life is through intention,” says David Klow, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Skylight Counseling Center. “I try to get my clients to better understand themselves and their relationships with others but with my loved ones, I don’t try to do that. The goal of those interactions are more focused on sharing an experience of life together.”

Be Compassionate to Your Inner Self

If the way that we talk to ourselves is critical and unforgiving, then it can be very difficult to be compassionate with others, explains Klow. To truly serve others we need to be living a healthy and balanced life. “Like a high tide rising all boats, if we are joyous, connected and contented, then others around us will feel the permission to be the same way. The most important self-care is being kind and tender to ourselves in our own inner voice,” says Klow.

Ultimately, healing isn’t about taking people’s pain on for them, he says; it’s about inspiring them to be their best selves. “If our own inner voice is caring, gentle and reassuring, then we can transmit those qualities on,” he says.

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