Diary of a Therapist Friend

By Isabel Hicks

Ishika Jain defines a “therapist friend” in her article “On Being ‘The Therapist Friend’ and Setting Boundaries” as “someone in a friend circle whom one can turn to in times of distress for support and advice.” 

While this might sound like the ideal friend we all want and need, we fail to take into account the feelings and experiences of said therapist friends.

As someone who frequently fills this role in friendships, I can tell you that being the therapist friend is exhausting. More often than not you are asked to fix problems or console people for issues greater than your scope of knowledge. Having a close and honest friendship with someone can be fulfilling, but when they become one sided it can become emotionally draining. 

Often, when you are dragged into these issues that your friends are going through, it is hard to separate yourself from their needs. When I see people in need, it is always my first instinct to do everything I can to help them. Don’t we as friends have a moral obligation to help those we love? 

There is a fine line, however, between being a good friend and being a therapist for someone. Friends, unlike therapists, aren’t qualified to be giving counseling advice or take the burden of people’s problems, yet are made to do so anyways. And the worst part is that we don’t even get paid! I remember one time on Thanksgiving I was on the phone texting a friend who was going through a dilemma with a boy. I tried continuously to console her over the whole situation. My dad asked me why I wasn’t spending time with everyone. When I explained to him what was going on, he turned to me and said, “You don’t even get holidays off?” 

His genuine irritation at the matter reflected my own growing frustration and resentment towards this friend for not being able to respect any of my boundaries. Thanksgiving is a day to spend with family, a time to wind down and have a nice dinner together. I wasn’t even able to do that, because my friend texted me with the urgency of someone on the verge of dying. While I understand that she was hurt over the situation and wanted a place to express her grievances, it bothered me that she couldn’t even take a minute to realize that it was a bad time to rant to me over her problems.

People are often unaware of the ways in which they cross boundaries in friendships. They may not realize the mental toll ranting to someone everyday can take on therapist friends. It’s draining to entertain hours of rants, on top of dealing with your own problems and not have an outlet for your own emotions. 

The problem in being a therapist friend, isn’t so much listening to your friends. Rather, the issue is the hurt that you feel when those friends aren’t there for you in return. I have spent hours talking to friends, comforting them and offering advice for serious situations, they are rarely there in return. No one realizes the emotional strength it takes to carry other people’s burdens.. Giving advice, especially for intense personal issues is incredibly difficult, yet people demand it of their friends without considering what it is really asking of them.

When you deprioritize your own needs and feelings for other people for so long, setting boundaries and putting yourself first feels selfish. Communicating your feelings and needs can be really difficult, especially if you’re not used to it. It’s foreign to many people, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own mental health for others just for their comfort. 

The first step is to set boundaries with people. It might be hard at the beginning, or make you feel like you are being insensitive when you tell people you aren’t available for them, but keeping equilibrium in your life is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships. You have your own needs and deserve time to recharge without excess stress from others. 

Start by telling people how you feel. Let them know that while you care about them, you feel exhausted having to listen to all their problems all the time. Maybe even create a schedule, where you let them know you can’t talk on school nights because you need to be prioritizing school work, but are more than willing to catch up on a Saturday morning. 

Setting boundaries might cause you to lose a few friends because people don’t always know how to react to those who stand up for themselves. Know that it is acceptable. The people who get the most upset at you for setting boundaries are the ones who benefitted the most from you not having any. Although it might hurt in the moment, you shouldn’t lower your standards for respect or allow your boundaries to be stepped over just to keep them in your life. I promise you they’re doing you a favor by leaving your life, and after a while you won’t miss them anymore. Setting boundaries will raise your standards for respect, and in turn attract better people who can be the real friends you deserve in your life. 

Whether you identify with the therapist friend label or not, it is important to recognize who that person is in your life. If you’re the friend who tends to use other people to rant constantly, maybe you need to take a step back and reflect on how much you’ve contributed to the therapist friend trope. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk to your friends, or that going to them for advice is a bad thing, it is just important for you to be mindful of the intensity and consistency of your therapy “sessions” with them. 

While you cannot control what goes on in your life, you can control how much of it you make someone else’s burden. Ask yourself, have I been there for them the same way they’ve been there for me? And make sure you’re able to reciprocate what you are asking them. And if you do have a friend who is the therapist friend, make sure you check in on them. They’re people at the end of the day who have their own issues they have going on in their lives the same way you do, and most likely could use an open ear.