One of the best parts of a friendship is the ability to talk to your pal about the things that are ailing you. Bad day at work? Grab a cocktail with your BFF. Bummed over a breakup? Here's your friend at your door with a shoulder to cry on. (And, if they're a really good friend, a pizza to split.)
Sometimes, however, the problems in our friends' lives can get too big for us to handle on our own. If our buddy is spiraling, and our gentle ways of comforting them haven't worked, you might need to offer up some tough love. But is there ever a great way to tell your friend that their problems are bigger than you, and that it's time to actually do something about it? Or do you always wind up sounding like a total jerk?
This is actually a common conundrum, according to Susannah Hyland, a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. "Someone listens far beyond what they're comfortable doing, and by the time you actually say something, you're agitated," she says. Our inability to recognize our comfort levels until it's too late is at the core of this problem. "People always think, 'Who am I to say something?' So they wait until its too late," Hyland adds. "There's this narrative that we should be able to deal with [someone else's problems] that we fully put on ourselves. We're desensitized to our own limits."
Her advice is to say something earlier than you think you should. "I always say to strike when the iron is cold in this situation," she says. "You never want to do an intervention with someone when you're heated or agitated. So once you start to feel the slightest bit of uneasiness, it's time to talk."
There's this narrative that we should be able to deal with [someone else's problems] that we fully put on ourselves. We're desensitized to our own limits.
Susannah Hyland, psychotherapist
Since you're confronting someone about their specific shortcomings, it can appear to your friend that you're attacking them. So it's important to get the phrasing right. "You might benefit from bringing yourself and your experience in all of this into [the discussion] in a way that is nuanced," says Geoffrey Steinberg, PsyD. "It could be a blend of self-disclosure and explaining how the person's actions are affecting you and the friendship."
Dr. Steinberg suggests a phrasing that's along the lines of this: "When you're upset like this, you wind up canceling plans, and it gets me upset. While I'm worried about you, it's hard for me to maintain a level of care and concern when you're treating me this way." But it's important to consider the type of relationship you have with this person, too. "Tailoring your response to fit the friendship you two have will help ensure a positive reaction from your friend," he says. Hyland agrees, and says it's never a bad idea to admit your own shortcomings in the situation. "Saying something like, 'I feel unequipped to deal with this,' shows that you care, that you're concerned about your friend, and that you want them to find the help they need in this situation," she says.
If you feel like your friend can benefit from therapy, or another third-party intervention, tread lightly. "Not everyone finds therapy helpful, so offer it as a suggestion, not a demand," Hyland says. Dr. Steinberg agrees. "Your friend might think you're seeing them in a stigmatized way, but if you've been to therapy yourself, you can mention your own experiences as a way to help them warm up to the idea," he says. "'You need therapy' is accusatory, whereas 'I went to therapy, and this is what I got out of it' would be more helpful."
While some people will have a positive reaction to your candor, it's important to remember that others may react negatively. There's not much you can do about that. But being a good friend can also mean having these difficult conversations. "We're not meant to be our friend's therapists all the time, and that's okay," Hyland says. And admitting that you can't always be your friend's confidante is a greater act of friendship than you may realize.