What To Say To A Friend Who's Using You As A Therapist

Photographed By Natalia Mantini.
Many of us have a friend who "just needs to vent" pretty much every day. Friends give great advice, and that's what friends are for. But, if it starts to feel like you're telling a friend the same advice over and over again, and nothing is helping or changing, it can be exhausting and a sign that maybe the exchange isn't as mutual as it should be, says Andrea Bonior, PhD, LCP, author of The Friendship Fix.
"In some cases, it's clear the person is just using you as a sounding board and they feel better after," Dr. Bonior says. "But, in other cases, they just keep coming back for more, and there's no limit to how often they come to you, because you're just not having an impact."
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Dr. Bonior says there's a personality type that attracts this kind of behavior: Complainers like to find people who are willing to listen a little too long, or sympathizers who they know aren't assertive enough to tell them to stop. After a while, this back and forth can breed resentment. That's not to say that you should feel guilty about how often you go to your friends for advice; you should just actually listen to them.
"For friendship to survive, you have to draw boundaries," Dr. Bonior says. "If you resent the person, it's not fair to them, unless you've spoken up to change the situation — nobody wants to grow to be hated without their knowledge." So how do you change the situation without feeling like you're leaving your friend hanging?
Dr. Bonior suggests you put the pressure on yourself, instead of on your friend, by saying something like, "I wonder if I'm doing you a disservice, because I know this has been bothering you for some time, and I don't know if what I'm saying is helpful." Telling the person that you want them to get better, but commenting that you haven't noticed any changes suggests that you can tell they're just not listening to you without feeling like a jerk.
You could also turn the table even more, and tell your friend, basically, to ask someone else. If they complain about their parents, why don't they talk to their sister about it? If it's their coworker who they can't stand, have they considered going to HR? "It doesn't have to be a therapist that you're suggesting, but help to open the door to solutions that are directed," Dr. Bonior says.
Of course, if you do feel like your friend could be in danger and needs to see a professional, you should encourage them to see someone by saying, "Have you thought about going a step further and talking to someone who's better at this than me? Someone who's a professional?" If they push back ("But you're always so good about this!"), try saying something like, "Look, we're going in circles together, and I don't think I'm being helpful."
At the end of the day, you don't owe anyone therapy, Dr. Bonior says. Even if you are a mental health expert, there are some things in your friend's life that you won't be able to solve. "You do owe your friends empathy and respect, but after a while, you can't be expected to be a professional if you're not." It's important to take care of yourself and make sure your needs are met — in other words, don't forget to be friends with yourself, too.
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