Your Best Friend Is Not Your Therapist

Recently, I found myself in the midst of a major life transition. I’d lost my job and was struggling to decide what to do next. The sheer volume of possibilities, and the work necessary to make any of them happen, had me a tad stressed out. So I was blowing up my friends’ phones like a pyromaniac on the Fourth of July.

I’ve always leaned heavily on my friends for advice and support. I’m #blessed to have a wide network of pals, and none of them have ever made me feel like a burden. But as we grow older, I’m hyperaware of all the new responsibilities they have — fiances, spouses, kids, demanding jobs. The busyness of life makes me sensitive of the need to maintain balance in our relationships.

My friends and I will always lean on each other, of course, serving as practical, professional, and emotional ballast. But it’s important for me to take care that I’m not diminishing any one friendship by treating it exclusively as an (unpaid) therapist-client relationship. A fulfilling friendship should also offer laughter, pleasure, and rainy Sundays spent watching trashy TV.

So, how does one go about separating the roles of “friend” and “therapist” — especially if you’re in a place where seeing a real therapist isn’t affordable? Here are some ways I try to build that distinction while still getting the support I need.

Ask first

It’s not that you should stop asking your friends for advice altogether — but before you do, they might appreciate you gauging how available and willing they are. When I started my job hunt, I sent the following email to my closest friends: “I respect your time and don’t assume you have room for career counseling on your already-crowded plate. So, I wanted to first ask if you’d be willing to be part of my job squad. I trust and value your experience and opinions, and I know I can’t make this transition work without your guidance.”

The friends who could help, replied — and the ones who didn’t, I just left alone. It actually felt great. It let me know who I could reach out to without feeling like a pain in the butt. And because I made my request via email instead of in person, it relieved the friends with less bandwidth of any guilt over declining.

Know your friends’ niches

This is really about reducing the burden on any one friend by evenly distributing your need for support among a larger number of people. Do you have a friend who always aces cover letters? Ask him if he’ll review yours, and leave the rest of your buddies alone. Is one person super eloquent on the topic of family conflict? Cool, let her be your sounding board when familial tensions arise. Instead of always approaching just your best friend (or friends) every time you have a problem, cast a wider, expertise-based net.

Look for affordable counseling

When I lived in New York City, I went to a counseling center that accepted payment on a sliding scale based on income. I had a great therapist who was a licensed social worker, and I saw her regularly for years. It allowed me to talk through my problems with an objective third party without sending me into debt.

Also remember that, depending on your situation, you may not need to see a therapist every single week. If you can’t afford it, or you just don’t feel the need to go that often, cut down your visits to biweekly or once a month. You could also try out a therapy app like Talkspace or Better Help.

Seek out a professional or spiritual organization.

When we think of cost-free support groups, we think of the obvious: AA and meetings for those who are grieving. But the options don’t end there. For example, I just searched meetup.com for support groups for people struggling with depression in my area. The first result is a group called “Depression: Friends Supporting Each Other” — and they’re meeting at a pancake house for breakfast this Saturday! I think it’s so cool when strangers create opportunities like this to share experiences and empathy with each other. Personally, I’ve used Meetup to find meditation groups and writing circles. It’s a great resource for discovering like-minded individuals to lean on for support and/or spiritual refreshment.

Of course, you admire your friends and value their insights. And there’s a reason you always reach out to your BFF — they understand you in a way that it feels like no one else can. But if you ever feel like you’re running the risk of taking advantage of their generosity and openness, it can be helpful to remember that there are other ways to get the support you need — it just takes a little creativity. And who knows — you might make a new friend along the way!

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