I am not sure about the title of this post. I don’t love the term “needy” because it typically holds a negative connotation that I don’t totally buy into. At the end of the day, we all have needs, especially when it comes to relationships, and when we call someone “needy”, it is easy to overlook the strength that it takes to reach out to others for support. Perhaps a better title for this post would have been “How to support a friend without burning out”. However, I think the term “needy” conveys an experience that most of us can relate to in one way or another.
In a previous post, I discussed how you can tell if one of your friends is over-relying on you or treating you like his or her therapist. Being there for our friends when they are going through a difficult time is an important aspect of friendship. However, it can be really difficult to navigate situations in which we feel like our friend is overly dependent on us for support. In these moments, we can feel torn between our desire to help our friend and our need to protect our personal space and boundaries. Although this is a common and uncomfortable, if not aggravating, friendship experience, it isn’t always clear what we should say or do when we feel stuck in this situation.
What can you do if you feel as though your friend is treating you like a therapist?
I’ve talked about this before but unfortunately there is no rulebook when it comes to handling difficult friendship situations. I know this can be disappointing because we often want clear-cut answers to situations, but the good news is that it gives us the flexibility to explore the available options and decide what makes the most sense work for our relationship. So, what are the possible ways we can handle a situation in which we feel like our friend is overly dependent on us?
1. Continue on as is.
When we recognize that the balance in our friendship is off, it can be tempting to ignore the situation and hope that it’ll get better over time. While the desire to avoid addressing this dynamic is totally understandable, the reality is, at the end of the day, this isn’t necessarily helpful to you or your friend.
Needless to say, being stuck in this situation can lead us to feel frustrated (e.g., that our friend isn’t listening to our advice or recognizing that they are being overly dependent or “needy”), resentful (e.g., of the fact that our friendship is unbalanced), and concerned (e.g., about what else we can do to help our friend). This dynamic likely isn’t helpful for the friend we are trying to support either. After all, despite our best intentions, how helpful can we really be if we are consistently feeling drained or burdened? At the end of the day, friends can pick up on this resentment or frustration, which can lead them to feel upset, angry, or even guilty. Moreover, even if we are willing to continue providing support without changing anything, this may not be in our friend’s best interest. Repeatedly discussing or rehashing problems with our friends without coming up with a new solution and moving forward, a process known as co-rumination1, can actually increase symptoms of depression, especially for women2. (Stay tuned for a post on co-rumination and find out why this is both a blessing and a curse for relationships.)
If you are committed to carrying on as is, the only thing you can really do is to adjust your expectations. A benefit of adult friendships is that one friend doesn’t have to meet all of our friendship needs. Focusing on what you are getting out of this one friendship (e.g., is this friend someone you can laugh, do activities, or study with?) and reaching out to others for the needs that aren’t being met (e.g., a feeling of reciprocity and support) can help you to feel less overwhelmed and burdened by the situation.
2. Stop providing support altogether
At the other end of the spectrum is the possibility of stopping to provide our friend with support entirely. There are several ways to do this. We can choose to be explicit and explain to our friend why we are no longer able or willing to support them, or simply withdraw without mentioning it and hope that they get the memo.
However, there are several questions that we need to ask ourselves before seriously considering this option. What will the consequences be? Can I live with the likelihood that my friend will react negatively? Am I willing to risk losing this friendship for good? It’s also important to question whether this is something you are realistically willing or able to do. It isn’t easy to simply cut someone off. While this might be an option for some people, chances are this isn’t something you have entertained, at least not in any real way. Most often, what we are seeking is a way to continue supporting our friend without feeling like we are spinning in circles.
3. Gradually withdraw support
In theory, this one seems like a great idea. Gradually withdraw our support so that our friend stops relying on us so heavily but does not feel like we have abandoned them. However, the problem with this option is that it can be difficult to implement in real life. How do you decide when to provide versus when to withhold support? Over what period of time are you planning to gradually reduce your involvement? What will you do to manage your discomfort or frustration in the meantime? How do you know that this will really be effective in the long-term?
Nonetheless, this option can sometimes still be effective, especially when combined with other strategies (e.g., reinforcing when our friend is able to get through a difficult time without us, helping them to find other coping strategies). However, we are also still faced with the decision of whether to discuss the situation directly.
4. Address the issue in an assertive and respectful way.
This last approach can be intimidating because it involves an open discussion about the situation and what it is we are thinking and feeling. However uncomfortable this may be initially, it really is the only option that provides a way for us to continue interacting with and supporting our friend while respecting our own needs. At the end of the day, this balance between addressing our own needs and not infringing our friend’s is really the key to managing this difficult situation. Although this type of assertiveness can be difficult to manage, here are some key suggestions that might be helpful:
Focus on your own reactions and feelings.
Instead of telling your friend all the ways in which he or she is being too needy or dependent, focus on what it is you are feeling3,4. Saying something like: “I don’t feel like our conversations are helpful. I want to do my best to support you but I’m feeling like this isn’t working and that isn’t fair to either of us” can help you get your point across without making your friend feel like he or she is being attacked or blamed.
It’s one thing to say that you aren’t happy with the way things are going, but if you aren’t coming up with solutions, this can lead to frustration on both ends. If there are specific and realistic changes that would make a big difference to you (e.g., not calling at specific times, avoiding certain topics that make you uncomfortable) you have every right to communicate this in a respectful way. Highlighting the ways in which these changes will be helpful to both you and your friend can go a long way (e.g., “I know you sometimes want to chat late at night but I don’t feel like I can give you the support you deserve when I am so tired. Can we try chatting earlier in the day?” or “I’m not really comfortable talking about this, but I know it is important to you. Is there someone else you could maybe speak to about this?). Also, don’t feel like you need to come up with all of the solutions or alternatives on your own. It’s always a great idea to ask our friends what they might find helpful (e.g., “What else could we try that might be helpful?”, “Is there something else we can do to get your mind off things?”, “How can I help you in another way?”).
It might be tempting to suggest that your friend goes to speak to a professional such as a psychologist. However, proposing this as a solution without being asked for your opinion directly can be delicate. Although unsolicited advice is more common in the context of close friendships5, everyone has their own views about and comfort level with therapy. Moreover, friends can sometimes interpret this suggestion as evidence that we are trying to get rid of them or that we think they are unstable in some way.
If you feel the situation is severe enough your friend should talk to someone, it can be helpful to highlight that you are bringing this up because you want the best for them, validate that you will still be there for them as their friend, and phrase it as a question instead of a recommendation, (e.g., “I want to be here for you and I will continue to be. I’m just not sure that our conversations are helpful. Have you thought of going to speak with someone about this?”). When relevant and if you are comfortable, you can disclose your own experiences with therapy and validate the concerns that your friend might have.
Create your own balance.
Finally, finding ways to create more balance in your friendship will help you to feel less overwhelmed and burdened by the situation. One possibility is to suggest that you do activities together (e.g., as a distraction). If your friend is open to it, investing in other areas of your friendship and creating new, shared experiences together is a great way to restore some of the balance in your relationship.
It might also be worth considering whether you have been holding back from sharing your own experiences or self-disclosing. Ask yourself: When was the last time I tried to discuss something important that happened to me? Have I tried explicitly asking my friend for his or her opinion or support? If it’s been a long time since you last shared your own perspective or experiences, it might be worth trying again. Sometimes our friends won’t pick up on the lack of reciprocity on their own, but they can be receptive when given a gentle nudge. Additionally, saying something along the lines of: “I am here for you but I also want to talk to you about some of the things going on in my life.” can go a long way towards creating more equal relationship.
Ultimately, there isn’t just one right way to manage situations in which we feel like our friend is over-relying on us. As a result, we need to rely on what we know about our friendship and ourselves. As long as we consider the available options and strive to achieve a balance between asserting our own needs while responding to our friend’s, we can be confident that we are handling the situation appropriately.
Have you found yourself in this situation before? If so, what did you try and how did it work out? Leave a comment and let me know how you managed to strike that balance between assertiveness and responsiveness. You can also read more about this on The Everygirl.
1. Rose, A. J. (2002). Co-rumination in the friendships of girls and boys. Child Development, 73, 1830–1843.
2. Calmes, C. A., & Roberts, J. E. (2008). Rumination in interpersonal relationships: Does co-rumination explain gender differences in emotional distress and relationship satisfaction among college students?. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 577-590.
3. Kotzman, M., & Kotzman, A. (2008). Self-assertion. Listen to Me, Listen to You: A Step-by-step Guide to Communication Skills Training, 73-99
4. Proksch, S. (2016). Recognising and Resolving Conflicts. In Conflict Management (pp. 1-12). Springer International Publishing.
5. Feng, B., & Magen, E. (2015). Relationship closeness predicts unsolicited advice giving in supportive interactions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6, 751-767.