• Setting boundaries in relationships is challenging, especially if our friend is struggling with mental health or a difficult life event

  • When we give more than we can, we can start to struggle too

  • Rachel Farhi offers four ways you can manage boundaries in relationships

What does friendship mean to you? Perhaps you think of a friend as someone who will always be there for you, no matter what. Maybe a friend feels to you like a member of the family who you actually chose to be in your life. Someone to hang out with, confide in, laugh with. Someone who makes you feel good about yourself but is able to give supportive criticism when you steer the wrong course. Someone you trust.

We all want to think of ourselves as a good friend as well. And a part of that image of friendship that we cherish is that we would give to our friends the same kind of loyalty and support that they would give to us, in good times as in bad. But what do we do when our friend starts taking too much? When the shoulder we offered for them to cry on is now feeling really heavy with the tears soaking through our t-shirt? How do we offer our genuine support without getting sucked down into the pain that the friend is going through right now?

When I was training to be a person-centred therapist, a member of our group made a very wise comment. Sam said, ‘When you see someone has fallen down a hole, you don’t jump down the hole too. You send a ladder down and tell them how to climb up.’

This metaphor was about boundaries. Boundaries are about how we keep ourselves as therapists safe when we work with clients but boundaries are not just for client-therapist relationships. They are essential for managing healthy relationships in general and equally apply to friendships.

What are boundaries?

A boundary is a real or imagined line which marks the limit of one thing and the beginning of another. In terms of a relationship, the boundary is how far you are willing to go to meet the needs of your friend. The problem might start when your friend’s needs are too great for you to keep giving of yourself. And when that happens, a strain on your friendship may begin to show.

Maybe your friend has experienced the pain of a break-up. You don’t like to see her upset so you say she can call you anytime she feels like talking. And you mean it. But when her call comes as you’re putting the kids to bed or winding down for the evening with your other half, you may feel a bit irritated but you promised, didn’t you? So you stay on the phone with her, long past tolerance but, hey, that’s being a pal, she’d do the same for me. Until the next time she calls and you can’t say no. And the next. You see where I’m going with this….

Be guided by your own feelings

There’s a reason we have sayings like ‘my heart sank’ or ‘I just went weak at the knees.’ Emotional reactions to things we’ve seen, heard or experienced often surface in our body expressing the emotions before our minds have had a chance to process them. I’m a great believer in body wisdom and work with this a lot in my practice and in my own life. The next time your needy friend calls pay attention to your own body and what it’s telling you. Chances are that if your friend is pushing your personal boundary your body will let you know. Become aware of where you are feeling discomfort. Knot in your stomach? Or a heaviness in your chest? Every person reacts uniquely to emotional duress and in different parts of the body depending on what the issue at hand is. Then take a moment to breathe through the discomfort, a few times if necessary, until the tension subsides. Now you can deal with your friend because you have brought yourself back to your own centre of awareness.

Being compassionate by staying in your space

It can be emotionally exhausting being a support for a needy person, particularly if they are unaware of the effect they are having on you. Also, individuals vary in their tolerance levels for carrying emotional stress, whether their own or through the act of helping others with their needs. But we are all vulnerable to what used to be known as ‘compassion fatigue’, the sense that we can only handle so much of another’s needs before we become numbed and perhaps even angry at their situation and are no longer in a position to help them.

The best way to avoid this is by paying attention to your own needs. Just as on an aircraft we are told that in an emergency we should put on our own oxygen mask before helping others, so it is in daily life. If we allow ourselves to become run down, physically and emotionally, then not only do we risk our own well-being but we are not going to be in a good place to be the friend and support that we would like to be. Taking regular time out to look after our selves by becoming aware of when we are getting stressed and taking actions that soothe our mind, body and spirit, becomes an essential part of any wellness routine and is something we can all do for ourselves.

Know your limits

Set clear boundaries for your friend. If they call and you cannot tolerate another conversation without end, then state calmly at the beginning that you are happy to hear from them but that you have only ten minutes available this evening – is that enough for you?  If they seem disappointed, you can offer them a choice, perhaps you can call them at a prearranged time. This way, you are laying out clear boundaries which say, ‘I’m not rejecting you but I also have things to do for myself.’ By taking back some control and offering choice you are laying down a compassionate boundary.

Sometimes a friend isn’t enough

If your friend’s problems are complex and they seem stuck in a loop, then it may be time for them to seek professional help. Counselling is a way in which someone can have the undivided attention from a person  trained to listen and respond in an objective and boundaried way. You may be the perfect person to suggest counselling to your friend because they are likely to trust you and value your opinion. By opening up the subject you may well be helping to confirm thoughts that your friend has already been having but was too shy to realise. It may be the best thing you can do for your friend and is likely to help preserve your own boundaries and your friendship.

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Further reading

6 ways to nurture your friendships

Female friendship, growing up, and making judgements

Is it possible to stay friends with your ex?

The importance of friendship

Why is it so hard to say no?