Last week I saw a tweet from a woman named Melissa Fabello circulating around about how to respond to a friend when they reached out to you for help, and you felt that you couldn’t properly help them for whatever reason. This is what she proposed:
PS: Someone reached out and asked for an example of how you can respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them.
I offered this template: pic.twitter.com/lCzDl60Igy— Melissa A. Fabello, PhD (@fyeahmfabello) November 19, 2019
Suffice it to say, responses were a mixed bag. Some championed the idea of setting healthy boundaries with your friends because “your mental health is as important!”, others thought that the kind of out of office auto response language in response to a friend reaching out for help was only treating the relationships in our lives as purely transactional.
I feel that I have spent most of my young adult life being the “mom friend”. This role has involved: talking people through panic attacks, driving to people in the night to help them after a break-up, making food for all my younger friends, being a “sadness sponge”, or just listening to my friends when I know they’re in a bad spot, and attempting to provide advice.
Boundaries – though complicated and hard to set, and at times painful to set – are important.
I am not writing this because I want to talk about how great I am and what a wonderful friend I have been, all the time, with no exceptions. I have therapy for that (kidding). I’m writing it because boundaries – though complicated and hard to set, and at times painful to set – are important. In my opinion, even though the type of response that Fabello suggested is phrased more for a LinkedIn response than a text to a friend, I believe that the intention she was trying to communicate was this: it is ok to tell your friends that sometimes you cannot help them. It is ok to express this to them because they are your friends.
Something that I have learned about myself is this: I don’t view my relationships as transactional, rather I view them as reciprocal. This means something like: if I cook one of my frosh friends a meal, I could call in a favour for a CGC salad at some point. Or not. But the option is there because when I reach out in need, I would think that my friends would help me out too. It also means that when one of my friends is ridiculously stressed out and calls me about it, I can find myself getting stressed for them. The come down from hearing about someone’s trauma or crisis is really hard; and in my experience, the person experiencing that stress second-hand doesn’t usually talk about it because “hey! It’s not my trauma!”
However, compassion fatigue exists (we did a whole podcast about it). It’s hard to be the person that is constantly putting out your friend’s fires. It is difficult to be in the position where, even when someone is not being a good friend to you, you still feel like they get the pass to treat you like that because of what they themselves are going through, or have gone through in the past. Again, and I cannot state this enough, all friendships are different. All people go through periods of change where they’re low, and their friends are high, and vice versa. Some remain in the low of life longer than others. However, there is not an excuse for someone to make you feel as though your feelings are less important than theirs, and there is always space for you to take a step back in the friendship, and then come back again. If someone is a true friend, they will understand you taking the time for yourself to help them later.
Even when someone is not being a good friend to you, you still feel like they get the pass to treat you like that because of what they themselves are going through, or have gone through in the past.
What I’m asking of you, dear reader, is to always try to be as fair to yourself as you are to your friends. Take time away from people if they’re stressing you out, whether that be a day, or longer, if you need to. Communicate this with them! Tell people when you can’t handle what they’re coming to you with and point them to the proper channels instead (don’t just say “no” and fuck off. That isn’t friendship.). Make sure that you check in on your friends but also know that it’s not ok for you to only be the one checking in on your friends if they are seriously in crisis, you aren’t (usually) a professional, and there are services that can help. Understand your own worth: if someone is only making time for you when they “need” something from you, or when they feel they can gain something because of your friendship, that is not ok. It is also ok to talk to the person about that and express your feelings.
At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to figure out what it means to be the best friend we can possibly be. We’re all trying to show our friends that we love them and care for them in different ways. Mine might start with a home cooked meal, or a late-night drive. I’m hoping that I get to know other people’s ways of being a good friend to me, too.