Auntie SparkNotes: Advice On Giving Advice
I need advice on how to give advice. I have a friend with mental health problems. She suffers from depression and believes she will never find love or have any friends, or ever accomplish her dreams. I have been there for her from the very beginning, staying up all night as she texted me, standing up for her with bullies, and tiptoeing around her emotions because everything upsets her.
Whenever she comes to me because something triggered another wave of sadness, nothing I say is right. She analyzes everything from the words I say to the words I don't, but she still expects me to give her advice (her words not mine), and no matter what I say or do it's never enough. Her doctors told her to open up and tell people about her feelings and problems, but I have plenty of problems of my own, and this is making everything extra stressful.
I don't want to just abandon her when she is so broken, but my life is being affected by it. I'll get 4-5 hours of sleep so I can stay up so she can talk to me, I am ignoring my school work, and I've been spending less time with my family and friends because she says I don't spend enough time with her. Most of her old friends left her after she openly announced she was depressed, and she has told me many times that she needs me or else she'll have no one. What can I do or say to help her that won't turn out wrong?
Help her? HELP HER? You... you... how dare you. Have you no concept of your friend's needs, Sparkler? I mean, hello: how can she keep being miserable forever if you're going to insist on giving her good and useful advice?
Or in other words: though it's sweet and decent of you to want to help your friend, you can't do anything for her until you first accept that help is not what she's after. She wants your attention, your devotion, and your support.
And, unfortunately, she seem to think that the only way to obtain those things is to be in perpetual crisis.
Basically, your friend's unhappiness defines her, and it defines your relationship, too. She needs it, to give her something to talk about, to keep you coming back, to wrap herself up in the cloak of the perma-victim. She's comfortable being miserable. And it's a fair bet that like many depressed people, she believes that she's not worth knowing on her own merits alone—that the only way to keep a friend is through guilt and manipulation.
Which is really sad! But also, as you've discovered, exhausting and infuriating and exactly the opposite of healthy for your friendship.
What is healthy for your friendship: boundaries. And man, do you ever need them. Both of you. You can't be indulging this girl's every crisis and making yourself available to her no matter how draining or inconvenient—not just because it's bad for you, but because it's terrible for her, too. You're rewarding her for the world's most self-defeating behavior. (And frankly, I doubt that when your friend's doctors counseled her to share her feelings, they meant for her to share them all the time and to the detriment of everything else in her life.)
Plus, you want to help, right? But what you're doing right now isn't helpful, at all. In fact, the advice you give her—advice she inevitably dissects, finds fault with, and dismisses in favor of staying miserable—just gives her an excuse to keep wallowing and do nothing.
So, for starters: no more advice. Instead, when she presents you with a problem, hand it back to her and ask her what she'd like to do with it, as follows:
The first time: "You talk about this a lot. What are you planning to do about it?", or "Okay, so you're feeling x; what would help you feel better?"
And if she tells you she wants advice: "I'm just not qualified to offer an opinion on this. Maybe you should discuss this with your therapist/doctor/parents?"
And if she presses it, then it's time to ditch the subtleties and make with the whammy: "You are asking too much, and I've been wrong to let you lean so heavily on me. It's exhausting, it's destroying our friendship, and it's not helping you at all. I am your friend, and I care about you, but I can't sacrifice my studies, my relationships, and my sleep in order to be there for you 24-7. And if you're my friend, you won't ask me to."
And then, don't budge. Don't give in to her guilt trips by staying on the phone an extra hour. Don't ditch your homework to comfort her. Don't offer solutions when she needs to find her own. And by all means, support any and all action she takes to get better—but when she throws a pity party, politely decline. Because in the end, the best and only way to help a friend in need is to remove whatever the obstacle is that's keeping her from helping herself.
Even if it means admitting that sometimes, the obstacle is you.
Have you ever had to say "enough" to a too-needy friend? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.