Your friend is not your therapist

Sometimes sitting down with a trained professional can be healthier than sitting down with your best friend. Photo courtesy of Cosmopolitan.

HALLIE ANDERSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | hcanderson@butler.edu 

I was walking past Irvington when I felt my phone buzzing with a call from my friend. She began the call by asking me if I would be emotionally okay with her bragging about herself. Once I told her I would be, she told me she earned a good grade on her recent biology exam. 

My friend always makes a conscious effort to only share emotions with me that I have the mental capacity to receive; she believes the sharing of emotions calls for consent. 

Friends are there to support us through the good times and the bad, but especially the bad. You should certainly share your emotions with your friends, but it is important to remember that no matter how heroic and strong your friends may seem, they have problems of their own. 

These personal struggles are often easy to overlook and difficult to spot in others. Our generation is more likely than previous generations to struggle with poor mental health. Dr. Tara Lineweaver, a psychology professor at Butler, noted the pandemic had a significant impact on the mental health of college-aged individuals.

“I mean, there’s so many mental health issues going around right now,” Lineweaver said. “There’s a lot of depression and anxiety. It’s a very common response to having gone through a pandemic … to the social isolation that came, from the added stress, from the changes in our routines and our habits and how we even approach education. So this is a more poignant issue now than it was five years ago.”

No matter how strong they appear, our friends are not immune to this era of increased stress and anxiety. We often think highly of our friends, but it is important to view them realistically as well.

Thinking realistically means not expecting a therapy session from a person who has not yet graduated college. Because college students are generally untrained in therapy tactics and resources, therapizing friends who may already struggle with their mental health cannot replace professional help according to Rachel Jensen, doctoral psychology intern for Counseling and Consultation Services.

“When someone who does not have the training in risk assessment is dealing with a friend who could be suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health struggles, they lack the training to properly assess their friend or get them medical treatment,” Jensen said.

If you are looking for solutions to your mental health issues, it is better to turn to someone with training than it is to turn to an inexperienced but well-intentioned friend. In this situation, a friend could serve as a good starting point for treatment, and they can certainly point you in the direction of getting help. However, only a trained therapist or psychiatrist can be responsible for treatment and solutions. 

You should not rely on friends to make important decisions on your behalf. Your friend cannot know what major you should choose or if you should break up with your partner. These are things only you can know for yourself. 

Kat Sandefer, a senior multilingual studies and anthropology major, is not a fan of friendship therapy sessions — especially when they turn into friends dictating her life or telling her what to do. Sandefer believes that the sharing of emotions calls for the use of “I” statements.

“I think ‘I’ statements are really fantastic,” Sandefer said. “Like, ‘This is my experience. I think this. This happened to me. I don’t know what your experience is, but this is mine.’ Instead of being like, ‘I think you should do this because that was my experience.’ I think that’s really shifty, so I try to stay as far away from it as possible.” 

Heavily relying on friends’ advice can create an unhealthy dependency. This also allows people to dodge responsibility for their decisions. Ultimately, only you can know the right decision for yourself. A friend can talk you through that decision, but they should not make it for you.

The key to healthy emotional sharing in a friendship is consent and reciprocation. Sandefer practices consent in all of her friendships, and she believes that the exchange of emotions should go both ways. 

“I think consent in this case is super, super important,” Sandefer said. “I’m totally consenting to hear about all your problems, and I’ll let you know if I have a problem. It’s not oversharing if I’m okay with it and you’re okay with it.” 

Practicing consent in friendships means respecting your friends’ struggles; they have a life, emotions and feelings outside of yours. If a friend informs me that they cannot hear about my problem because they had a bad day, I can demonstrate respect for my friend’s struggles by not piling my own on top.

Just because you should ask consent to share your struggles with friends does not mean you should stop sharing with them entirely. Lineweaver encourages vulnerability in friendships and highly recommends sharing with friends — even when it is difficult to do so.

“There is a tendency for people who are depressed or anxious to withdraw and not reach out for the social support and not utilize the systems around them,” Lineweaver said. “I certainly would encourage people to connect with friends, particularly when you don’t feel like connecting with friends. That’s a sure sign that you need that social connection.”

You should never feel like a burden for sharing your problems with a friend. Friends are a support system to help us through the hardest times. However, first make sure to ask if your friends are in a place to handle your emotions. For those concerned about emotionally burdening their friends, Jensen’s advice should assuage these fears. 

“I wouldn’t discourage sharing,” Jensen said. “But I think I would encourage communication … I’d say show respect and communicate as you set boundaries.”

Ask your friend if they are able to listen to your problems before you share — just like Sandefer does. Good news or bad, you cannot know what your friend is capable of handling until you ask them for yourself.

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