Here’s the scene: You have a friend or a family member who calls and texts all the time needing your advice about how to deal with a crisis. Sometimes, this person just wants a little support. Sometimes, he or she calls about one thing over and over again. Sometimes, he or she calls or texts about a million little emergencies.
This person needs to talk with you—now. They need your attention and your help. Right now. This minute. This second. And you better take a seat and pour a glass of wine because this is going to take a while.
We’ve all been there, and having a friend or family member who is “too needy” can be a real drag. If this person is truly depressed, then interacting with them can get you feeling quite down as well. In a classic research study, college students who spoke briefly on the phone with someone experiencing clinical depression found themselves to be more depressed, anxious, hostile and rejecting compared to people who spoke to someone who was not depressed.
If we add being demanding, needy and highly self-involved on top of the depression, then you have a real problem on your hands. You love this person, you really do. And you want to help. But enough is enough.
How do you steer a person away from relying so heavily on you without hurting his or her feelings? First, what not to do:
Don’t reinforce or reward frustrating behavior. Texting immediate replies to your crazy sister only begets more messages for help. If you friend calls you frantically at 11 p.m. for advice and you talk to her for an hour, you instantly increase the likelihood that she will call you again at 11 p.m. If you don’t want that to happen, then don’t reinforce that kind of behavior. To “nip the problem in the bud,” give yourself an out. Perhaps after five minutes you say something like, “Sally, I know you’re upset, but it’s getting late. I’m really sorry, but I’ll be able to help you more tomorrow when I get off work. Can we talk then?”
Don’t fuel the fire. Adding negativity doesn’t help, and it keeps a person mired in their own distress. You can be supportive without making things worse. Suppose your friend just broke up with someone. There’s a natural pull to put down the ex. This would be supportive, and it is up to a point, but you want to avoid making a hard situation even harder by adding fuel to the fire (or to the ire, as it were). The more fuel to burn, the more your friend will call to burn it.
Don’t make her problem your problem. Who says you need to respond instantly to every text you get? It’s great to help a friend, but when you have the feeling your friend or family member manufactures emergencies or thrives on interpersonal drama, avoid making her problems your problems. You can do this by not responding immediately, by making limited responses and, in general, by maintaining the boundaries so that you’re a consultant about the problem, not inside the problem itself.
Don’t ignore a friend in need. None of this advice is meant to suggest you turn your back on your friend. Social support is critical to our well-being. Some people need a lot of support. If you maintain good boundaries and give a little at a time without becoming burned out, your friends or family will really benefit.
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