By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
You are sitting on a chair at the end of a dock – you’d be standing, but you’re tired from a busy day. Several yards in front of you is your best friend, flailing about in the water and begging for you to jump in and save her. Your immediate impulse is to jump right in. But would you – and should you – actually do it?
This is metaphorically the dilemma that many people share with me during their therapy sessions. Often, they struggle with this because the situation is not as simple as it seems. The “obvious” answer that you “should” immediately save your friend may not be the wisest response for many reasons, such as:
You are already at your limit. As much as you might want to help your friend, doing so might put you at risk for drowning along side her. This, of course, only makes matters worse.
If you are already spread too thin, you must assess whether taking on another major “project” would be too much of a strain. In this situation, you might be able to offer some support, but then you will both be better off if you encourage your friend find more help elsewhere. (If she really is in such a crisis that she is unable to do this, you might choose to find appropriate support or help for her. However, in this situation, she likely needs professional help.)
You are a friend, not a professional. While there is no replacement for friendship, sometimes people need professional help, too. If your friend is on the verge of bankruptcy, then professional financial guidance might be called for. Or, if your friend is addicted to drugs or is feeling suicidal, then he or she might need a qualified therapist.
You cannot save someone who refuses to grab on to the lifesaver you throw them – or who thanks you for saving them only to throw themselves back into the water. Some people are simply not ready to be saved. You might offer to help them in some concrete way, only to have them refuse that help. Or, you might offer good advice that they ignore, such as suggesting that your friend with a drinking problem stay away from bars. Or, they might take you up on your offer for help, but then put themselves back in the same situation soon afterward. For instance, you might loan money to a friend who has gotten into debt only to find the person knocking at your door for more money when they run short again. While there might be unavoidable reasons for this happening, you have to decide for yourself when or if you feel that you’ve done all you are willing to do – especially as you think about how your friend’s need to take a cruise or buy a new Fendi handbag is not on your list of essentials. In this case, you might decide that the best way to help your friend (and yourself) is to let her work this out for herself.
The caring and mutual support of friendship is wonderful. However, there are limits. These are not written in stone, nor are there many absolute guidelines for when you are beyond them. But you can find them by checking in with yourself. The issue is not so much whether you want your friend to be feeling and doing better. Of course, you do. The question you need to ask yourself when your friend is in need of help is this: What’s the wisest way for me to offer support and help?
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.