Family & Friends

How to set boundaries with friends who are relying on you for support in lockdown

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Lauren Geall
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Being there for your friends is incredibly important, but not when it comes at the expense of your own mental health. Here’s how to establish some boundaries if you’re struggling right now.

We all know how important it is to be there for our friends during tough times. No situation has made this quite so clear as the coronavirus pandemic – you may not have been able to see your friends as much as you’d like over the last 12 months, but having someone on the end of the phone to talk about anything and everything with has never felt so essential.  

With that being said, there are times when that supportive dynamic can fall out of balance – leaving one friend to shoulder the burden of the other’s emotions without getting the same in return. 

And while under normal circumstances that might not be a concern – after all, we all go through difficult periods at different times in our lives – during lockdown, when chances are you and your friends are both struggling more than usual, providing support for a friend while trying to manage your own mental health can become overwhelming.

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So, what should you do if you find yourself stuck in this kind of unhealthy dynamic? You don’t want to push your friends away entirely (we all need to support each other to get through this difficult time, and you don’t want to add to the distress your friend is already feeling), but setting some emotional boundaries and engaging in some mental rather than physical social distancing could help you to feel less overwhelmed while still allowing you to maintain that connection.

Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a psychologist, author and therapist, explains: “If you feel overwhelmed, it might be challenging to support others at the same time, because the difficulties that your friends are facing could simply add stress to your already overwhelming feelings.

“The benefit of setting emotional boundaries is that you have the opportunity to strengthen yourself mentally and emotionally to cope with the overwhelming stress you might be experiencing.”

A woman talking a friend over Zoom
How to set boundaries: if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s OK to voice your concerns.

Setting emotional boundaries shouldn’t be about cutting yourself off or enforcing strict definitions on a friendship – in fact, Dr Ben-Ari believes that we should view taking care of our relationships as another form of self-care. In its most basic form, setting emotional boundaries should simply be about working on your communication and helping your friend to understand what you need going forward.

To start, Dr Ben-Ari recommends using this as an opportunity to explain what you’re going through and express empathy for your friend’s needs.

“Explain why this is a challenging time for you, what you find overwhelming and how you are going to take care of yourself. Express validation, compassion and empathy for your friend’s struggles. You could say that it is just too much for everyone at this point, and to bring yourself to the baseline, you want to concentrate on A, B and C.” 

She continues: “Avoid blaming and shaming, just have a sincere conversation about the situation and explain that you have reached your limit with everything going on. Speaking openly and honestly will not only make sense to your friend, but in the long run it will bring you closer together.”

On top of speaking honestly to your friend and trying to be there for them wherever possible (for example, by showing compassion and being patient), Dr Ben-Ari suggests directing them to further support – especially if you’ve got helpful resources or methods you use yourself. 

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“If you see a therapist or read a self-help book, share how they help you and direct your friend to these resources,” she says. “This will give you inspiration for future talks (eg what they learned from therapy or took from the book), and direct the conversation to a more empowering place.”

Although setting emotional boundaries might feel strange at first, it’s worth considering if you’re feeling overwhelmed – not only is it a great way to look after your wellbeing, but chances are it’ll strengthen your friendships in the long-run.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here. Additionally, you can ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.