Not long ago, a close friend of mine was struggling with a huge life decision: Should she marry her long-term partner, or was it time to part ways? “Be my therapist!” she begged me at one point, when the two of us were hanging out with a group of friends. I tried to deflect, but she kept requesting my advice, like it was a party trick. Over the course of the night, I watched as our other friends offered their own opinions on her partner, only sharing my thoughts when we finally got a moment alone.
“You’ll have to figure out what you expect out of marriage,” I said. “No one else can decide what you value.” I knew even before I said it that it wasn’t the kind of advice she was hoping to hear.
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There are certain types of friends that come in extra handy: the new med-school grad who can look at a photo of your weird rashes, the lawyer who can weigh in on the necessity of a living will, the hobby chef who you call during a kitchen crisis. As a therapist, I’m often lumped into this category, too – friends will recruit me to untangle a complex relationship problem over coffee, or send me panicked Facebook messages asking for my thoughts.
I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, these requests illustrate how mental health has evolved from a taboo subject to small talk in a group text. I’m all for putting the subject out in the open. But all this openness also puts me in some tricky situations: When everyone counsels their neighbors and armchair-diagnoses celebrities and relatives alike, they assume that a therapist like me would also feel comfortable solving a friend’s problems. And I’m not.
In my 30s, I feel like I’m frequently watching my friends encounter big life questions and transitions: Do they move closer to their aging parents? Should they keep trying to have a child after so many heartbreaks? Others struggle with the depression that shadows chronic illness, or anxiety that keeps them locked in the bathroom at work. I observe these dilemmas unfolding, and every time, I ask myself: What is my responsibility here? Does my job change what I can do, or that I should do, to help them?
Mental-health professionals are helpers at heart. We wouldn’t have chosen our profession if we weren’t. This also means, though, that I find myself in constant danger of slipping into therapist mode when I shouldn’t. When a friend is in distress, my anxiety tells me to hurry up and fix it, to condense the ideas and practices I’ve explored into an edible soundbite. But not all help is helpful — people in crisis don’t really need an anxious, biased teacher. They need to figure things out for themselves. As a therapist, I can help my clients do that; as a friend, I’m not removed enough to pull it off. I can be present and vulnerable, but ultimately, I know my role is to step back and let people manage their own lives.
Nothing about that is easy. Yes, I know that the most important people in my life are capable of taking responsibility for their own distress. And I know that when I refrain from fixing or teaching, I allow people to generate their own solutions — maybe they’ll seek out counseling for themselves, or finally kick a bad habit, or simply learn to trust their own thinking. But still. Have you ever watched a group of people when one person announces a problem? Everyone jumps in to try and fix it, both because they genuinely want to be helpful and because offering solutions helps us to manage our own anxious reactions.
Case in point: my friend working through a deeply personal dilemma, and everyone else in our circle jostling to weigh in on it. Sometimes we forget that we don’t have to be distressed simply because someone we love is upset or confused. We may not be able to calm them down, but we certainly have the capacity to stay calm. And my own calmness is arguably the most useful tool for a friend in crisis.
Do I forget this and dive into the fray of fixing, managing, and opinion-giving? Of course. All the time.
So here’s the trick I’ve learned for pulling myself back out of it: I make it about me. It sounds counterintuitive, but it really is helpful. If a friend asks me for advice, I’ll talk about myself and my work on my own issues instead, and let them draw their own conclusions from there. I do it in my writing, too. Some of my friends and family subscribe to my weekly newsletter about managing anxiety, which I write with the goal of using myself as an example; I hope that readers use the stories I put in there to help them work through their own challenges.
One of my colleagues recently told me that there are two ways for psychotherapy to change your life. You can spend years and thousands of dollars working on yourself, or you can marry someone who has. It’s a joke, but there’s truth in it. Simply working on my own challenges has made me more of a resource to the people I love than years of actively trying to “fix” them. When I’m more focused on my health, for instance, I notice that my husband is more focused on his. When my grandfather died, I found that working on my own anxiety allowed my grandmother to share more about her grief with me. Because I’m calmer, she sees me as an adult, not a child who needs to be shielded from reality.
Over time, in other words, I’ve come to learn that I’m changing my relationships with other people — and helping them change, too — simply by changing myself. When my clients come to therapy for the first time, I share with them one of the core ideas of my training: The biggest ongoing challenge we’ll face in life is to maintain a strong sense of self while also maintaining relationships with other people. Ultimately, our only responsibility is ourselves — and when we stay focused on ourselves, our relationships will deepen. Therapists, I have to remind myself sometimes, are no exception to this rule.