On Being the Strong Friend When You're Not Feeling the Best

Written By: Girl Tyler

The New Year comes with the promise of a fresh start however we’re all feeling the after-effects of 2020.Existential dread and a yearning for normalcy can take a toll on even the toughest among us. Everyone is fighting a battle. Burnout is often associated with career-related stress, but personal relationships can be exhausting too.

You’ve heard it a million times, “Check on your friends.” What about the strong friend who consistently offers up support and counseling to others? She’s you and it’s time to take a step back.

I spoke with Leila Ellis-Nelson, Psy.D. about the best methods to avoid burnout when friendships become overwhelming. Ellis-Nelson, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology and works as full-time faculty in the department of psychology at Roosevelt University in  Chicago, emphasizes the importance of implementing boundaries. She suggests focusing on your own emotional and physical processes.

“In the context of showing up for others, we often forget to show up for ourselves in the same way. We don’t honor our feelings, we don’t honor when our body is telling us that we’re tired, we don’t honor all of the various ways in which we give so much of our resources that when it’s time to focus on what’s necessary for us and our families or our other relationships, we’ve run out of the ability to pour into ourselves,” she said.

Ellis-Nelson recommends placing limitations on how much access you give to others. There are ways to be helpful without stretching yourself thin. When your friends are in emotional distress while you’re working through a personal crisis, Ellis-Nelson says to send  them therapy resources, information on medical support, and self-care activities. You can encourage your friends without carrying their load.

“Spending a lot of time dancing around your needs has the potential to minimize them to others. So be clear, be direct, and advocate for yourself unapologetically,” she said. “I know that’s hard for a lot of folks, but it helps to practice this in the mirror, with folks that you trust, and with folks that also share the same concerns as yourself.”

There will be times when you simply don’t have anything to give and that’s okay. Ellis-Nelson says it’s best to lead with honesty by using ‘I’ statements so that the frame of reference remains on you.

  • “I need...”
  • “It would be helpful if I had time to process...”
  • “I need a minute...”

Be clear and specific about your needs.

  • “I need a few days to decompress.”
  • “I need to re-evaluate how much of me I’m able to give.”
  • “I need to take a nap and follow up with you tomorrow because my spirit is tired.”

Here is a sample message she recommends sending to your friends. “I haven’t been feeling like myself lately, so I’m going to take some time to rediscover me. I’m going to disconnect for a bit, and I’ll hop back in the group chat in a few days once I’ve had some time to decompress. Love y’all.”

Follow your boundaries all the way through and hold to your word.

“Lastly, hold up your end of the deal. If you said two days take the full two days. Don’t cut your time with you short. Lean into it, and indulge.”


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