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.
Help rework the story. Painful events involve painful stories, and good support is about helping people rework the story toward a more positive outlook. So, if your cousin always calls bitching about her mom’s drinking, you can help move the story from a focus on what’s wrong with your aunt to how your cousin can learn and grow. This is not a one-shot deal; you help people reshape their stories over time, and getting people to a better place is often about helping them through the sticky parts. When people have reworked the story, they won’t need to rely on you as much.
Encourage people to sleep on it. We’re learning more and more about the marvels of sleep, and there’s little doubt that a good night’s rest helps us solve difficult problems more efficiently. Also, when we’re well rested, we’re better able to handle our emotions. Encouraging people to “sleep on it” also sends the message that it’s good to get some distance from a difficult experience. Take a break for now. Rest. Think about it again tomorrow (read: Please give me a break tonight!).
Encourage people to share their thoughts and feelings with others. One reason these situations are so difficult is that you’re the sole focus of your friend or family member’s emotional venting: “Nobody understands me like you do!” or perhaps, “You’re the only person I can really talk to.” These are hard statements to work with, but there are ways. Consider the following: “What does Anne think about all of this? She always has good ideas—I think you should talk to her as well… No, no, no, I am not trying to get rid of you, but I want to make sure you get advice from everyone who can help you.” Or, more directly, “Jen, I am just plain out of ideas. I think we need a fresh perspective. Who else can help?”
Reinforce positive coping. This is very important. If you want to help someone “behave better” then you need to reinforce positive behavior. In this case, you want to reinforce your friend for taking care of herself without relying on you. You don’t need to go nuts, but small positive comments go a long way: “Seems like you’re managing this better than ever,” or, “Everything is clicking for you this week.” Ironically, if you’re a bit more involved with someone when things go well, then they may rely on you a bit less when things turn ugly.
Limit your availability. Don’t be at someone’s beck and call. Remember: You can “extinguish” a behavior by not reinforcing it. If you decide it’s too tough to manage your needy friend and your needy kids after 6 p.m., then stop responding to your friend after this time. Initially, he or she will try to contact you more, but if you don’t give in and hold the line, this will work well.
In the end, my best advice is to just be honest. Tell the person that it’s too much, but do it in a loving way. If you let yourself get burned out, you’ll react out of anger and frustration. Avoid this, but be direct, honest and open. As is the case for most difficult situations, honesty usually is the best policy.