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How to distance from a close friend

This week I had to have hard conversations and make a hard decision. I’ve had a friend who has been going through just pure hell medically. And from everything that’s happened, she’s at a choice where she has to move in with her very toxic family (who refuse to acknowledge that she is sick) or fight to fully live on her own (she’s in grad school and lives on campus). Almost daily for the past few months she’s called and texted me for support, which I always try to give. But her situation is getting to the point where she needs to make decisions on her own, yet she doesn’t want to make it for herself. And I am terrified that if she goes home, she won’t get the care she needs. But she is convinced that is the only option. I also was in this same situation with having to choose to live at home, and I don’t want her to be in a similar or worse situation than me. But even when I do give in and offer her my thoughts on the situation, she just tells me she can’t do anything. And I don’t live anywhere near her to physically help out. I know she has sources to both medical and mental health therapists she should consult. But she won’t reach out to them. So I can’t really help her at all.
I decided I need to distance myself from her and the situation. And it pains me, but I need to. She’s someone I care so much for. But I’ve done everything I can. I don’t need to feel guilty for not doing more. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had to bend over backwards to help and then have it come out to nothing. I know I’ve reached a limit this time. My own mental health is fragile itself due to recent events mixed with the rise in anxiety that tends to come with the seasons change. I need to set more boundaries. But I have no idea what that looks like or how to fully have that conversation. I tried to talk to her this past week, but I don’t think she understood what I meant. I still want to be supportive, but I can’t handle everyday being a massive crisis when I have to deal with my own. I’m also terrified that if I step away, then she’ll fall into a worse situation than before and it will cost her physical health. I don’t want to leave her totally alone. But then again, if she isn’t listening to her “best friend”, will she listen to family or other close friends? I’m just lost on how to execute a boundaries plan and how to deal with the hard emotions that’ll come out of it.

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Hi Beth,

I’m sorry to hear about your situation. While I haven’t experienced this to quite the extreme that you currently are, I have been in situations where I had to face the decision to either continue helping my friend at my expense or to finally stand up for myself and my own needs.

No decision here will be easy, but if you ask me, your needs do come before your friend’s, especially if they are contributing to your anxiety.

I understand what leona is saying about putting others first, which does have its merits, but you come first. After all, you’re not going to be able to help someone effectively if you’re figuratively drowning. Take some time to make yourself well so you can continue to help make others well.

Something else to think about - you’ve made a good point about your friend needing to make their own decisions, this is integral to growing as a person and you are not responsible for your friend’s actions. Also something to take note of, I feel like your friend could probably be more attentive to your needs as her friend. Any relationship we maintain should be more or less equal and it isn’t fair to you to take on all the weight in your friendship.

Maybe talk to your friend and tell her that you are encountering a lot of challenges in your life right now and you’re finding it difficult to balance your friends life with your own. Tell her that you need to take some time to work on your own well-being so that you can be a better friend in the future, when your life is more stable and manageable. Taking time for you doesn’t make you a bad person. If your friend doesn’t accept this, then you may have to get drastic and cut all communication for a couple days.

What would your friend do if you weren’t there to make her decisions for her?

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Thanks for taking the time to respond. It really means a lot to me. I’m worried that if I don’t keep intervening or do more, then my friend will go home to her family and not get the medical care she needs. And I’m worried that will make her physical health worse and put her in extreme danger. But there also is literally nothing else I can do for her. What I’ve tried to help with she ignored. Other friends have said the same thing and she hasn’t listened to them either.

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Hey @beth_the_fake_ginger,

That’s a difficult situation with a lot of uncertainties, but first off I wanted to acknowledge the time you’ve been taking to share all of this. It shows how much you care about your friend and how much you’re willing to make the right decisions, both for you and her - which is very thoughtful. You are a good friend. But as you explained, there comes a point when there’s only so much you can do. As for any relationship, your friend also has to do her part (in deciding to use the resources that are at her disposal, in listening to you when you try to explain that something isn’t functioning). Unfortunately, those are things you can’t force nor do for her. But I know it’s truly heartbreaking when you deeply care about someone and I’m so sorry you’re in this situation.

I decided I need to distance myself from her and the situation. And it pains me, but I need to. She’s someone I care so much for. But I’ve done everything I can. I don’t need to feel guilty for not doing more. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had to bend over backwards to help and then have it come out to nothing. I know I’ve reached a limit this time. My own mental health is fragile itself due to recent events mixed with the rise in anxiety that tends to come with the seasons change.

This is very important. And you can be proud of yourself for having a level of self-awareness that allows you to say when something becomes too much or when you need to step back. I know setting boundaries and self-care is often perceived as being selfish. And when you really care about someone, stepping away is hurtful. But taking care of yourself is actually a way to also take care of your friend and respect her. Burning yourself out would be more damaging in the long run and nothing good would stem out of it.

What you just stated here is very wise, strong and loving. And even though I’m aware that it’s certainly extremely uncomfortable, there is some guilt that you don’t deserve to carry on your shoulders. In that situation, it unfortunately goes in hand with caring for your friend, but you are not at fault for having your own needs. You are not guilty of anything.

I need to set more boundaries. But I have no idea what that looks like or how to fully have that conversation. I tried to talk to her this past week, but I don’t think she understood what I meant. I still want to be supportive, but I can’t handle everyday being a massive crisis when I have to deal with my own.

I’ve been in this situation several times with people I love. It was hard because as much as I wanted to support them, I also realized that sometimes it creates a vicious circle when someone becomes too dependant and they might be surprised if I say “stop”. On the other hand, I don’t handle conflicts very well so conversations that are likely to be confrontational are stressful to me. Even though I value honesty and improved the way I communicate, I know I made some trials and errors in the past. It resulted in me not being fully able to say what’s bothering me - just sugarcoated statements, you know? In the end, I wasn’t heard and I felt like the person in front of me didn’t understand. So I’m not saying that’s what you did, but I get how finding the right words can be stressful and result in being misunderstood or not heard at all.

But then again, if she isn’t listening to her “best friend”, will she listen to family or other close friends? I’m just lost on how to execute a boundaries plan and how to deal with the hard emotions that’ll come out of it.

That’s a tough question and unfortunately no one could answer as this only rely on her and the decision she’ll make (or not) in the future. It’s not your responsability either. Though what you can try is learn from your past conversations and see how you can formulate the difficulty of the position you’re in as a way to set those boundaries (both your wish for her to receive the help she needs, but at the same time that you are not her therapist and you’re both reaching a limit you can’t cross).

Unfortunately, the emotions that’ll come out of setting boundaries will be difficult, and somehow you know that already. Though I believe that what will help you is to be able to say to yourself “I did what I could” after it. You can’t really help feeling a certain way, but you can certainly hold on to some truths that you know rationally, such as: you are not responsible of your friend’s choices and decisions; you are not selfish for setting boundaries; you are not less caring or less loving because of your decisions; you can’t be everything for everyone; your needs and your health are a priority.

I don’t know if that would be of any help, but through my work I learned to use non-violent communication when I had to have a difficult conversation with someone. Both to make sure that 1/ it would be constructive, and 2/ my point would be understood. The following chart is quite good in explaining the main point of NVC and eventually a tool you can use to prepare that conversation, even just in your imagination: https://64.media.tumblr.com/ac4d0fa4e7e0406a7e60ba777ec665bd/tumblr_po47kqzHFp1qbd8tio1_1280.png (even though it’s not about “requesting” anything here).

In any case, if you decide to set more boundaries with your friend, expect that it will be misunderstood, even temporarily. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong to do that, but only that it probably won’t fit with your friends expectations at the moment (considering she knows what she’s expecting, which is not sure either). Ultimately this can be an opportunity for her to take a step further and make good decisions in looking after the right support in appropriate places. But those decisions will be, and are already, beyond your control and not your responsability. As friends, we can only encourage people we love to make the right decisions, but we can’t decide for them. Sometimes their own growth doesn’t match with our own time - and that’s okay.

You have a very thoughtful view of the situation right now and it seems that you know what would be right or not. It is obvious that you are a good friend to her, whether it’s while being close or with a distance. :hrtlegolove:

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