Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

Your Friends Aren’t Your Therapists: How to Set Boundaries

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Good friends are one of life’s greatest gifts. At the best of times, they’re a source of laughter and joy. At the worst of times, they’re a source of solace and emotional support. It’s wonderful to have people you feel safe venting to and sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings. When you’re struggling, it can be especially comforting to talk to a close friend.

But it’s important to remember that your friend are just that—friends, not therapists. Using a friend as a stand-in for a therapist strains the relationship. It places an unfair burden on the friend offering support and sets up a dysfunctional dynamic that isn’t healthy for either person. If you have a friendship that almost always involves one of you giving support and the other receiving it, it’s time to reevaluate the relationship.

Key Takeaways

  • Friends are not qualified to serve as therapists because they lack objectivity, neutrality, and professional training.
  • People who treat their friends like therapists do most of the talking, rarely offering their friends as much time and attention as they receive.
  • Friends who function like therapists can feel drained because they offer most of emotional support in the relationship and receive little in return.
  • To stop being a therapist friend, it’s important to set boundaries and recommend your friend seek professional support for mental health issues.

The Importance of Young Adult Friendship for Mental Health

Close friendships bolster our health and well-being. They can even help regulate emotional distress. When you’re having a bad day, talking to a friend who creates a safe space can help you calm down and relax. Maintaining authentic relationships with friends has been linked with a lower risk of depression and healthier blood pressure. One study found that having someone in your life who’s a good listener actually enhances brain health.

Young adults in particular rely on friends for social support during tough times. One survey found that young people provide approximately 3.5 hours of support per week for their friends. Two-thirds of the survey participants reported that friends are a critical form of support. And 95 percent reported they had helped a friend through a mental health issue. That’s not surprising, given that 1 in 3 young adults (ages 18–29) say they feel depressed and 1 in 2 young adults experience anxiety.

However, there’s sometimes a fine line between offering emotional support to a friend in need and being treated as a therapist. Sometimes friends take it too far, venting to buddies at length about all manner of issues, some of which their friends aren’t qualified to address. Young adults who treat their friends like therapists (and those who function like therapists for friends who are struggling) are creating unhealthy patterns. The friendship becomes a codependent relationship in which one person sacrifices their needs for the sake of the other person.


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Why Can’t Friends Be Therapists?

Your friends can’t and shouldn’t function as your therapists. When they do, the friendship becomes one-sided. More than that, though, friends can’t be therapists because they’re neither objective nor qualified. Their emotional investment in your relationship and their own biases may cause them to offer opinions that don’t serve you. They may tell you what they think you want to hear because they don’t want to fracture your relationship. They may give you advice based on their own experience or push you in a certain direction, which therapists are trained not to do. In short, they lack the ability to be neutral.

Furthermore, friends who function like therapists risk feeling drained and resentful. Young adults shouldn’t feel emotionally responsible for their friends’ well-being. Despite how much they care, friends can’t always provide the focused support that a young adult needs. Unlike a therapy session, friendship should be a two-way street. Using a friend as a continual support system when you’re overwhelmed places unfair expectations on the relationship and can even damage it beyond repair.

Likewise, excessive complaining about young adult mental health issues to friends who aren’t trained to help can have negative consequences. The friend may end up enabling those problematic behaviors and thought patterns rather than changing them. Even though “therapist friends” may have the best of intentions, their input could ultimately make things worse instead of better.

Are You Treating Your Friend Like a Therapist?

In relationships with close friends, there’s nothing wrong with having intimate conversations about vulnerable topics. It’s healthy and important to be able to talk about your emotions with someone you trust. When you begin leaning on your friend for heightened levels of input and support, though, beware. You’re venturing into unhealthy territory. Ask yourself these questions to see if you’re treating your good friend like a therapist.

Do you …

  • Mostly reach out to your friend when you’re feeling down?
  • Do the majority of the talking when you and your friend get together?
  • Talk about your problems with your friend more than you talk about anything else?
  • Go into conversations with your friend hoping for resolutions to your problems?
  • Know what your friend is up to and how they’re feeling, or do most of your conversations revolve around what’s going on in your life?
  • Rarely ask how your friend is doing and then pause and simply listen?
  • Find that you make most, if not all, of the efforts to get together?

If these questions sound like you, consider reaching out to a therapist to ensure you get the listening ear and help you need. Friends are incredibly important for providing love and support, but if you’re struggling with a mental health issue, professional help is essential.

Are You a Therapist Friend?

If you’re a good listener, nonjudgmental, trustworthy, and empathetic, people likely feel safe opening up to you, especially close friends. While those qualities are wonderful, you need to be mindful. You may have friends who unconsciously take advantage of your willingness to help.

To gauge whether you’re at risk of being a therapist friend, ask yourself these questions:

  • When you and your friend meet up, do you do nearly all the listening?
  • Is there no time to talk about yourself because your friend monopolizes the conversation?
  • Are you often in the position of trying to cheer your friend up or offer advice when they’re depressed?
  • Do you feel drained after conversations with your friend?
  • After get-togethers with the friend, do you feel resentful, overlooked, and used?
  • How responsible do you feel for your friend’s happiness?
  • Have you been hesitating to arrange get-togethers or avoiding your friend’s calls for these reasons?

I have found it difficult when I was having a hard day and had to be (a friend's) support person for the whole day. It’s also difficult when you can tell they need you at that moment but you don’t really have the time, but you make time anyway.

Sam, participant
Young adult mental health survey

How to Stop Being the Therapist Friend

You may be acting as a therapist friend if you repeatedly allow friends to dominate conversations with their issues and rarely speak up about your own. Though you mean well, you unfortunately train your friends to view you (and use you) as their unpaid therapist.

Changing this dynamic is a delicate endeavor. It may take time, especially for friends who’ve come to rely on you as their go-to for attention and comfort. It’s possible you could lose the friendship by shifting the imbalance. If you’re honest with yourself, though, you’ll likely admit what you have isn’t a real friendship. Breaking free from the therapist zone is the healthiest outcome for you and your friend. Here are some ways to go about it:

Determine What Your Friend Needs

Some friends just want to vent and be heard. Others yearn for constructive advice. Both can be taxing to give if you always play the therapist role. Think about what demands more energy from you—just listening or coming up with workable solutions to your friend’s problems.

If your friend starts a conversation by saying something like, “I hate my life!” ask them what they need from you: “Are you looking for advice or just someone to listen?” Knowing this helps you gauge what you’re capable of giving, based on how you’re feeling at that moment.

Set Boundaries

You may be surprised your friend doesn’t recognize that your relationship is unbalanced or that you’re feeling depleted. Or you may fear appearing insensitive or uncaring. But setting boundaries around how often you’re available and how much you can realistically be there for your friend is a must. It’s important to honor your own needs. And you’ll feel better when you do.

Boundary-setting may involve letting a friend know that you won’t be able to give as much undivided attention as you have in the past because of everything you have on your own plate. For example, you may need to tell your friend that might not be able to answer the phone every time they’re having a meltdown. Or you may have to set time limits on how long your friend can ruminate about their most recent breakup. You might say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset. I can’t talk right now, but I have half an hour free at 9 o’clock. Does that work for you?” Or you could say, “With everything going on in my own life, I can’t process this with you on weekends anymore. I need time to recharge and take care of my own mental health.”

Don’t Take on Your Friend’s Baggage

If you tend to play the therapist for friends who are struggling, you’re likely an empathetic type. While empathy is an admirable quality, expressing it too often or too much can result in emotional exhaustion. Remember that your friend’s difficulties are not your own. Take your friend’s problems off your to-do list. You’re not responsible for solving them.

Remind yourself that listening without judgment is enough. But even listening can become burdensome when it’s required too often and goes on too long. If your friend’s sadness or anger are negatively impacting your emotions, it’s time to make a change.

Suggest Other Resources

A friend’s anxiety or depression may reach a point where you can no longer bear witness to it on your own. If you’re worried a friend may have a mental illness or if you feel overwhelmed by the weight of tending to them, it’s essential to talk to them about their mental health issues and suggest they seek professional support.

If you know of a good therapist or support group, feel free to make some recommendations. Be sure to offer your suggestions compassionately. Explain that you don’t have the skills needed to address your friend’s problem sufficiently. You might say, “I realize I’m limited in my ability to help you with this, but I really want to support you. I think you might consider reaching out to X for additional support.”

Practice Self-Care

When you’re continually in giving mode, you can neglect your own needs. Similarly, it’s hard to be there for others when your well is dry. Make sure you practice self-care by eating healthfully, exercising, meditating, journaling, engaging in relationships that nourish you, and getting adequate rest. If you do, you’ll have more to give.

Consider Ending the Friendship

Some friends may be offended when you set boundaries. Or they may find the shift in your friendship destabilizing. They may be hurt you’re not as available as you once were. It’s possible they won’t be able to see things from your point of view because they’re so consumed by their own pain. As a result, they may withdraw or pull away altogether because you’re not allowing them to use you any longer.

In that case, you may need to accept that your relationship can only function when it’s like a therapy session, in which you have no needs of your own. If that’s the case, it may be healthiest for you to let the friendship go. That may require a conversation, or the friendship may naturally fade out when you set boundaries.

How to Stop Treating Your Friend Like a Therapist

Do you have a friend who’s expressed concern about functioning as your therapist? Maybe you sense that a close friend feels worn out by your emotional venting and trauma dumping? Either way, you’re at risk of damaging your friendship, and maybe even losing it for good. It’s important to remember that your friends are friends, not therapists, and friendships should be a give-and-take for both people.

To stop treating your friend like a therapist, you need to shift the dynamic in your relationship. Here are some productive ways to go about it:

Check in With Them

Before you dive into an hourlong venting session with a close pal, find out if they have the emotional bandwidth to hear it. You may say, “Is this an okay time?” before dumping a heavy subject into your friend’s lap.

Practice Self-Awareness

Notice if you’re doing all the talking when you and your friend get together. Sometimes we fail to recognize how much energy listening requires. It can be such a relief to release everything we’re thinking and feeling that we forget we’re in a two-way conversation, not a monologue. Pause when you’re talking and tune in to how your friend is feeling. Your awareness should shape how much you share or the way you share it.

Be Sensitive

Complaining about a problem to a friend who’s in a similar or worse situation can be insensitive. If your friend is out of work, for example, you might not want to complain at length about your job. If your friend would like to be in a relationship, venting about the problems in your long-term romantic relationship could be hurtful. Think about whether the topic you’re bringing up could be triggering for your friend. If so, find a different friend to talk to about it.

Set a Timer

Try this approach if you have the tendency to go on at length about your issues without realizing how much time has passed or inquiring about your friend’s life. At the beginning of the conversation, ask how much time your friend has to talk. Then set a timer on your watch or phone to ensure there’s equal time for both of you to talk and for both of you to listen.

Seek Professional Help

Do you notice a pattern of repeatedly venting to a friend about the same topic? Or maybe you simply feel incapable of offering your friend your time and attention without focusing on yourself. If so, you may need the help of a mental health professional. Seek one out so you don’t tax your friendship or perhaps ruin it altogether.

Young Adult Mental Health Treatment at Newport Institute

If you need support with your mental health or you have friends that do, Newport Institute could be the perfect fit. In our outpatient treatment and residential treatment programs, we help young adults ages 18–35 with a wide range of mental health issues, in a safe and supportive environment. Whether you or someone you care about is suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, trauma and attachment wounds, or some other mental health issue, we have the tools to help.

Our evidence-based care and scientifically validated modalities help young adults build self-worth, form authentic connections with others, develop a sense of purpose, practice self-care, and cultivate hope. Our team of clinicians, medical experts, and experiential therapists are trained to guide young adults to navigate the internal and external challenges they face during this transitional time in their lives.

Contact us today to find out how our specialized treatment can help young people develop healthy coping mechanisms so they can form satisfying relationships and build the confidence to fulfill their potential.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why can’t friends be therapists?
  • How do you know whether you’re treating your friend like a therapist?
  • How do you know whether you’re a therapist friend?
  • How can you stop being a therapist friend?

KFF/CNN Mental Health in America Survey 2022

JAMA Netw Open. 2021; 4(8): e2121122.

Mental Health / May 5, 2023