"Best friends forever": It's a phrase can get pushed to the limits when you're the go-to support person for a devastated friend after her divorce. Initially, you're right by her side, especially at midlife and beyond, when you've been friends for decades.
However, after months of roller coaster emotions, long talks and many hours of listening, your patience starts to fray. You feel guilty about not wanting to listen, but you're tired of the same stories. At the same time, you know how emotionally fragile your long-time buddy is feeling.
Nonetheless, it's time for her to move on. So you make suggestions. But nothing happens. She's clearly caught up in the drama. How can you continue to help without sacrificing your own sanity?
Before you bolt, unable to look at another despondent text ("OMG. Saw him @ mall again. Totally lost it."), listen to another sad story ("I still don't understand why he left. We were so good together."), and read yet another unhappy email, ("How much longer will I have to live like this?"), realize that it may not be your friend who needs rebooting.
It may be you.
You can't give quality support to your friend if the support system (you) is out of gas. After all, what good are you to her (or yourself) if you're just plain exhausted?
It's the first lesson therapists-in-training learn in graduate school: Tend to your own needs first, then you can help others. Much like the safety message you hear on a plane: Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you place it over your child's mouth.
It's all about your mindset and what you tell yourself. Your mind believes everything you tell it.
Here are the top five messages I tell myself when I'm dealing with clients and beloved friends who need extra TLC for extended periods of time.
1. She owns the sadness, not me. Let her feel the full gamut of emotions - from grieving to healing to newfound happiness. But be clear that this is her life trauma, not yours. Simply put: I don't take the drama home with me at night. Is that harsh? Not when you consider that one of us has to be emotionally grounded.
2. Be sympathetic, not empathetic. Know the difference. Being empathetic means "I feel your pain." Sympathy means, "I understand your pain." Empathy means you're right down there in the emotional gutter with her. Sympathy means you care, but you choose to remain gently detached.
3. Be a role model instead of a "fixer." We all want to "fix it." But fixing doesn't work. Period. I'm tempted to give my sad buddy a book to read, a movie to watch, an article to read, the phone number of a good therapist, or an evening out. I'm convinced I know best, but truth be told? Forget about it!
They know intuitively what they need much better than I do. When they're ready for it, they'll ask.
4. It's her life, not yours. Never say, "I'm giving this to you because I think you need it." Giving it to her suggests powerlessness: Someone has to show her the way. Letting her ask for it allows her to be pro-active in her own healing. It's a subtle but critical difference.
Instead, my job is to model how to love your life now, no matter what, in spite of all the imperfections. Tell her about the book you read, the movie you saw, the article you read, this great therapist you heard speak, the event you're attending -- and invite her to share it when she is ready. If she wants it, she'll ask for it. If not, let it go.
5. Know when to say no and claim your space. Loving your friend means knowing your own boundaries and limitations. It's OK to answer texts, emails, or Facebook posts with a simple "good for you" or "that's a rough one" -- it can buy you mental time off.
So get a massage. Have some good belly laughs. Spend weekends with other friends. Your suffering comrade will appreciate a fresh you who can hold her hand with confidence, not exhaustion.
Pay it forward. This is my favorite technique when I begin to feel burnout. Remember "Pay It Forward," a movie with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt?
"Pay It Forward" means telling yourself that the hours and days you've spent listening to the woes of a friend's divorce is payback for that someone who did a similar long "virtual hug" for you years ago. Pay it forward for your grieving friend, and someday, when she's healed, she'll pay it forward for someone else.
BFF? It can be daunting when a friend faces a life crisis. You can be her most trusted, helpful source of healing -- but the number one priority is taking care of yourself first.
Start your day with a morning inspiration to get you energized. Visit http://www.katherineforsythe.com/inspiration/ for my 30-day audio download of inspirational (and often funny) messages to kick start your day for thirty days.
Contact me personally if you need to talk about your own personal challenges at http://www.katherineforsythe.com/contact-2/.