We all like to be there for others, but at what point do we need to step back and consider our own needs? Here we show you how to support others without putting your mental health on the line

All of us go through difficult times in our lives. Sometimes these will see us leaning on friends for support. Maybe we’ll go for coffee and have a rant about the manager at work who seems out to get us. Maybe we’ll cry down the phone to them when a relationship collapses. Whatever the situation, friends are often a powerful link in our support system.

When you’re taking on the role of a supportive friend, however, it can be easy to let your needs fall by the wayside. You may fall into the helper role regularly and find yourself holding others up more than yourself. When this happens, your energy gets depleted quicker and your mental health may be impacted.

It’s easy for us to sit here and say you need to prioritise yourself and your self-care, but we all know that’s easier said than done, especially when others are relying on us. Instead, it’s helpful to know the ways you can support others, but in a way that’s sustainable and protects your health.

Here are some ways you can do just that.

Set healthy boundaries

This is particularly important if you find yourself coming to the aid of others frequently. While this is of course a noble attribute, setting yourself some boundaries will ensure that when you are supporting others, you have the energy to do so.

Setting boundaries is an individual thing, but here are some points you may want to consider:

  • Allocate time-frames for returning messages, calling others or meeting others to support them (assuming they're not in crisis).
  • Keep one day a week (or morning/evening if a day is not feasible) just for you. Give yourself the space to refill your own cup.
  • Outline what scenarios/situations you are able to cope with, and what you’re not. If a scenario comes up that you can’t cope with, signpost other support for them.

Find a way to let go after the conversation is over

Supporting others and having heavy conversations can be difficult. Counsellors have supervision for this very reason, so they can talk through their own feelings and process. Having a way to protect your energy and ground yourself after a tough conversation can help.

Imagine your friend is throwing a ball at you during the conversation - this ball is their emotional distress. Throughout the conversation you may be able to hold the ball for them, giving them a break from its weight. After the conversation is over, however, it’s important to give the ball back and not take it with you.

By listening and supporting them in that moment, you have undoubtedly helped to lighten their load. Meditation, journaling, and honouring your boundaries can all help with this.

Learn more about protecting your energy as an empath.

Lean on your own support system

If you’re feeling wiped out or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to talk to others about how you’re feeling. You can talk to other friends, family or a partner. You may even decide to talk to a counsellor. This can give you the space you need to take care of yourself emotionally while also being able to support them.

Having a wide support network is helpful, consider reaching out online to different forums or even to friends on social media. You may be surprised at how many people can relate to you.  

Signpost support

There can come a point when listening and being there for a friend fails to be helpful. It may be that you simply can’t offer them the help they truly need, this is nothing to be ashamed of. At this point, signposting support is a great way to help your friend get the right kind of support.

If your friend is having mental health concerns, you could encourage them to visit their doctor (you could even go along with them) or suggest they search for a counsellor. If their mental health isn’t an issue but they are feeling directionless and out of control, you may want to suggest coaching. If they seem keen to try more alternative approaches, complementary therapies and hypnotherapy could be worth recommending.

Recognise when it’s time to step back

If you have done all of the above but are still feeling overwhelmed (maybe your friend won’t seek professional support or are not respecting your boundaries) you may need to ask yourself how much you are helping by continuing to support them.

There can come a time when your support becomes enabling. If you think this may be happening, consider whether or not it’s time for you to step back from supporting them and putting your mental health first. Withdrawing support from a friend may sound harsh, but in some cases, it can be the wake-up call the friend needs to find the right support for them.

Every situation is different however and it’s important to listen to your gut with this and talk it through with others if possible.

Friendships and connections are essential for our mental health, but the support that flows from them should come from both sides. It’s unfair for one person to always be doing the heavy lifting. Keep this in mind and remember that your needs are just as important.

Connect with a counsellor using counselling-directory.org.uk