3 Tips For Helping (Not Enabling) A Friend With Anxiety, From A Clinical Psychologist
As a clinical psychologist, people ask me a lot of questions about mental well-being, both on social media and IRL. I recently invited my Instagram followers to ask me questions through the stories feature, and I received a ton of responses. Here is one recent query that stood out:
"I have a friend who is struggling with anxiety, and I'd really like to be supportive. Whenever I try to say something helpful, she snaps that I don't understand. I get frustrated because she is often late or cancels plans at the last minute. I want to be understanding, but I don't know how."
My take? If this scenario resonates with you, let me first say that striving to be a good friend is an absolutely admirable quality. If you have a friend with anxiety, it's perfectly reasonable to feel an urge to help—particularly if it's affecting their quality of life and your friendship. That said, I have a few key tips I encourage you to consider before springing into action.
Give your friend space to express their experience.
When a friend says you don't understand what she's going through, you might actually consider agreeing with her. Then, invite her to tell you more, if she wants. This will help validate her experience of feeling misunderstood and also hopefully set the stage for more communication and understanding.
Remember that there is a fine line between helping and enabling.
Helping is being supportive by being a good listener and accommodating her within reasonable limits. Enabling is going beyond "reasonable limits" and prioritizing the other person's needs over yours, to the point where you actually end up supporting behavior that isn't good for either one of you.
If a friend is constantly super late or canceling plans at the last minute, to the point where you're (understandably!) getting very frustrated, you might reevaluate how you make plans together. Consider letting your friend know that you'd love to spend time with her, but if actually keeping the plans is too burdensome due to her current situation with anxiety, then you'd prefer to have spontaneous get-togethers when she's sure she's up for it.
Depending on your relationship with your friend, you might also mention that if her anxiety is making it unbearable to keep plans that are normally part of a healthy social life, it might be time to at least consider talking to a professional, to make sure she's getting whatever support she needs.
Remember you don't need to have all the answers.
While it's great to listen and be available, you don't have to pretend to be all-knowing in order to be a good friend. If she says that talking with you doesn't feel helpful, you might consider gently telling her you understand how frustrating the situation must be. Then, explain that you'd love to help more but that you think maybe the most useful thing you can do is help her seek out a therapist so she can get the knowledgeable, professional support she deserves. If fees are the barrier, you could offer to help her look into "low-fee therapy services," as there are many community-supported programs available.
While there are many ways you can help, remember this is ultimately your friend's issue to solve. Taking too much responsibility for it, or over-accommodating her by "suffering in silence" through constant canceled plans will not actually empower her to get the help she needs. Even therapists struggle with this: We want to be helpful, but at the same time trying too hard to "do it for someone" can deprive them of the healthy space they need to work on their own growth.
One more note:
If you often find yourself in dynamics with people where you're tempted to sacrifice your own needs to focus on theirs, to the point you're getting stood up or snapped at regularly—it may be time to turn your attention inward. Consider seeing a therapist or sharing with a friend, to see if there are ways you can learn more about good, healthy boundaries that will help you and the people in your life, too.
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