Self Care While Helping a Friend

Helping a friend or family member with mental illness can be hugely rewarding and challenging at the same time. It may not always be a smooth ride, but it feels great to see someone you care about do better.

It’s important to know when being challenged can be too much.

Feelings I might have while helping a friend:
  • guilt and frustration at seeing your friend unhappy
  • impatience that things don't change fast enough or consistently enough
  • sadness, distress or anger that this is happening at all
  • sadness or grief because you miss the way things used to be
  • fear or concern that this could happen to other people you love, including yourself
  • resentment, if you feel that your friend's illness is taking up all of your time or attention

Feeling this way does not mean that you are a bad person, or that you have stopped caring. 

Why does helping a friend make me feel upset sometimes?

People sometimes experience compassion fatigue when helping others, which is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and unrewarded. The sense of feeling overwhelmed or exhausted can happen for several reasons. For example if you have:

  • difficulty asking for help
  • a strong and unrealistic need to make things ideal for your friend
  • difficulty saying “no”
  • a habit of neglecting yourself and your needs for the benefit of others
  • the belief that you are the only person that can care for or help your friend or loved one

If you’re finding that your friend is behaving in the following ways, you might want to consider setting some boundaries and communicating how these behaviours are making you feel:

  • making demands of you that you feel are unreasonable
  • taking their frustrations out on you, or becoming aggressive or abusive
  • always making everything about them, leaving no room for your feelings, stories or needs
  • being constantly defensive
  • giving mixed messages, such as asking for your help, but pushing you or your efforts to help them away
  • expecting you to have a similar mood to theirs, or resenting your happiness;
  • unable to set appropriate boundaries
  • taking you and your efforts for granted, or making you feel nothing is good enough
What is self care, and how can I do it?

Taking care of yourself while helping a friend means recognizing that your own needs are also important. Supporting someone might require a lot of your time and energy and it can be easy to neglect your own self-care. Self care can be anything that helps to rebuild or sustain your emotional, physical, mental, social or spiritual balance.

1.  Find BALANCE:

The key is to try to strike a balance between your responsibilities, and those things that help to recharge and maintain our health (like exercising, connecting with friends, finishing that book you’re reading, etc.) If you’re so consumed with helping a friend that you’re neglecting other parts of your life, you’ll get tired and resentful.  

2.  Set BOUNDARIES:

This means establishing healthy limits, such as being able to tell someone when they are behaving in a way that you are struggling with or find upsetting. Knowing what your limits are, communicating them clearly, and knowing what is and isn’t acceptable are all part of defining and setting boundaries.

3.  Know what RESCUE vs. SUPPORT means:

As much as you might wish you could "fix" someone or "fix" things for them, you can't do someone else's emotional work for them. The thing to remember though – and this is the trickiest thing about caring for someone who is going through a hard time – is that your friend's emotional state is beyond your control. Rescuing means over-helping and can actually take away from another person's self-determination. It is not helpful and can create a dependency rather than a healthy relationship or a healthy way of dealing with mental illness.

4.  Remember your OWN NEEDS:

It can become easy to neglect your own needs while helping someone deal with mental health issues. You might even feel guilty for focusing on your own needs, thinking that your friend or family member is in a worse spot than you are. Or perhaps they are even making you feel guilty for it. Set boundaries and stick to them, and make room in your life to do things that are important to you.

5.  Remember that you’re NOT ALONE:

It can take more than one person to support someone going through a tough time. It’s not all up to you. Share the experience by reaching out to other friends, family members, teachers, guidance counsellors, family doctors or a counsellor/ therapist. Remember that if you are feeling overwhelmed, you can reach out and talk to someone. Even if your friend refuses to get help, you can still get support for yourself while being there for them.

Read more tips for practicing self care while supporting a friend.