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4 Tips for a Healthy Friendship When You Both Have a Mental Illness

Maintaining relationships isn’t easy in the first place, but cultivating healthy friendships becomes even more difficult when you and your friend both struggle with a mental illness. When that happens, you have extra challenges to face. For example, there’s the risk of burning each other out. There is also the issue of accidentally triggering the other person, or relying solely on each other to provide emotional support.

I am grateful to have friends with whom I feel comfortable setting boundaries, but I know that’s not the case with everyone. It was definitely challenging at first, but since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to navigate friendships that, at times, involve both parties being sick. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that setting boundaries will undoubtedly improve the relationship and is a necessary component of any friendship.

In my own personal life, I value close friendships; they are my main source of support. However, I never want my friends to feel like it’s unsafe for them to assert their needs and wishes. In a healthy friendship, both partners should feel safe enough to set and communicate their limits without feeling fear, guilt or shame. 

It took a lot of practice, but I’d like to believe my friends now feel comfortable communicating their boundaries with me, while fully knowing they will be respected. In fact, I love it when my friends say no or decline my invitations to hang out. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my friends taking responsibility for their health and prioritizing their self-care. I will always praise people who set boundaries instead of sacrificing their well-being. 

Here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve learned so far:

1. Know your own boundaries.

The first step is to identify your own limits. Of course, if you don’t know your triggers and personal limits, it will be hard to communicate them to those around you. For me, it took a lot of trial and errors, insight and therapy. Getting to know yourself is a process and finding your wise mind can be hard, especially if you’re a people pleaser like me. If you don’t have access to a therapist or other professional supports, I suggest self-help books, self-reflection through journaling or even talking about it with a trusted loved one. You can start by asking yourself these questions:

What do I need right now?

What is my body telling me?

If I say yes, will this damage my self-respect down the road?

Do I feel overwhelmed right now?

What are my boundaries?

2. Keep an open line of communication.

The thing with limits is that they aren’t static. Like most things in life, they are constantly changing. It’s important to keep in mind that people have different limits depending on who they’re with, what time of the year it is, and how they’re feeling in the moment. For that reason, it’s crucial to keep an open line of communication. This means that if you set a boundary one week, it doesn’t mean you can’t change it a week later. It also means it’s OK to say yes, then change your answer to a no later.

Moreover, when communicating limits, you want to aim for details. Be specific. So often we hear people say, “Call me anytime!” but that rarely happens. Why? Because it’s vague, and chances are the other person will never reach out. If you want to communicate to someone that you want to be there for them, try something like, “Feel free to give me a call after dinner this weekend,” or “I’m not available to speak on the phone this week, but we could exchange texts to check in with each other in the morning and at night.”

On the other hand, if someone reaches out to you and you’re unavailable to support them, you can say something like, “I can’t be a support person for you right now because I have a busy week ahead of me. However, I could call you Sunday evening?” Or, “I can’t talk right now, but feel free to send me a text, and I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.”

Tip: When you’re the person reaching out, check with your friend to make sure they’re in a good headspace before confiding in them. For instance, I always try to ask my friends, “Do you have the capacity to support me right now?” I find the simple gesture of asking speaks volumes. It communicates to the other person that you respect their boundaries, and are willing to back off if needed. It also shows them you value the friendship and don’t take their support for granted.

3. Reach out to professional supports.

When most of your friends struggle with a mental illness, it can be easy to become trapped and reliant on each other. It’s helpful to note you’re not responsible for your friends’ emotional baggage and it’s not your job to help them process their trauma. Your task is to hold space for your friend until a professional steps in. Of course, because you want to be there for them, this can be easier said than done. I do want to point out, though, that in my experience, I have the healthiest relationships when my friends and I both have our own network of support that does not include each other.

4. Setting a boundary does not mean not seeing or speaking to each other.

Lastly, I want to highlight the concept that setting a boundary does not equal a loss of communication. In fact, most of the time when I set boundaries with my friends, it’s about observing limits in the context of our present interaction.

For example, I will agree to hang out with my friend but will warn her ahead of time, “I don’t want to talk about the deep stuff. Can we just have fun today?” I also think creating happy memories and going on adventures with your friends strengthens the relationship. I don’t think my friendships would be sustainable if all we did was talk about mental health. Although my friends and I spend a portion of our time discussing our issues, it is not the sole component of our friendship. So, we try our best to balance the hard conversations with lighter ones, because doing “normal” friend-related things adds a new dimension to our relationship. As a result, we get to know each other as people, instead of viewing each other through the lens of our illness.

Because my friends and I will often be depressed at the same time, it can be extra hard to maintain a healthy friendship. In that case, we try to see each other because we know socializing helps reduce our depression. What often ends up happening is that we will end up doing self-care related tasks together. My friend coined the term “domestic hangout” and that’s what we do when we can both barely get out of bed. We go to the grocery store or buy bedsheets. Funnily enough, one of my most cherished memories from the past year involves us going shopping for new eyeglasses. My friend tagged along, and we ended up having a blast trying on different pairs and styles. I find that alternating between low energy and high-intensity activities provides balance in our friendship.

What’s interesting to me is noticing how my friend and I have the healthiest friendship, despite both of us struggling with setting appropriate boundaries. Considering we’re both people pleasers and tend to sacrifice our needs for others, I think it’s remarkable we somehow make it work. It’s almost as if we both understand the risks, and therefore make extra efforts to be mindful and careful of each other’s limits.

Although there are dangers associated with this sort of relationship (for example, suicide pacts), I’m confident that if both parties seek outside help, it’s totally possible to have a healthy, fulfilling friendship.

In the end, I think what I love most about my friends, in general, is that they are like sisters and brothers to me. Yes, we do go out for drinks sometimes, and we study together like most college students. But we are also there for each other for the “simple moments.” We eat dinner together, grab a coffee, hang out at parks, visit each other in the hospital, go to concerts and shop for sneakers together. I think the best kinds of friends are the ones who are there for you through all the important, uncomfortable stuff, but also for the small, everyday moments.

Photo by Dani Vivanco on Unsplash

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