Are you playing the role of therapist?

By Adrianne Webster,
updated on Jan 4, 2024

Are you playing the role of therapist?

It’s natural to want to be there for your loved ones, but where should you draw the line? Here are four ways to set boundaries…

Have you ever been stuck between friends, a couple, or your own parents, playing the role of the therapist while each side rants about the other? Or even just had that one friend who trauma-dumps on you every time you go out for coffee?

In today’s fast-paced world, lots of us find solace in sharing our problems with others. And, while being there for loved ones is important, there’s a fine line between offering support, and assuming the role of an unofficial therapist.

It can be mentally and emotionally draining to become a sounding board, and even worse if you can’t speak up and ask them to stop. And when you’re mediating a tense issue between people you’re close to, things can often get ugly, with people wanting you to take sides, which can ruin relationships.

People feeling like they can open up to you is a compliment; it shows you’re trustworthy, an active listener, and kind. But sometimes even our closest loved ones can push the boundaries of what’s appropriate, and not consider our feelings.

Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, shares some ways you can advocate for yourself in the kindest way possible…

Tune-in to your feelings

Boundaries are essential guidelines that define what is acceptable and respectful in a relationship. When someone starts treating you like a therapist, they often unload their emotional baggage on to you without considering your own capacity to handle it. Recognising the importance of boundaries is crucial to maintaining healthy connections.

“Notice times when you feel stressed, angry, or frustrated after speaking to someone. These are often red flags that you need to set a boundary,” explains Dr Touroni.

If you’re often coming away from interactions feeling more stressed and frustrated than you went in, then it could be time to consider how much you let yourself be a sounding board.

Be clear and direct about what you want

It can be hard to be direct with people; we often worry about being too harsh, but it’s important to be firm, yet friendly, when expressing how you feel. Open and honest communication is key when setting boundaries with individuals who treat you like a therapist.

“Be direct and clear in your communication, while also respecting and validating their feelings,” recommends Dr Touroni. “For example, you could say something like, ‘It makes sense that you feel that way. I want to be there for you, but to be honest, I just don’t have the emotional capacity right now.’”

Using ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ instead of ‘You do this/that’ statements can help to convey your emotions, without sounding accusatory.

Encourage them to get professional help

When people rely on you as a therapist, it’s important to help them explore other avenues of support. Suggest professional therapists or counsellors who can provide the specialised help they may need, and encourage them to join support groups or seek out online communities where they can connect with others facing similar challenges. By offering alternative solutions, you empower them to find appropriate resources, while reducing the burden on yourself.

Dr Touroni agrees: “Encourage them to seek therapy. Finding them the right support is the best thing you can do. Therapists are trained to help people work through these kinds of emotions and experiences, in a way that friends are not.”

Know your limits

Setting boundaries is an ongoing process. It’s crucial to consistently reinforce these limits in your relationships. Be firm but compassionate, reminding others of the boundaries you’ve established. Additionally, prioritise self-care to maintain your own emotional wellbeing.

And remember, taking care of yourself enables you to continue being a supportive presence in the lives of others. Make sure you’re engaging in activities that replenish your energy and allow you to disconnect from the emotional weight of others’ problems.

Setting boundaries when people treat you like a therapist is a necessary step in maintaining healthy relationships. By recognising your limits, communicating effectively, suggesting alternative solutions, and prioritising self-care, you can strike a balance between supporting others, and protecting your own wellbeing.

Remember, boundaries promote healthier connections and ensure that you can be there for others, while also taking care of yourself.

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