There’s a fine balance to being a good friend – you try to be there when she needs you, and she’s there when you need her. But if the scales tip too far towards her drama, your world can revolve around it.
That’s something Kelly, 28, can relate to, after helping her friend, Elle, to plan her wedding. Tension between guests threatened to hijack the day, and Kelly spent hours offering solutions to try to help Elle relax and enjoy herself. “But as the day drew closer, I realised I’d inadvertently absorbed a lot of her stress,” Kelly says. “I felt drained.”
It’s no surprise, says psychologist Victoria Kasunic, who sees twentysomething women in this situation all the time.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of the friendship being about you always supporting the other person, and you get worn out,” Kasunic says. “If you do it all the time, it can compromise your ability to achieve your own goals.”
If you’re always thinking and talking about your friends’ problems, personal coach Kate James says you ought to pause and consider a bird’s-eye view of your friendships.
“The first step is in recognising you’re addicted to other people’s drama and might be thriving on it,” she says. “Make a choice about whether that’s enhancing your life or taking you away from other, more fulfilling things.”
Workshopping problems for other people can also distract you from your own issues. “Some people avoid having time for themselves because they don’t know what they’ll fill that time with,” Kasunic says. “It’s convenient to be able to say, ‘I’ve got to do this for so-and-so’ because it distracts you from dealing with your own stuff.”
That’s something Desiree, 27, learned helping her workmate, Brian, as he flitted between relationships. “For four years, I absorbed his madness,” she recalls. “We’d have long discussions in his office, in his car and over lunch, but no sense ever seemed to get through to him.” Desiree found herself going over Brian’s problems in her own time, and that got her down. But when she found out he was leaving her workplace and hadn’t even told her, she realised how one-sided the friendship had become. “The depth of my involvement in his life became obvious,” she admits.
For Desiree, it took moving back home with her family in the country to shift her focus back to her needs. “I cut off a large group of those ‘friends’ who, at the end of the day, never had my best interests at heart,” she says. “I realised it’s important to give yourself time to take an outside look at your situation.”
Be supportive, minus the drama
The challenge is in finding a way to be supportive, without getting consumed. James suggests practising mindfulness by focusing on what’s happening in a particular moment. “Give your friend your full attention when you’re with her, but leave problems with her when you walk away and focus on the next thing you’re doing,” she says.
For Janelle, 28, this meant setting clear conversational boundaries. “My best friend had a falling out with one of our other friends and was devastated,” she recalls. “Whenever I was with her, the conversation would inevitably turn to the situation, so I was thinking about them all the time.” When her partner pointed out she’d been debriefing with him every night for weeks on end, she realised she’d let the drama go too far. “I refused to discuss it any more,” she says. “It was refreshing.”
Kasunic thinks Janelle has the right idea. “Cut in and break the dialogue you keep having,” she says. “Talk about yourself – it might distract her from the issue. And if you say, ‘I’m exhausted, I need time on my own’, a real friend will get that.”
Words by Kimberly Gillan