The summer before I started university, while I was busy making preparations for this new phase of my life, my best friend at the time was dealing with a lot of difficulties. She would regale me for hours with the latest antics of her dysfunctional family to the point where I felt like I was living it also. Even when she had a nasty bought of food poisoning, I got such detailed blow-by-blow reports of what was going in, and what was coming out, to the point that I myself developed stomach cramps.
During most of those conversations I could barely get a word in edgewise, and when I did it was usually to offer some form of consolation or advice. Not once did she ever ask me how I was doing, and if I tried to interject some of my own concerns she would dismiss them almost immediately, moving the conversation back to herself.
I eventually ended the friendship when she started making some lifestyle decisions leading to a downward spiral of even more problems. No doubt had I stuck around, I would have continued to be her sounding board while getting little in return.
In many situations like this, I have found myself playing the role of therapist, teacher, pastor, or parent. It comes natural to me — when I care about someone, I want to help. However, in order to avoid becoming totally drained I have also had to work on strengthening my boundaries.
Having clear boundaries means not letting others own my time. It can mean emotionally and physically distancing myself from a person or situation. In extreme cases, it might mean having to break off the relationship entirely.
Everyone needs good, solid boundaries to create healthy relationships. Give of yourself, but know when to say no.
The Soapbox is a trench publication for those on the front who fight for the Lost, the Last and the Least. From August 2006.