7 Practical Tips for Setting Boundaries with a Draining Friend

Updated Jun 22, 2017
7 Practical Tips for Setting Boundaries with a Draining Friend
Here's how you can provide genuine support and maintain healthy boundaries with a draining friend.

Most of us have at least one friendship that sucks us dry. We try to provide support, but leave feeling depleted and exhausted. We get in the car and think, “Oh, my gosh, she is so draining!”

Wrestling with how to best respond, our default is often to fall into one of two extremes.

Extreme A: We continue giving everything we can possibly give and deplete ourselves thinking it’s the Christian thing to do.I can’t tell her no or it might turn her away from Christ. I can’t take time to fill myself back up because I’m supposed to put other people’s needs before my own. I can’t be honest about the unhealthy aspects of our friendship because she is in too much pain already. I’m all she has; no one else will help her.

We enable her codependency while sacrificing our own mental and emotional health. We step into the role of savior rather than pointing her to her actual Savior. We believe loving her like Christ means being there constantly, no matter the toll it takes on us personally. Neither person learns how to maintain healthy relationships; and we end up totally drained.

Extreme B: We cut her off all together.She just has too much drama. There’s too much negative energy. I want to surround myself with positive people. My time is so limited and life is so short—I’d rather just spend my days with people who fill my life with joy and leave me feeling refreshed.

We cut the cord, return to our happy bubble, and avoid shining the love of Jesus into mess that makes us uncomfortable.

But does it have to be all or nothing? Do we have to choose between cutting someone off or being available 24/7? Does loving a friend in the midst of her struggles require getting sucked dry?

If you feel depleted from trying to provide support but want to continue loving your friend like Christ, I would encourage you to start with boundaries. A healthy set of boundaries in a relationship can make a world of difference for both people involved.

If you try establishing healthy boundaries but the other person refuses to honor them, you may reach a place where distancing yourself is the only option.

However, some people are just really hurting and they’ve never had anyone model a healthy relationship for them. They’ve spent their lives bottling up their pain. When someone finally takes the time to listen, it all comes pouring out. It might be really dark and heavy stuff. Listening to it might be really hard. Offering support might be draining and exhausting at times. But does that doesn’t mean you can’t still be a supportive friend.

Below are seven tips I’ve found helpful for implementing healthy boundaries when I’m feeling drained.

How to Provide Genuine Support While Maintaining Healthy Boundaries:

1. Encourage your friend to get counseling. Life is full of trials, and having supportive friends makes the pain significantly more bearable. But sometimes talking with a friend is not enough. Sometimes we need people who are trained to deal with our specific needs. Encourage your friend to seek quality counseling rather than trying to step into that role yourself.

2. Remember you can’t fix her. When a friend faces challenges, it can be tempting to try to fix things for her. You can provide a listening ear. You can encourage and empathize. But you cannot do her deep soul work for her. She must be willing to take whatever steps are necessary to bring about change. Support your friend, but don’t do her work for her.

3. Let Jesus be her Savior. You can do your best to point a person towards Jesus. You can provide Biblical advice. You can pray alongside her. But you cannot take the place of Jesus. Be cautious not to place yourself in the position of Savior. Ask yourself, “Is my support encouraging her reliance on Christ, or am I creating an environment where she relies on me instead?”

4. Set time limits. Don’t be available 24/7. Set limits for what times you can be reached. Politely inform her if there are certain hours you would prefer to not be contacted.

Remember, you are not obligated to pick up your phone every time it goes off. If it’s not a good time for you, that’s OK. Reply when you’re able.

If you meet in person, have a set start and end time. Be upfront from the beginning about how long you’re able to spend together. Then politely end the meeting at the agreed-upon time. If you’re like me, you might feel guilty ending a conversation when someone is still pouring their heart out to you. But respect the boundary you set for yourself and politely bring the time to an end.

If your friend still has more to discuss, you can encourage her to bring up the matter with her counselor and you can also discuss the matter more the next time you’re together.

5. Be honest. Listen with compassion, but don’t be afraid to lovingly speak truth into her life. Be upfront about what role you’re willing to play. Be assertive. Respectfully let her know if she isn’t honoring boundaries in the relationship. Don’t be fake and pretend to be supportive; be a genuine friend who provides compassion and empathy. But ask the tough questions, speak truth into her life, and lovingly hold her accountable.

6. It’s OK to say no. If she asks for something that you aren’t comfortable with, say no. Supporting someone does not mean always saying yes. Set boundaries that honor your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health. Don’t overcommit your time. Don’t agree to things that make you feel uncomfortable. You cannot meet every need in a person’s life. Say no when you need to say no, and stick by your answer.

7. Fill yourself back up every time. If you know you’re going to spend an hour pouring out support, plan time to fill yourself back up. Balance your schedule and save time for self-care. If you constantly give of yourself but never refill your jar, you will find yourself totally drained and running on empty. Create sacred time to take care of yourself and honor it.

Ultimately, love people well. Sit with them in their pain. Be a genuine friend to people who might have a little more mess in their lives than you. But take time today to establish healthy boundaries, and be intentional about honoring them. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary!

Image Credit: Thinkstock/Highwaystarz-photography

Kimberly Carroll is a military spouse, mother of toddlers, and graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. She has a heart for the weary and broken-hearted, holds tightly to her eternal hope in Christ, and values vulnerability over perfection any day. Follow Kimberly on Facebook and her blog as she discusses mental illness, body image, community, faith, and the importance of never giving up.