Navigating Healthy Friendships with a Mental Illness

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In life, it is important to have friends. Good friends. Navigating the ins and outs of friendship can be complicated for everyone. We may have long-lasting friendships, those that were existent for a “reason and a season,” and those that are just plain toxic that need to be put in the trash. Navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness comes with its own set of problems.

It can be especially difficult to navigate healthy friendships with a mental illness. It certainly has been for me on my journey. When I was 19, I was [mis]diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I remember one thing clearly when discussing it with my provider. A cornerstone element would be having trouble with interpersonal relationships, which didn’t come as a surprise because I had already felt the effects of that. Even though my diagnosis is different, it still comes with the same issue. With a mental illness comes factors that, perhaps, the neuro-typical do not have. 

Often, we are riddled with intense fears of abandonment, loneliness, and fear. These things can factor into our tendency to keep negative people close to us, and that is the worst thing we can do for our mental health

Navigating friendships with a mental illness can be difficult. Things like boundaries and our need to guard ourselves ferociously can get in the way of having healthy relationships with those around us. Often, this leads to tumult in our interpersonal relationships, and romantic relationships—which I will tackle in a different post. 

“Things like boundaries and our need to guard ourselves ferociously can get in the way of having healthy relationships with those around us”

For now, grab a cup of tea and read on to see how you can make the best of navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness. 

Creating Healthy Boundaries in Our Friendships

Creating and sticking to personal boundaries is easier said than done when navigating friendships with a mental illness. Sometimes we tend to want to people-please, which leads to others walking all over us. Sometimes we may push people away, being somewhat belligerent, but still wanting others to stay close. We can adopt the “I hate you but don’t leave me” mentality that is not just unhealthy for us, but stressful for our friends. Perhaps our boundaries are too rigid, perhaps they are too porous—all things to consider when enforcing boundaries when navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness. 

Photo by Ron Lach

For many that struggle with trauma, neglect, or abuse, the real or imagined fear of abandonment can dominate the space we should use to make space for friendships or conclude that a friendship is unhealthy. The fear of abandonment is valid, and it can be incredibly strong. We may cling to others in an unhealthy way, making ourselves vulnerable to being used. The fear of abandonment can also be the culprit behind keeping unhealthy “friends” close to us when we truly need to give them the boot.

Understanding Your Fear of Abandonment in Navigating Healthy Friendships

Many of us have been here. At some point in our lives, we were not taken care of as we needed. Perhaps someone of importance left us to fend for ourselves, or help didn’t come when we needed it. These factors lead to the development of fear of abandonment, a fear of being alone. 

I would recommend talking to your therapist and working through these fears by determining the origin. If you do not have a therapist, you can contemplate it on your own. 

When did I first feel this?

How is it affecting my current relationship?

Is this situation truly the result of someone important leaving me? Or am I truly just afraid?

Make an attempt to identify where the fear came from and remember to tell yourself that you are safe. You can let go and you will be alright. 

Know that you deserve to have love and affection from those around you, and you do not have to put yourself in psychic danger to keep the people that are bad for you around.

What Kind of Boundaries do you Possess in Your Friendships?

Understanding and enforcing boundaries is one of the healthiest cornerstones in navigating friendships with a mental illness. You should start by identifying what kind of boundaries you have. Are they rigid, allowing nothing to penetrate the walls you have put up? Do you shield yourself from true connection because your true self cannot go beyond the rigid walls?

“Ideally, you want boundaries that are at a happy medium”

Your boundaries can be too porous as well. You can share too much of yourself to people that do not deserve you, and, conversely, allow the negativity of your relationship to freely invade your emotional space.

Ideally, you want boundaries that are at a happy medium. Use your discretion to know what to share and to whom. Use the same discretion to determine what vibrations you allow into your personal bubble.

It is your responsibility to set and enforce your boundaries. Decide how much communication you allow from certain people. Discern how much of yourself you are willing to share, that is safe to share. 

Enforcing your boundaries is a huge consideration when navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness.

Guarding Yourself Just Enough

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Guarding your heart is integral in navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness. We have a tendency to want to close ourselves off from the world. Guarding your well-being is a healthy thing to do. Closing yourself off, however, can be to your own detriment and play into any feelings of deep loneliness you may have.

If you are surrounded by the right people, guarding yourself completely can lead to unequal sharing within the friendship. Not sharing and always listening can be to the detriment of your friendship and can also take up emotional space. 

When you guard yourself a bit too much, you become a sponge. You have to carry your stuff, then absorb the hardships of those around you. You do not need to be solely a sounding board. 

It is easy to close yourself off and give in to your negative self-talk. 

“My issues are not important.”

“If I say anything it will bring my friend down.”

“part of navigating friendships with a mental illness is knowing that you, too, are worthy of being listened to”

Part of navigating friendships with a mental illness is knowing that you, too, are worthy of being listened to. Surrounded by the right people, you will feel welcome to being listened to. 

I am not by any means saying you must bear all, but if you have the right people around, you should feel safe to share your soul, even just a little. 

Creating Healthy Friendships: Your Friends are not Your Therapist 

We love to be able to share our day and our problems with our friends. That’s what friends are for, after all; but sharing can go over the line.

Something to remember about navigating healthy friendships when you have a mental illness is you friends are not your therapist.

Read that again. Your friends want to be there for you as much as you want to be there for them. Sometimes we have big issues to address, things that are better left to your therapist. I find it okay to discuss even the big things with friends, but don’t expect that your friends can give you professional advice to live by. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska

What I love about friendships is that we are free to give one another anecdotal advice. Leave the clinical advice to your therapist and not your friends. Please do not mistake the two.

The Give and Take: Your Friends Get Exhausted, Too

Regardless of whether your friends have the same kind of issues you have going on or are more on the side of neuro-typical, it is important to remember that your friends get exhausted too. 

You may carry some heavy stuff that often takes a toll on your well-being. Overly sharing with your friends may leave no space for your friends to also share with you. As above—your friends are not your therapist.

I have found myself in situations when I would call my friends and just dig in to my problems and complaining. I carry heavy issues. My friends couldn’t get a word in edgewise. At this point, I found my friends having their own stuff to process and talk about, and I piled my stuff on top of it. This is an unfair and unhealthy approach. 

“Give your friends the option to say that, maybe, they do not have the capacity to hear you out at the moment”

It’s okay to share with friends, but sometimes it helps to ask, “are you able to hear me out right now?” or something of the like. Give your friends the option to say that, maybe, they do not have the capacity to hear you out at the moment. Your friends get exhausted, too, and respecting that is part of navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness.

Cultivating Healthy Friendships: Taking a Personal Inventory 

Every now and then, taking a personal inventory is very important to navigating friendships with a mental illness. Personal inventory takes stock of how your friendships leave you at the end of the day. 

Friendships should have a certain amount of give and take. It may not be 50/50. The numbers may differ as long as you end up with a positive 100%. 

Do you have relationships that drain you and do not give back?

Are your relationships balanced? 

Do your relationships leave you uplifted?

Those are questions you can ask yourself when taking personal inventory of the friendships you have. Some people may suck you dry, and you don’t even know it until you sit back and think about it. If you find your energy is being zapped, it can encourage you to have a conversation with your friend about how you feel. If the conversation goes sideways, maybe it’s time to reassess the importance of the friendship to your life and well-being. 

Be Discerning; Beware of Baddies

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich

When taking a personal inventory, you really have to hone in on toxic relationships that may be looming around your life. 

Sometimes friendships can appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps you feel that they are there for you, but is it about you, or them? Sometimes people gravitate to problems for their own personal gain, be it to feel better about their own life, or that they love to breathe drama in and out. 

Beware of those around you that need you to be sick. As we grow on our journey with our mental illness, there are those that cannot handle it. As you become aware of yourself and make positive changes, this person may take issue with you, berate you, or try to hold you back. 

Be very careful and sharply discerning about these kinds of people in your life. When it becomes apparent that someone feeds off of your illness for personal reasons, like needing to feel better about their own lives, it is time to give them the boot.

Honesty is the Best Policy in Your Healthy Friendship

Navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness can leave you feeling ashamed about your own problems. If you have a healthy group of friends, even if that means one person, honesty is the best policy. 

Be honest with your friends. Tell them how you are feeling. Tell them how they make you feel, and ask them to do the same. 

“Friends cannot show up for each other if the exchange lacks in honesty”

In my relationships, I invite my friends to be completely honest with me, even if the topic isn’t the most positive. I ask, that if there is a problem that we are having, that they come straight to me. The discussion around your mental illness should stay between you and your friend; and the discussion around your friends’ issues should stay between you and them. 

Friends cannot show up for each other if the exchange lacks in honesty. There is delicate balance between being honest and holding space for your friend to be honest as well. 

Also remember that the truth hurts sometimes. Before reacting, maybe sit back and think about what was said, versus what you heard. 

Allow Your Friends to Love You

When navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness, it is important to allow your friends to love you! This is probably the topic I struggle with the most, believe it or not. 

I always think I am too much. Somewhere along the lines in my life, I was told the lie that I was unworthy and unlovable. I have carried this into my friendships time and time again; holding back even when my friend asks me to tell all. I think I am a burden and a nuisance. Surely no one wants to hear about me, right? 

Wrong.

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

When you have good friends, they want to love you. By not sharing, but continuing to think you are a problem, you are, actually, taking something away from your friends. When you don’t open up to your friends, you are denying them the opportunity to be loving people who want to love you. 

Thoughts

Navigating healthy friendships with a mental illness can be a challenge. There are definitely obstacles to overcome. We need to learn to be discerning about the people around us and set firm boundaries. The people around us should build us up, not break us down. It is wise to take a personal inventory every now and then to make sure our surroundings are as healthy as they can be, and have the courage to separate ourselves from toxic people. It is not necessary to be constantly agreeable, and we do not need to stay silent on our issues. 

We need to be able to hold mental space for our friends as well– after all, they get mentally taxed, too. There should be mutual honesty in our friendships, and mutual respect. 

Our friends want to love us, and we need to give them the space to do so. One of the most important things we need to know that we deserve to be loved. 

Pax, 

Glory

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