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How Do I Get a Troubled Friend to See a Therapist?

Listening to friends vent is all part of the job. But some problems may be above your pay grade. Sonima's psychologist and meditation teacher offers advice on how to encourage a loved one to seek professional help when needed.

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Dear John,

My good friend is going through a divorce and treating me like a therapist, which I am not. I’m happy to listen and support her through this difficult time, but her emotional co-dependence on me is becoming too much. How do I convince her to seek professional help without pushing her away?

Sincerely,
Loretta

Dear Loretta,

Thank you for writing! I can sense your care and concern for your friend and your want to be a real support for her. You are right that you must also maintain healthy interpersonal boundaries, else your friendship is likely to suffer or end. Your desire to encourage your friend to get professional support is both compassionate and smart. As I offer you some feedback, I must acknowledge that I don’t know the gender of your friend. For simplicity in my writing, I am going to use the pronoun “her” or “she,” while honoring that your friend could be of any gender.

My feedback will center on using meditation and contemplation to develop a framework for your conversation with your friend. I will also offer some guidance on how to draw from the wisdom of meditation to develop an authentic approach to this challenging situation.

I think the first step you could take in this process is to practice meditation to open an internal space so that you can make authentic contact with how you’re feeling about this situation. From this open space, you can let emerge from your heart the words that will allow you to make genuine contact with your friend in the conversation. This approach will allow you to communicate from a place of center.

In your meditation, set an intention to remember the reason you need to give this feedback to your friend is in service of her growth, healing, and transformation. Be clear in yourself that this is for her rather than your need for emotional space (though this entirely reasonable and OK). I think nearly everyone in your shoes would want the same kind of space. You can also utilize meditation practice to cultivate compassion for her. Imagine and acknowledge the immensity of the emotions she may be feeling.

This kind of contemplation will help you to gain more empathic insight into the challenging and overwhelming emotions she may be feeling. I can only do my best from a distance to imagine that they may be deep sadness, depression, anxiety, grief, loneliness, fear, and isolation. These emotions can certainly tax someone beyond their coping skills. It sounds like your friend is in this kind of emotional overwhelm. It makes sense that your friend would be clinging to whatever support she can find. Let’s acknowledge that you have been acting as an immaculate friend by offering her what sounds like real unconditional love and support. But as you are now realizing, these are valuable emotional resources that need replenished and now is the time.


RELATED: A Meditation for Sending Compassion


Following your meditation, it will likely be helpful to journal about your experience. You may want to track your insights to help you formulate your communication to your friend. Once you have your words clarified, I recommend taking the time to rehearse what you are going to say. Perhaps there is a trusted friend you can practice with while respecting the privacy of your other friend by not revealing her identity. Ask your rehearsal partner how they felt receiving your words. If there isn’t anyone available to practice with, then you can mentally rehearse and try to gain insight into how your words will land with your friend.

When it comes time to talk with her, take a few moments beforehand to reconnect to your intention. Do this with a couple of deep feeling breaths and a brief period of meditation. This contemplation will help you to leave anything else that might be going on out of this interaction. When initiating the conversation, tell her upfront what the topic is. This technique is helpful because she may sense something is up, and it’s better not to leave her hanging out confused. Communication is incredibly difficult when the listener is in emotional reactivity. It is, of course, very hard, if not impossible, to have a rational conversation with someone who is in fight-flight-freeze mode. The executive part of the brain is simply not online.

During your conversation, remain in the space of open caring. This openness is what you are aiming to cultivate in your pre-conversation meditation. If you notice that you are getting off-center in the interaction, remember your deep breathing. By staying connected to your breath, it will likely help you and your friend remain equanimous. Keep your heart open to increase the chances that she will keep her’s open as well. Again remember to hold deep compassion for your friend when talking with her.

Let your words flow. It is usually helpful to avoid “should-ing,” like telling her that she “should” get therapy or do anything for that matter. Stay connected to and speak about your experience and needs while also acknowledging and honoring her feelings. It may be helpful to connect your feedback to your wish for her to receive the healing resources she needs during this difficult time. You may do this by gently addressing how connecting with a therapist will help her become more aware of what she needs on this journey toward caring for herself.

Create a safe opening in the conversation for her to speak and share her reflections. When she is talking, listen with mindfulness and compassion. Remember that it is OK if you and she do not agree or see the situation the same way. If your friend becomes defensive, be open and caring, remember it is not about who is right or wrong.

Let her know how you would like to move forward in your relationship with her. Think together about what is a fruitful path for both of you to go forward in a way that keeps your relationship vibrant and healthy. This kind of communication is part of your growth together as friends. At the end of your conversation, it is helpful to summarize what you discussed and bring it to a meaningful conclusion. Perhaps you both can create a shared intention for your friendship as you both move forward together.

I wish you and your friend the best as you work together to strengthen and grow your friendship.

Many blessings,
John

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