It is possible to try too hard, from the mistaken belief that the more we do for someone the better we are helping them. This can leave us physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Worse, we can lose sight of the essential purpose of support, which is to help someone help themselves.
Doing too much, too often, or inappropriately invites the other person to become dependent on us. This is disempowering, and if left unchecked can develop into an unhealthy codependency. No matter how selfless we imagine ourselves to be—and selflessness is neither healthy nor sustainable—being a supportive friend or caregiver can play to our needs as much as to the other person’s. It can feel wonderful to be needed, and if our friend’s illness is chronic we have set ourselves up with a supporting role for the long term.
Ask yourself the following questions.
- Do you feel proud or protective of your role as a supportive friend?
- Who decides how much help—and what kind of help—your friend needs?
- Do you ever resent other people who want to help?
- Do you ever worry that your friend might need your help less in the future?
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you harbour feelings like this from time to time. It does not mean you are a bad person, or unfit to support your friend. It does mean, however, that you need to be vigilant. Sharing is the best antidote to codependency. Begin by speaking honestly with your friend about what is going on for you. Talk about the things you are able to do, but also discuss setting healthy boundaries.
There may be others with claims on your time and energy: young children, elderly relatives, other friends, or a partner. You may be ill yourself, or have problems and issues which require your attention. There are also limits to your skills, knowledge, and competence. No one can tell you where the boundaries ought to lie, and they may shift from time to time. That is something you, your friend, and the others in your life must work out for yourselves.
Actively encourage others to play their role in your friend’s care, rather than trying to do everything yourself. Keep an eye on your health and well-being too. It can be exhausting to support someone with illness, and you may need your own support team from time to time.