Ever since I got my Master’s in Social Work, my friends have come to me for “free” help and therapy.

I used to enjoy it but now I find that some of them have become overly dependent on me. How can I best help friends curb this dependence on me – without losing the friendships?  I don’t want to offend anyone.

Answered by contributing expert, Natalie A. Hock, MSW:

Take it as a compliment.

There are ineffective and mediocre professionals in every profession; if your friends think your presence and contributions are valuable enough to seek, take that as a sign that you have done a great job honing your connective skills and developing your clinical strengths.

Recognize that using some aspects of your graduate-level skills to support friends is not the same as doing actual therapy.

Since ostensibly your friends know things about you, and you talk about yourself and your problems on occasion, your friendships can be supportive and/or even therapeutic, but they can never be like actual therapy.  Therapy is the one place people go in our culture to get support that is 1-sided, support that is just about the client – it is not a relationship of mutual support.  Try to discern/identify if you are feeling that the friendships in question are getting too 1-sided, or if you just simply do not want to clinically assess/psychoanalyze your friends.  And keep in mind that it’s a healthy manifestation of boundaries not to want to do that!  You cannot be friends with clients and you cannot be a therapist/case manager for your friends.  This is addressed clearly in the Social Work Code of Ethics (insert link).

Adopt a person-centered approach to weaning your friends from your warmth and therapist-like persona.

One of the hallmarks of our profession is our “person in environment” perspective.  Praise your friend(s) for trying to express and understand their feelings and experiences in the company of another human being – remind them that, in general, this approach is very healthy, connective, and courageous.  Remind them gently that you can’t be both a friend and a therapist.  Offer to connect them to actual therapists, if they feel their issues are acute and intrusive.  Remind yourself that asking your friends for a more mutual relationship is not selfish, nor does it make you a bad person – it’s actually a very intentional and important declaration of self care.

Answer provided by contributing expert, Natalie A. Hock, MSW:

Natalie A. Hock, MSW is an expert contributor to MSWcareers.com and currently works as a psychotherapist at the LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center in Chicago. Lifeworks is an explicitly inclusive practice welcoming clients of all ages, ethnicities, races, spiritual practices and religious traditions, genders and sexualities.

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