I had a friend in college who would frequently message me right before I was going to go to bed and share a problem that she wanted to talk about. I stayed up late talking with this girl numerous times, sacrificing my sleep (and sometimes, my grades!) to give her encouragement and support.

However, my friend:

  • Would never see a counselor, despite my requests
  • Would always wait until late at night to bring her problems to me – she would never discuss them during the day even when I gave her the opportunity.
  • Would never do anything to improve her situation. (For instance, she would spend hours and hours complaining to me about her boyfriend, but she refused to break up with him or ask him to improve his behavior.)

Ultimately, I realized that she didn't really want to get better – part of her that wanted the “victim” identity, and she liked the power that her pain gave her over other people. For instance, I think she may have waited until late at night to talk to me because she felt important when I sacrificed my sleep for her.

She wasn't faking it, exactly – a lot of bad things happened to her, and she was genuinely unhappy. But she did not want to get better, and I couldn't force her to get better against her will.

Ultimately the sacrifices I made to support and encourage her were wasted. All of my efforts only served to pull me down, not to bring her up.

So what does this mean for you? Basically – be careful when it seems like the other person is not an active participant in their recovery. If they expect you to sacrifice for them but they won't do basic things to improve their own situation, something is wrong and you need to protect yourself.

You don't need to cut ties or do anything drastic, but if there is strong evidence they don't want to get better, then it might be reasonable for you to require them to invest in their recovery before you will make more sacrifices for them.

For instance, I should have told her, “I know you are feeling bad tonight, but I think what you really need right now is to talk to a counselor, not to talk to me. Once you schedule an appointment with a counselor, I'll be happy to talk with you about your problems again.”

Of course, it can sometimes be hard to tell if someone is trying to get better, because sometimes things that seem really easy (like scheduling an appointment with a counselor) can be really hard for someone who is struggling with depression or another mental health issue. Don't give up on a friend just because they're not doing everything you think they should be doing. It's always better to err on the side of generosity.

But if over time you see a pattern of the person not working to get better, then it may be time to put some boundaries in place. Not only will this protect you from burnout, but it may also show the other person that they are caught in a self-destructive pattern.