I wholeheartedly believe many people are familiar with the role of the Therapist Friend (often called the Mom friend too). This is the friend that’s always there for everyone, especially emotionally. They’re a great listening ear, and a great soundboard for when we’re seeking advice on how to solve a problem, and are generally just supportive and there for us when we need it. I used to think playing the role of the Therapist Friend felt good– like it was my way for me to connect with the people that I cared deeply about. But lately, my feelings have been shifting.
I reached a point where the role of the Therapist Friend filled me with more resentment than the satisfaction I used to feel from filling that role. It started to feel forced, like it was required of me. Like, more than anything I was a husk or a brick wall rather than a genuine friend. Even worse, it felt like my only purpose in relationships was to be a mirror– a copy of what was needed at a given time rather than what I needed to be for myself. I would leave conversations feeling drained, unhappy, and like I had no energy to take care of myself. And it showed: I ate unhealthy foods and gained weight, and I stopped dedicating myself to the things that I loved because there was no space in my life for anything other than the resentment I felt towards my relationships. I was resentful because I thought everyone was selfish, I thought no one appreciated or reciprocated the compassion I offered, and I thought no one wanted to be there for me. And yet still, none of those explanations could quite explain the resentment I was feeling.
At that point, I thought it was important to self-reflect on why I was feeling so resentful. After all, everyone needs someone to lean on, and no one was forcing me to take on the role– in fact, I mostly enjoy being able to be there for others, or at least I thought that was the case. In my reflection, and in getting clear with myself that I was unhappy in this self-designated role, I took steps to confront the roots of the issue, and here’s what I learned:
1. Most people in their 20s are self-centered– and this is NOT a bad thing
One of the main thoughts I had to confront was my resentment towards others for being “self-centered”, and for not taking on the role of the Therapist Friend the way that I did. The reality is that being twenty, or in our twenties is the perfect time to be self-centered. And faulting the people around me for simply living their lives was my way of projecting my fear of being viewed as self-centered onto them.
In our twenties, we’re learning so much about who we are outside of our family, what we want from the world, and who we want to be. Most people don’t have the emotional capacity to manage the exponential growth that they’re experiencing themselves, let alone the capacity to manage the growth of someone else too. So, rather than resenting people for not being there when I needed, instead I decided that I can learn to give them grace for what their twenties are shaping up to be. Even more importantly, I’ve learned that I can take advantage of being in my twenties and be a little selfish too. I know, I know. For those of us who are the designated “therapist” friend, this can feel a little daunting, and frankly– shitty. It’s hard to turn off what we think is our “endless” supply of compassion, but what we often forget to do, is extend that compassion to ourselves too. Say it to yourself, it’s okay: “I, too, am a selfish twenty-something and today I need things”.
2. That being said, your endless supply of compassion is not endless– and this is not a bad thing either
I had to really sit with this thought– to ponder the idea that true compassion is purely unconditional and that I was able to offer it. When sitting with it, I asked myself, flat out: “If the compassion I have for everyone were really this endless, would I be feeling resentment right now?” And the answer was no. It’s non-human to have an endless supply of compassion. And that lack of endless compassion showed in the way I treated myself after a long day of “being there” as the therapist friend.
When I used to come home from long days spent with others, I would bask in the few minutes I had “to myself” by indulging in the world’s most unhealthy foods (I still love chocolate turtles, but the way that caramel messed me up smh), or sitting around and watching TV and literally getting nothing done, and my justification was that I hadn’t done anything I wanted to during the day, so I was allowed to treat myself in return. These unhealthy behaviors I engaged in let me know that the “compassion” I was giving was actually not good for me because it didn’t leave me any energy to take care of myself properly. It showed me that I didn’t actually have the endless well of compassion for others that I thought I did– instead, I was drawing from other finite sources within myself to fill that well and make it seem endless. That realization brought on a great deal of shame at first, but after some serious reflection I realized why that was the case.
3. Sometimes we are there for others to be seen– not because we genuinely want to be there
Experiencing the shame of being a “failed” therapist friend, after realizing my compassion wasn’t endless, was a huge but necessary hit to my ego. I worked hard to convince myself that I was a good person because I was excessively compassionate. Really, the truth is that I played the role of Therapist Friend because there’s benefit in playing the role– people like their therapist friend. I would get invited out everywhere, people liked calling me and talking to me. And what’s worse? The few times I stopped playing that role, I noticed an immediate shift in the air. The people around me didn’t like me as much, or worse, would accuse me of being selfish or self-absorbed. To avoid that pain of rejection while still receiving some form of attention, I fit snugly into the Therapist Friend role, because it earned me the love I thought I wanted. It got me noticed as the “there for you” or “loyal” friend that anyone could call when they needed something. In hindsight, that feeling is how I know that I only ever played the role to earn something in return, never to be genuinely compassionate.
I’m still struggling with my definition of “true” compassion in comparison to “compassion-for-something-in-return”, but right now I think the major difference is resentment. Now, I work as hard as I can to check myself: “Are you doing this because you feel unheard or unseen, or are you doing this simply because you want to?” That answer isn’t always clear for me because being there for others isn’t so black and white, but I’m more comfortable exploring that gray area now. I built my identity in my relationships around my ability to “be there”, and when I finally realized that my “being there” was in some way self-sabotage, the shame of losing that part of myself hit hard.
4. Your “compassion” can sometimes be viewed as micro-managing or a form of control
I was blessed enough to have learned this from my grandmother at the tender age of eight, although of course my eight-year-old brain didn’t understand it until later in life. Even recently, this thought has been difficult to adjust to. So the story goes, I was in third grade and one day during class, my teacher was trying to get us to form a line so that we could walk to lunch, but none of the other students were listening. I really empathized with her frustration, so I whispered to the other students in the class that we should all get in line and listen to our teacher. And wouldn’t you know it, that teacher told me to flip my card to red (y’all remember those little cards, green was good and yellow was ‘meh’ and red was a note home?)! I went home so pissed, I was even pissed enough to tell my grandmother! And of course, she saw a lesson in this, one that she learned long before I did.
First, my granny asked me if the teacher asked everyone in class to be quiet. My response was “yes granny, of course she did! I was just trying to help her quiet the class!” Her response felt condescending at the time, but she was absolutely right. Without holding anything back, she said, “Everybody don’t want your help, girl. If she ain’t ask, she ain’t want it. She told everyone to be quiet, and that includes you!” At the time, her comment left me feeling so enraged because I genuinely thought I had done the right thing in trying to help. “But if no one steps up to help, how will anyone know the world is a good place?!” I thought that to myself for a while.
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the times that people attempted to offer me their help, and it felt like a subtle form of control or manipulation, rather than genuine help. In those moments my first thought would be, “okay but did I ask?” And then it hit me. Sometimes, the best form of compassion we can offer to others is to [takes a deep breath] stay the hell out of their business and wait until they ask for our help or a listening ear. Sometimes what we view as therapeutic or helpful, others on the receiving end view as condescension and micromanaging.
5. People sometimes want to be there for you, too!
I could never understand why people thought I was so closed off or uptight until I had a few instances where people pointed it out to me, in hurtful but plain terms. Once, a guy I was friends with was listening to me talk about a whole lot of nothing, and he called me out on it. “You know”, he started, “We’ve known each other for a really long time, and I don’t know a damn thing about you.” It was the first time anyone had ever called me out on using my Therapist Friend act as a way to avoid intimacy, by telling people about myself.
Another time, I met a person who I thought was really impressive, and I was so looking forward to being friends with her. However, throughout the night she continued to call me “bougie” and “standoff-ish”, and I couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, I realize it was because I literally wasn’t saying anything, I was just listening! I had gotten so used to being a “listener”, that I forgot that it literally takes two people to hold a conversation. The truth is, friendships are spaces for mutual love and support– it goes both ways! I got so used to choosing people who made me feel like this wasn’t the case, that when I met people who actually wanted to see me or know me outside of the Therapist Friend, I literally didn’t know what to do– I felt like an exposed nerve.
I realize now that I used the role as a mask to hide behind. And yes, I write about intimacy and openness and giving a lot, but I know for a fact I’m not alone here. For all my fellow Therapist Friends: Your thoughts about things are interesting too, share them! The people who aren’t receptive to them might not be your people, and that’s okay. Wouldn’t you rather know that early on anyways?
6. When you believe yourself to only be good as the therapist friend, you seek out relationships that confirm that identity for you
For years I wondered why I was constantly surrounded by “self-absorbed” people. I would look around a room and wonder why everyone only talked about themselves. Even worse, I would assume that everyone else noticed it enough to be hurt by it. These were thought distortions I really really had to challenge. I had to look inward because the one common denominator in all of those rooms was always me. The truth is, I based my identity on the part of myself that was “good” for other people, and it was too painful to confront the reason why I hid behind that mask. So rather than confront anything, it was easier to simply seek out relationships that confirmed that I was only good at being the therapist friend.
Let’s pause for a moment so that I can be clear: I am NOT stating that I attracted these struggle circumstances, I think the idea that we “attract” painful experiences is silly at best, and victim-blaming at worst. Being human and present in that humanity means being equally susceptible to both immense joy and immense pain: our mere existence doesn’t “attract” either of those things. Instead, I am saying that in the times I was presented with two types of friendships, mutually beneficial or friendships where I played the therapist friend, I consistently, and for a long time, chose the latter friendship*. It may have been a subconscious choice, but it was a choice to uphold that part of me nonetheless. I was happy to play out the feeling of resentment because honestly, it was easier to be the victim of others around me than to admit that I was the cause of my resentment. I didn’t resent the people around me for being “selfish”, I felt resentment towards myself for sticking around because I thought I was doing the “right” thing. And I felt resentment towards myself for not just doing what I wanted.
*Note: This is one case where actively choosing a specific type of experience applies. In a lot of cases, a person does not “choose” a painful experience, so I think it’s important to apply this example sparingly.
I’ll end by saying that the therapist friend position was one of self-designation for me. No one ever made me play that role, and my goal here isn’t to drag those who have “done me wrong” by not being there for me, because the truth is no one really did anything to me but me. Additionally, my goal isn’t to shame anyone who occasionally leans on their “therapist friend”, or even anyone who plays the role of the therapist friend, because we all need support and some people are really really gifted in their ability to offer it.
Instead, I think it’s important to understand for myself why I played that role when I didn’t want to, and why I assumed feeling resentment was a part of being in relationships. It’s hard, battling between the guilt we can feel for taking up the space we need, and the resentment we feel when we don’t. Even worse, it’s hard to stop the guilt-resentment cycle and find balance. Some days I’m too self-absorbed and as a “punishment” for the guilt I feel, I over-give, only to wind up feeling resentment, and then the cycle continues. So it’s necessary to find that healthy gray area when we are the Therapist Friend because it genuinely feels good to be there for a friend in need. However, we must still acknowledge and avoid the toxic aspects that can come with it, and that said, I look forward to discovering the ways to live in that gray area.
I’ve started by simply getting meta-cognitive about my motivations behind my actions in relationships: Do I have the space for this? Is this person emotionally dumping? How do I feel right now, are there other things I need to take care of to feel secure first? Can we revisit this conversation? Do I trust myself to ask for what I need today? And so on. Really I think it’s just practice and repetition, and I’m happy to start practicing.
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.