This is not about getting someone to seek help, but about not coming across as a bad friend or like I'm minimizing their feelings by doing so.

I'd like to think people see me as an open and empathetic person, and this is why my friends come to me when they need to talk about their problems and they do so often. However, there are some problems that arise that I either feel unequipped to handle, or am not emotionally fit to deal with.

For example, a friend I know to have depression talking to me about those feelings, when I am definitely not a crisis counselor or a therapist. Or another talking to me about a bad break-up with a guy I didn't think she should date in the first place due to obvious red flags. Or a friend/relative complaining about a health issue that they refuse to go to the doctor for involving aspects of their health I don't feel comfortable talking about.

Ideally, I want to be able to tell these friends that their problems are better talked through with a therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist/doctor. But with one friend in particular this advice leads to other complaints such as financial problems, or that they don't have any other friends to talk to about it and they just want to feel supported.

I want my friends to feel like they can talk to me, and I don't want to make them feel like their feelings aren't being validated, but I know my responses in these situations can come across that way (not my question, but the question mentions responses similar to what I've given in the past when I wanted to show I was listening or trying to be supportive, particularly when I didn't want to offer advice on a subject due to personal reasons. )

How can I set boundaries of not wanting to talk in depth about a friend's problems, without seeming like I don't care about those problems and the friend?

2 Answers 2


Ministers call this "pastoral counseling". And they have limits, as you should. Most of the pastors I know restrict their pastoral counseling to 5 sessions and they generally center on listening to the issues. They're not, as a rule, therapists so they try to stay away from giving too much advice. One thing that they're pretty insistent upon, however, is that the person needs to be more invested in their solution than the counselor.

I'd suggest taking a similar tactic. Listen to them, but stay away from advice/advising. If they ask "what should I do?", take the same stance that you see here: "I can't tell you what to do, but I can comment on your plan. What do you want to do?" I wouldn't say this to the person, but keep this in mind: what if you suggest a course of action and it turns out badly? Who gets the blame? (Hint... you)

I'd work on establishing limits. Depression is not a condition for the untrained to handle. That needs trained help, not well-intentioned friends. You can be there for the person, but they need a professional to prevent self-harm. And I'd say that. "Look, I really care about you, but doing anything more than being your friend is out of my depth. I want you in my life and the best way for that is for a professional to help you."

If you have a friend that just wants to talk, that's fine. But eventually you as the friend will hit a point where you've had enough and this starts to be a drain on you. It's important to establish a limit BEFORE that happens. I'd say something like: "it seems like we talk about this a lot; what's changed?" If nothing has changed, then it's time to move on because you're actually helping to hold on to the bad emotions.

  • thanks for the advice. A lot of the things you said reinforced what I was already thinking.
    – flierarchy
    Dec 14, 2017 at 16:07

Are you sure these friends are all looking for help and not just a listening ear?

I can certainly relate to the first example you give- I'm working through my second diagnosed bout of depression. Some people need a counselor to work through this, some need medicine.

Others really just need a friend to talk with to at least keep them afloat. If you don't feel you can listen through this and stay calm and supportive, you need to be direct with them about that.

For example, if you feel like talking through this person's depression, or even just listening, will greatly upset you because you worry so for them:

I really want to help you with this. I know you need a sympathetic ear. However, I just can't handle this one. I get too emotional, and you need someone who can stay calm and supportive through this discussion. Do you have a family member or another friend who might be able to do that?

If they don't, see if you can help them find affordable support.

Now, the above advise is for if your friend is just depressed but seems stable. If this friend begins to go downhill fast, step in and give them all the support you can immediately. At that point, it doesn't matter if you're qualified or not, it matters that they know that you care for them and want to help them. Once you get them calmed down, even just a little, tell them about your concern for their safety and do your best to convince them to get help. That help could be as simple as calling the suicide hotline, or as involved as medicine and a counselor.

For the friend with a bad breakup, chances are she just needs a shoulder to cry on or a soundboard to vent to. You don't have to have liked the guy, you don't have to bring up how you felt about it. Just let her vent and ask guiding questions, such as:

What caused the break up?

or, if you feel she needs a distraction, ask her to go out as friends to a fun, public place. Get her involved in something else, and it may well help.

As for health issues... If you don't feel comfortable discussing those, you'll have to speak up. If you want to cut the conversation off directly, just tell them you're uncomfortable discussing that topic with them. If you want to be more polite, try this:

Oh, that sucks! I understand what you're dealing with is not great, but... Honestly, I don't feel comfortable discussing this much further. It makes me {insert feeling here, upset, queasy, whatever you need!} just thinking about it...

If they keep complaining about the problem, suggest they really should see a doctor if it's bothering them that bad, or if it's been bothering them that long.

Just remember you don't have to be professional to let folks down easily, and in some cases they don't need professionals. Some problems just need a supportive ear.

  • Thanks, @Kendra. I guess there isn't any kind of blanket way to handle all the different cases. I certainly know they aren't looking for help, just someone to talk to, but sometimes it's the listening part that gets hard. " if you feel like talking through this person's depression, or even just listening, will greatly upset you because you worry so for them" was where you really hit the nail on the head I think, that I hadn't thought about.
    – flierarchy
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:43
  • It helps that I relate to at least one of your cases. Just make sure that if you can't handle it because of your own emotions, you place all the blame on yourself. A "it's not you, it's me" scenario if I ever saw it!
    – Kendra
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:44
  • yeah. I guess I'm just also afraid in that case of her feeling worse for it, like her friend is abandoning her because she's depressed.
    – flierarchy
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:46
  • 1
    If you're afraid she'll get further depressed, then she is most likely not at a stable point. Bring up your concerns to her ASAP about her depression and get her to call a hotline if nothing else. Full Disclosure: I am a huge advocate for depression and suicide awareness and work with a charity organization trying to spread awareness. I've had two people close to me take their own lives, and come close myself. I don't want you or the rest of those close to her to go through the same.
    – Kendra
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:48
  • 1
    Not a problem. If you want any further tips or information for the friend with depression, you can get my email from my profile.
    – Kendra
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:53

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