3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Play Psychologist With Your Friends (No Matter How Much You’re Tempted)

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Photo: Marci Sim

Unless you have a pyschology degree (and probably even then), back away slowly.

We get these urges sometimes when we’re in a conversation with our friends.

They’re confiding in us, complaining maybe, and suddenly we are moved to impart some let’s-face-it-BRILLIANT advice onto them. After all, we have LIVEDWe know stuff. Something sorta-like-that-but-not-exactly happened to us once.

Or, no need to confess now, but some of us super-readers may even want to lay out advice that’s not even ours. We’re pretty sure that something we’ve read somewhere vaguely applies to the predicament that our friends are in. And we consider ourselves the one stop shop for passing along what Gawker, Upworthy, Babble, Pinterest, or [Insert Your Fav Site] has to say about anything.

Wanting to help isn’t a bad thing, right?

Our desire to share advice comes from a good place. It does. We hate to see our friends struggling. We want to help diminish their stress by locating The Solution That Will Fix Everything.

The problem of course is that, unless they’re bogged down by light stuff–maybe an overbearing boss or kids who don’t pick up after themselves–pulling out our psychologist’s clipboard can quickly take us to a sticky place.

When it comes to deeper issues, it’s probably smart to do the nod-and-listen routine rather than unleashing our founts of wisdom.  Here’s why:

  1. We don’t know the whole story.

Most times, when someone tells us that they’re having problems, we can’t really see the entire picture. Instead, we get chopped up parts of the story–one anecdote or a strung together series of incidents–that describe the problem at hand. When a friend talks about a recent blow up with her spouse, for example, giving even well-intended advice could push her away from her spouse (and you know your name is coming up in their next fight: “Well, so and so thinks you’re a loser!”). The underlying issues at work could be rooted in years of built up mistrust. As a result, it’s difficult-maybe-impossible to make assumptions (correct ones anyway) from the snapshots of one-sided stories they tell us.

  1. If they think we’re counseling them, they may ignore their need for professional help.

Mental illnesses are a growing problem globally. According to the World Health Organization, one in four people worldwide suffer from mental disorders in developed and developing countries. But when it comes to mental health, giving advice or pseudo-diagnosing our friends can quickly slide us into the danger zone.

Often times, people who suffer from depression are dismissed by close friends as just being sad or moody. When we’re not qualified to help treat an actual illness, it may actually might make things worse to casually encourage friends to just cheer up and do things that make them happy. That can put pressure on them to seem healthy and exacerbate their illness if they still don’t feel any better after trying our ideas.

Oh and we hopefully don’t have to say this (because everyone here has at least a sliver of common sense, right?), but it’s never a good idea to try to match our friends’ symptoms to some article we find on Web MD. Feeling labeled by others only gives us more reasons to feel insecure and uneasy. Instead, suggest friends see a professional counselor who is more qualified, and has the time and bandwidth to engage their challenges over the longterm.

  1. It could ruin our friendships.

Especially when our friends are confiding in us from an emotionally fragile state, trying to give counsel they may not like to hear may also strain the friendship. And what if whatever advice you give doesn’t work? Your friendship can implode if you give them bad advice that leads to a bad outcome (say, their spouse leaves them because they put their foot down or their boss fires them because they air their complaints).

A therapist creates a structured, more objective environment where counselors can maintain boundaries with their client–benefits we can’t provide because of our personal connection to our friends.

We probably know all this, but we still sometimes can’t resist playing psychologist.

To play it safe (and reduce the drama!), commit to only offering advice in the small stuff. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer support and encouragement! Resolve to be there to listen, to take stressed friends out for a fun social evening, or to help run errands to reduce their workload. But if over time, a pattern of depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, existential crises or suspected mental illness develops, often the best support we can give is to implore those we care about to seek professional help. It could go a long way, and could even save our friend’s life (not to mention their marriage, job, family, or sanity).

And, as an added bonus, it protects our friendships and gives them space to be much more fruitful and healthy.