Healthy Boundaries in Friendships

You do not owe anything to anyone. Ever. You do not owe them your time, your thoughts, your money, or your things. And you absolutely do not owe anybody mental health support.

As high schoolers, we completely engulf ourselves in our social lives, our friendships. We value ourselves based on how many people like us or want to hang out with us. And often, we will go to extreme lengths to feel validated, even putting our own mental health at risk to try and be there for someone else. However, I don’t think this is a sustainable lifestyle to live. In my opinion, as students we need to learn that setting boundaries within your friendships is important to your mental health and may even help you be a better friend in the long term.

I wanted to speak with some of my peers at Oyster River High School to broaden my perspective on this topic; I wondered if any felt the way I did. A few students I spoke with felt unsure of how to help their friends, sometimes leading to conflict. Audrey Sigmon (‘23) said, “having to support someone, but also having your own life is a difficult thing to manage.”

Photo by Madelyn Marthouse

Emily Lahr (‘23) shared her experience with conflict that arose within her and my group of friends earlier this year. This conflict was born from a general misunderstanding of what Lahr was going through with her mental health. Her struggles were serious, and my friends and I were unsure of what to do in order to support her. It became apparent quite quickly that we were all overwhelmed with the positions that we were in.

Lahr said, “people that struggle a lot [with their mental health] tend to talk about it a lot… In my friend group, this was triggering [for my friends]. I didn’t try to talk about it, it’s just what came out of my mouth at the time because it was the only thing I could focus on.” Lahr added that, “it’s really difficult for both sides. My friends were trying to take space because it was triggering for them, but it was sad for me to see my friends take space [from me] when I was having such a hard time.” She was also quite hurt by their suggestions to seek professional help. “With support I think I mostly looked for distractions from the struggles I was going through. When you’re dealing with mental health issues that are so severe, it’s nice to just be distracted from them every once in a while, and ignore your problems. I know this isn’t the best way to cope, but this is what I look for [when I’m struggling].” Lahr added that she was “begged” to receive professional help. “They said to me, ’you need more help than we can of-fer, we’re not professionals, you need something bigger…’ It caused [me to] lash out at them just yelling ‘I want support, friends and distractions,’” Lahr said.

From my side of things, I can say that I didn’t give Lahr the support that she needed. But was that my fault? How am I, a 17-year-old girl with my own things to worry about, going to take on someone else’s issues?

And I know what you’re thinking, ‘you don’t necessarily have to take on someone’s issues to support them,’ and you’re right. You don’t. But this is exactly the problem that I, and a lot of other students have. We can’t help but take on the issues of our friends, because we care about them, right? There’s obviously a lot of empathy involved in friendships and relationships, which can make it hard to not be almost envisioning their situation or feeling their emotions. It can be heavy on someone’s shoulders to support a struggling friend. I’ve felt that weight, and this was the first time that I ever set boundaries in my life when it came to my friend’s mental health struggles.

Lahr ended up receiving the help that she needed and says that despite her initial feelings about my friends pushing for her to seek further help with outside resources, she should thank them. “They saved my life,” Lahr said. She feels that though her treatment was long, and difficult, it helped, and she needed it. Through treatment, Lahr learned skills which could help her in future situations where her mental health may be declining.

She said that “[Friendships] just don’t go well until one person starts to learn coping skills.” She added that, “We’re all just ignorant teenagers with not enough mental health education.” But truth be told, neither of us came to those conclusions quickly. Or rather, we didn’t talk about it for a long time. After nearly eight years of friendship, Lahr and I went nearly seven months without communicating, due to the fact that we misinterpreted a lot of bad blood on both ends. We understood what had happened, and we both understood how we hurt each other, but we didn’t understand why it happened, and that’s because we didn’t communicate things with one another. As I mentioned, this conflict sprung from my friends and I not understanding how to support Lahr, and frankly, a lot of us feeling too burnt out to do so. Lahr lashing out at us for this only pushed us away further, and once she went to residential treatment, we didn’t have contact with her. Not being able to smooth those things over at the time of the conflict meant that months later, when Lahr returned, we would still assume she had meant some of the things she said. Hence the whole not talking for seven months.

As much as it hurt both of us, I would’ve spiraled alongside Lahr had I not separated myself. I recognized quickly after Lahr left that I ultimately made the right decisions, even if there were times where I didn’t execute things in the best way. At the end of the day what I personally needed was space and time, and I’m glad that I set those boundaries when I did. I think my mental health would have declined quite a bit had I not done so.

Though we all sat on these bad feelings for a long time, which forced me to reflect on what had happened. I could recognize that all conflict was a two-way street, that maybe we all could have done things differently. This helped me realize that reflection may be the most important thing in order to maintain good mental health, and healthy relationships. This conflict was hard on everyone involved, but truth be told, had I not experienced these things, I don’t think I would be in a position where I felt it was important to remind my peers that it’s okay to prioritize their own mental health.

Going through all of this made it apparent to me that there was a lot of learning we all had to do. Not only do we need to learn how to be there for our friends, but we need to learn how to put ourselves first, as selfish as that seems. We spend so much time catering to other people, being taught that we need to put others first, when that’s just not a sustain-able way to live.

Recently, Lahr and I sat down with the counseling director, Shannon Caron. Caron mediated a conversation between the two of us, where we finally talked about what happened. Finding resolution has helped me to under-stand what to do differently next time I am in a similar situation.

I decided to speak with Caron further about the counselors’ roles, and what they can do to help mediate conflicts which may have arisen from students’ struggles with setting boundaries. Regarding the morality behind boundaries, Caron said that “I think it’s absolutely fair to set boundaries with a struggling friend. It’s important for anyone to be protective of their own mental health, and we can only offer support to the extent that we feel comfortable and healthy in our own skin… There’s only so far we can push the limits of ourselves before it becomes unhealthy for us.” She mentioned that there is a good number of students who visit counseling when they feel concerned about their friends. While this is not something they track data on, it is a pressing issue. As far as support from our counselors on issues like this, Caron said that “the counseling department can offer that outside perspective if there is a challenging friendship dynamic happening.” She added that, “I think it takes very mature conversations to be able to feel comfortable about what you are and aren’t able to help a friend with, and that’s difficult.” But ultimately, we have a million things going on at any given point as teenagers. Sometimes, trying to balance someone’s well-being on top of everything else you have going on in your life is harmful to you. Your own life, and your mental health should always be your priority.

Jason Baker, a counselor at ORHS said, “it’s totally fair to have boundaries [regarding mental health]. How could you possibly help someone else if you have not learned to live with your own struggles?”

Allowing yourself the time and space to deal with your own issues is one of the most important pieces of maintaining healthy relationships. Setting boundaries starts with yourself and treating the people in your life the way you would want to be treated.

Sigmon spoke on the issue of setting boundaries, saying that, “sometimes there’s a fear that you’re going to be dumping too much on someone, so I feel like people almost set boundaries within themselves to not do that… It’s known that you only [give] people what you think they can handle.” She added that, “the more you dump onto someone, the more overwhelmed they can get… Having hard feelings [told to] you [by] someone else can almost make you feel them too… You turn to that same place.” There is a lot at risk when you vent too much to someone who is not ready for that– it can put too much responsibility on that person, and like Sigmon said, can trigger issues within that person.

“You almost make their feelings your own,” said Lucy Picard (‘23), another student at ORHS.

Though there are often a lot of questions regarding how your friend may handle you setting those boundaries. For instance, what if my friend is offended at what I have to say? What if it makes other people in our friend group mad at me? Dalva Cheney (‘23), said, “If setting those boundaries with your friends bothers them then they probably aren’t good friends.” She went on to say, “not setting boundaries like that is going to impact friendships, because if you don’t let them know that something is bothering you, then resent-ment builds up and things kind of blow [up] eventually.”

There is often a lot of fear from teenagers regarding setting boundaries with their friends when talking about mental health. Mallory Desantis (‘25) said, “I struggle setting those boundaries, and with what my friends would think of me if I set them.” This ties back to the main point I made at the beginning of this article; as teenagers our social lives completely control our every action, even if it may hurt us.

Picard said, “you risk losing the friendship if you [set boundaries] like that.” While this is an extreme viewpoint, it’s a very real one as well. For some, they are unsure of how to set boundaries because they know that their friend needs more help than they can offer, but they do not know how to approach that.

Sigmon said, “I’m not going to go and tell their mom, [that they are struggling] cause there’s a fear there. In these kinds of situations, your friends don’t want you going to their parents, because they might not see that [help] is what they need.” She added that, “you want so badly to help but there’s some [topics] where you feel so helpless and like you can’t do anything.” We’ve all been there before. So, what do you do next if you find yourself in that position again? I think that in these cases, the counseling department at ORHS is a great resource.

Our counselors could help you to set those boundaries by giving simple advice, or if needed, they can connect your friend with out-side help. The good thing about this is that it can be done anonymously. Your friend doesn’t need to know that it was you who took the first step to get them help, and you can feel relief knowing that you did all the right things. Caron said that, “Some issues become too intense and it comes to a point that you really want to help your friend, you really care about this person, but then you start to realize that maybe the help they need is beyond what you’re able to give… It impacts yourself.”

Baker said, “I wish I could give you an exact number [of students who have trouble setting boundaries], but that is easily the most pressing thing we see here.” Hearing this validated a lot of feelings for me, and I hope it does for some of you as well. Baker went on to talk about how there are a multitude of reasons someone may become triggered by someone else’s situation, and that there is nothing wrong with that. He even talked about how students visit the on-call counselor when their friends’ struggles may bring up issues of their own.

There are multiple instances in which you might need to set boundaries regarding mental health within your interpersonal relationships. For example, a friend may text you quite frequently to vent, or maybe your conversations seem to always end in you dis-cussing their struggles. This may leave you feeling overwhelmed, and you may not even notice it. In some cases, you may even have a friend who is struggling past the point of your limited abilities to support, they may even be in danger. What do you do?

If you feel like a dumping ground for your friends’ struggles, first keep in mind that your friend feels safe with you, and that mental health is a very vulnerable topic. They are strong for even speaking up to begin with. I understand that it is stressful, I’ve been there, but there’s also ways to go about lifting some of that weight off your shoulders.

Simply put, there’s nothing wrong with telling your friend that you aren’t in the right headspace to listen to their vent. You might say something like, “hey, I do sympathize with what you’re going through, and you do have my support, but I’m not exactly in a position to be the person that you need right now.”

Though I can admit that it gets difficult when your friends’ mental health situations get dangerous. Typically, we should be looking for the signs of struggling mental health. If someone’s personality seems to have changed a bit, they seem agitated, have withdrawn from friends or activities they enjoy, have neglected hygiene practices, or if they express feelings of hopelessness — even in the form of “jokes” — their mental health situation may be more serious. These signs, coupled with an increase in venting, or conversations revolving around poor mental health may be an indicator that the situation is past the point of you being able to help your friend on your own.

But don’t forget about yourself, your own needs and mental health. These are not typically the kinds of situations in which people are considering their own feelings and well-being. — though they should be. When those close to us struggle, we tend to feel like we’re struggling with them. As my peers mentioned, you may feel triggered by what your friend is going through, but they may not be aware of that. Reflecting on your own mental health and capabilities is integral to being able to support a struggling friend.

Something to always keep in mind is that you might not know someone’s full story. You might not know where they came from, the things they have experienced, or even how they are feeling in that very moment. But what you do know for sure is yourself, your limits, and the things you can currently handle. Why is this important? From personal experience, I’ve found that reflecting on my own mental health and well-being is an important aspect of remaining a mentally sound and supportive friend. If you are not aware of what you are going through, and where you are currently at, you would not be capable of giving appropriate support to those around you who need it.

I hope that you take at least one thing from this article, or that maybe it helped you reflect on some of your own relationships. But I think we all need to try to remind ourselves every day that we live for ourselves, not for anyone else. There is nothing wrong with being emotionally “selfish” by closing yourself off to things which feel like they drag you down. Setting boundaries within your relationships will allow you to grow more as a person, and in turn be a better friend to those around you.

– Ava Gruner