How to Find Balance With Depressed Friend?

My friendships mean a lot to me.  I'm an only child and my parents are dead, so my friends are my extended family.  I love these people...yet I also care about modeling for my child how to build and nurture healthy friendships.  My son, too, is an only child, and I know how badly he's going to need those life skills.  I find that several of my deeper friendships are with people who battle anxiety and depression.  I likely gravitated to these individuals because I enjoy creative, spiritual people who choose not to simply sleepwalk through life, and I think many people who have fought depression become wise and self-aware from it.  When a long bout of depression rears up, however, the balance of the friendship can quickly become "off."  I expend more energy in their direction--worrying about them, reaching out more often, and trying to be a good listener.  During those times, I often get little from the friendship in return, but I understand they simply don't have as much to give right then.  Sadly, as the years and cycles of depression go by, it can put a the whole of a relationship increasingly off balance.  Sometimes, too, I edit myself for long periods.  When a friend is down, they don't want to hear about my big work success, my travels, my happiness with my spouse, or how over the moon with love I am for my child.  If the period of depression lasts a few months, friendships tend to bounce back.  I've found, though, that when it comes to depression that lasts years, catching up is very hard.  I try to teach my son that he should choose friends who are kind people...and then I struggle to explain why I let it slide that an anxiety-ridden friend left me waiting for an hour in a restaurant *again* even though she picked the time and place.  One of my oldest girlhood friends is particularly prickly, petty, and bitchy when she's struggling, and as I've matured it has been harder to take.  A year ago she posted some ugly, scolding things directly on my Facebook page that embarrassed me in front of important work contacts and embarrassed my family, so I felt I had to unfriend her.  I sent her a message worded as kindly as I could saying that our friendship now needed to use other avenues.  Despite reaching out a couple more times, I haven't heard from her since.  She has at times been suicidal, so I worry about her.  I cringe whenever those social media memes surface about suicide prevention, about being supportive.  Sometimes you try really hard and it isn't good enough.  I keep sifting through what happened and all the ways I could have handled it.  I took the high road and was kind, but it didn't seem to help.  I have experienced deep grief and quite a few hard knocks in my life.  I've even experienced low periods that lasted months and panic attacks.  But I don't know how clinical depression feels.  Are there any good books or articles that could help me better understand?  Any secrets for maintaining balance and not being a doormat while still caring and giving?  For those close to people with depression, how do you explain the condition and their unusual behaviors to your children?  Many thanks for any advice.

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Hi there. In your question I read a larger issue than what you're directly asking: a pattern of co-dependent relationships. The most direct way you stated this was "any secrets for maintaining balance and not being a doormat while still caring and giving?" The secret to this is to recognize the ways in which you may have been modeled co-dependent behaviors and relationships early on in life, and how that might have informed your beliefs about what it means to be a good friend. It might particularly help to notice the ways you are inclined to "fix" or solve problems for people who are struggling. Since this dynamic is rampant in our society, there is absolutely no shame in this recognition. Most of us witnessed co-dependent relationships growing up, so it's normal to feel the way you do. I relate to the experience of having deep, spiritual, sensitive people in my life who also struggle with mental health issues, and needing to find a healthy and balanced relationship to those loved ones.

When it comes to loved ones with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, all you can do is hold space and listen. You can't prevent their feelings or fix them. If their words and actions impact you, you can set appropriate boundaries and be supportive from afar if need be. Empathy is beautiful, but co-dependent over-involvement in other people's pain (i.e. obsessing about interactions, worrying about them incessantly) doesn't actually help them. 

One of the most important things you can do for your kiddo is to model appropriate boundary setting--and you're doing a great job with this in some ways already, as with the Facebook exchange you mentioned. Good boundary setting helps prevent the resentment you describe; for example, if you know a friend has a tendency to leave you hanging, you might say to that person: "If you're more than 20 minutes late I'm going to have to leave." 

For recovering co-dependents, the work is to know yourself, your needs, your boundaries, and your truth, and to be able to express those needs and boundaries. It's not easy, but it's rewarding when you can set down the burden of fixing and saving others and put your attention and energy on things you can actually control (like your own daily choices and mental health). Ironically when you let go of the need to help, fix, and save others, you can hold space more authentically for their experience, making you a better friend.

If any of what I've written here resonates for you, I recommend following the Holistic Psychologist on Instagram. She shares many ideas for how to let go of co-dependent behaviors and build conscious awareness in relationship to self and others. You sound like a kind and emotionally intelligent person, and I think you would appreciate her simple and powerful approach.

If the example you gave of the friend who embarrassed you on Facebook is representative of your broader approach with these types of situations, then I think you are already doing a fine job of balancing kindness and sensitivity with your own need to be respected, attended to, and cared for by your friends. I recommend reading about the 12 step principle of “detaching with love.” Although it is written about primarily in the context of relationships impacted by addiction, it applies to the situations you describe. 

This is a very difficult situation. I'm glad you're aware of the impacts on your and your children. You might consider reading through information for family and friends and joining a support group such as those offered by CoDA ( or NAMI (