Our good girlfriends literally become a part of us. We celebrate their wins like they are our own and carry their emotional pain and trauma in our own hearts. The sisterhood between Black women is a very special union, but it can also be very draining. We’ve all been bystanders to a relational car crash–watching your girl continually engage in a toxic relationship or entertain another man who is a walking billboard of red flags can feel like a burden on your own spirit. You can easily become depleted as you try to suggest ways for them to get help and all of your advice is ignored or dismissed.
MN spoke to Kathleen Isaac, Ph.D about how to cope when you have a friend who refuses to seek professional help for their inner and relational turmoil. Unfortunately, Black women have been resistant to therapy for decades, and a lot of their resistance is historically justifiable.
“There is a lot of stigma around mental health.” Isaac told MN.
“In a lot of communities, but I think particularly in the African American community, there’s this notion that we have to be strong and we should be able to deal with things on our end. We are a very resilient people. While that strength has really helped us survive through a lot of things, it has also been a barrier to seeking help, because seeking help or talking about your problems makes it look like you’re weak.”
Continuing, “There’s also the very strong influence of religion, which also tells us that we can just pray and our problems will go away that way. It makes it really challenging for people to admit that they need help. Another important factor is that there is a lot of distrust around medicine given that people have been abused or taken advantage of in the medical field through experimentation, and all of these things that create medical distrust in general, so feeling comfortable and safe enough to work with providers, especially when predominately a lot of these providers do not look like you, is also a barrier.”
Even if our reasons for not going are understandable, the consequences of unhealed and unaddressed trauma in our communities is evident. Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with suggesting your friend get professional help, but also manage your expectations so that you aren’t devastated when they don’t heed your advice.
“When someone is in an abusive situation, they can be really defensive when you try to approach them and tell them ‘This is a problem and you need to deal with it,’ Isaac explained.
“In some ways, they already know that. Or sometimes they can be in denial. I think you have to be careful as a friend to not be too forceful in saying, ‘Hey you need to go get help.’ It’s most important to just try to be as supportive as you can, and listen and let them know that you’re concerned about them. You can gently suggest that they talk to someone else about it, but ultimately, it’s on the person to realize for themselves eventually that they will benefit from seeking help and talking about it in therapy.”
As a friend, it’s important that you take a surrendered approach to your friend’s decisions, even if sometimes it’s painful to watch.
“Sometimes it can be when the situation gets bad enough, or they might talk to someone who has had a positive experience in therapy, and that might make them more willing to try it. So it’s really difficult. I don’t think there is one kind of thing you can say. But I do think trying to scale back, and refraining from continually bringing it up, or making the person feel ambushed in anyway is really important. The more that you push forward, sometimes that makes people push back and that can create more resistance. Sometimes it’s best to just give someone the space. Let them know you’re concerned, and try to be there as much as you can.”
A lot of women carry guilt when they aren’t constantly telling their girl “how it is.” There is this community belief that if “you don’t give her the real, it’s on you if things go wrong.” Let that idea go. Your friend, and your friend alone, is responsible for her life and her actions. And if being adjacent to the trauma is too much on you, it’s also okay to create healthy boundaries to protect yourself.
“I think in a friendship it’s important to be honest, and let someone know and speak with love that you are there and you want to be supportive to them, but convey, ‘Sometimes it’s hard for me to hear these things. As your friend, there might be days when I need a minute,’” Isaac recommends.
“Or say ‘I’ve had a really rough day, and I don’t think I have the emotional bandwidth to take this on.”
However you approach it, make it clear that they aren’t a burden, but you just have your own limits.
“Part of your self care is to know those limits and to speak them and keep them for your friends. And that is actually helpful to do because it can help the other person recognize that that’s something they’re not used to doing for themselves,” Isaac advises.
Some friends may be put off by your new established boundaries, but remember, that you have to secure your own safety mask before assisting others.
“I think a lot of times we think practicing self care and setting boundaries means that we are selfish, or that we are leaving people hanging, but you can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself,” Isaac explains.
If the friend continually keeps bombarding you with their drama with no respect for your feelings, it’s also okay to take a break from the friendship.
“If you feel like you’ve completely reached your limits, sometimes you do have to disengage. It doesn’t have to be done in a mean way or abruptly, you can just fall back, respond when you’re ready, or send a message, ‘Look I hear what you’re saying, but I can’t talk right now.’ ” Isaac recommends.
“It’s important to check in with yourself and be honest with yourself about where you’re at and how much resources you feel like you have available to deal with that other person’s problems. Try to communicate the best that you can that, ‘I‘m trying to do my best to support you, but I really think that having access to a therapist who can be there consistently is going to be really beneficial for you.'”
Kathleen Isaac, Ph.D has her own private practice in Harlem. You can find out more information about her services here.