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CommunityMental HealthWhen did our friends become our therapists?

Friendships are a bond of great force and impact. They transcend geography, life shifts and many emotional phases. And it’s one of the greatest joys in life.  During the pandemic, the bedrock of our collective sanity were the friendships we could dial into over Zoom or embrace at a social distance. It has been a period of helping one another fill in the blanks and pluck each other out of high to low levels of...
Georgie BradleyDecember 8, 20219 min
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Friendships are a bond of great force and impact. They transcend geography, life shifts and many emotional phases. And it’s one of the greatest joys in life. 

During the pandemic, the bedrock of our collective sanity were the friendships we could dial into over Zoom or embrace at a social distance. It has been a period of helping one another fill in the blanks and pluck each other out of high to low levels of chaos. Having that voice of reason can be help us understand why we feel the way we feel. But the route to naming and sourcing our malaise is becoming misguided where our friendships are concerned. 

While there is no qualm in sound boarding with a trusted and comforting friend, the scales are tipped into toxicity when a catch up is co-opted and by an endless ‘trauma dump’, where you are made to feel like you have to diagnose and then manage the problem.

“Venting becomes problematic when it is done without that friend’s permission, in an inappropriate place and time, or to someone who may not have the capacity to take in the information,” says Rahaf Raef Kobeissi, a Mindset and Mental Health Coach and Speaker.

The situation creates issues when we know we have a limited bandwidth for a friend’s problem, but are still offering ourselves up as an open-all-hours safety valve. 

Saviour complex is a conditioned practice in many of us. The need to rescue someone by prioritizing their comfort over our own discomfort “releases oxytocin and dopamine which results in a chemical ‘high’. Many with low self-esteem or self-confidence might only feel better about themselves when acting in the service of others,” says Dr. Kirin Hilliar, assistant professor of psychology, from the school of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

Despite coming from an innocuous and emotionally intelligent place of empathy, when we willingly shoulder the burden of someone else’s problems, it leaves little space for us to express our own thoughts and feelings, which can make us even more stressed and anxious. 

Friendships are a vital part of the expat experience. Having a solid support system makes the feeling of displacement and homesickness all the more bearable. But is there a stronger tendency to ‘trauma dump’ on our friends as a result of this? Do we subconsciously put more pressure on our friendships here because they are our surrogate family?

“Our connections as expats encourage us to vent and share our vulnerabilities and similarities in the anxious feelings or frustrations from not being able to adapt,” adds Kobeissi. 

As difficult as it may be, setting boundaries is essential. 

“Over sharing and overusing social media has resulted in people not having a good sense of boundaries on what is okay to share and when is it okay to share,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. “People want to be seen and heard and the more we spend time online, the less connected we are to ourselves and each other, so when we are with a friend, we are desperate to be seen and heard. So without consideration we might share, in our hopes to be seen.”  

Even if we are known for being a good listener, it doesn’t mean we have the capacity to listen at any or every point in the day.

To protect our wellbeing, Kobeissi says to be transparent about our ability to support others. 

“It may be helpful to set a time limit, for example: ‘You’ve caught me at a crazy time, I’m around for 10 minutes, does that work for you?’” she says. “Alternatively, if you are feeling overwhelmed, communicating this to your friend in a gentle way can help protect your own wellbeing, as well as give the other person a reasonable expectation of your capacity. ‘You know I care for you, I wish I could offer you support, but I feel I don’t have the bandwidth to support you through this’”.

Friends do not have the professional training to help someone whose ‘trauma dumping’ is repetitive or involves self-harming. The best thing we can do as a supportive friend is to encourage the person to seek help from other sources. However, therapy can be prohibitively expensive, especially when it may not defrayed by insurance.

Dr Afridi advises people to look for support groups, while making sure a professional or trained individual is involved. The LightHouse Arabia has licensed psychologists that lead free therapeutic supportive spaces. 

For those who are aware and want to find home-based ways to channel their ‘trauma dumping’ Dr Hilliar has a few suggestions.  

“Journaling is a way to explore and understand your trauma, and the emotions associated with it. Affirmations such as ‘I am safe now’ or ‘I am a survivor and I will overcome this’ also help in supporting the healing journey.” 

Georgie Bradley

Georgie Bradley is a British/Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after being bred in Bahrain. She's been published by The Guardian UK, The Telegraph UK, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post UK, Buro 24/7 and Harper's Bazaar Arabia. Most recently she was the deputy editor of Emirates Woman. You're most likely to find her in the aisle seat.

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