You’re at a group event. You and a bunch of your friends are spending time together, sharing a meal, having laughs; it’s so good to see everyone and be together again. The conversation starts light and joyful, with everyone sharing updates on travels, work, relationships, kids, jobs. But almost inconspicuously, the conversation takes a turn. Your one friend, who’s always in some kind of drama, starts bemoaning their life—talking about how this person did them wrong, why their work is lousy—and the energy of the conversation turns to complaining. People start focusing on all the things they don’t like. It turns into a big old pity party. And it feels gross, not the encouraging speech God desires from us. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “…encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11).
You start trying to make your exit, but your friend is still talking and won’t stop complaining. You wonder to yourself: How do I get out of this?
First, we love our friends. Yet sometimes the things into which they choose to put their energy is toxic. Their words continually bring them and those around them down. This is where boundaries are very important.
The onus is on you to advocate for yourself. You might choose to limit your exposure to the negativity and simply see less of this person. Or perhaps you might speak up and turn the conversation, asking, "So what in your life are you excited about? What's going well?"
Or perhaps a mild confrontation is needed, and you might say “This topic is unhelpful or unkind and we've given it enough attention. It is not a healthy place for my heart to dwell. Let’s talk about something else.”
If you would like to give them more context, try “You know I love you and care about you. This conversation is too emotionally heavy and taxing for me, and I don't always have the energy to receive it. I would appreciate you asking before bringing me into negative conversations. And if I don’t have the capacity to listen, I hope you respect that and don't take it personally.” Setting boundaries is an act of care for ourselves and it also invites others to become the best version of themselves.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Holding a boundary aids the process of healthy change. It’s SO important for you to actually tell your friend how you feel when they ask you and say, “No, I won’t listen to this” when you don’t want to be pulled into their drama. Boundaries aren’t helpful unless they’re upheld.
Sometimes you have to tell your friends what you will and will not listen to. If the conversation turns to complaining, you can simply name it: “This conversation is turning to complaining, and I can’t listen to that, I'm sorry. Let's shift the conversation.”
If your friend will use the time you spend to pull you into their drama, simply say no. “Lets talk about this (name other topic) instead. I need to focus on more constructive things” (Philippians 4:8). You can be that frank. It doesn't have to be unkind, but it must be clear. Hopefully, this will also cause your friend to evaluate their choice of speech as well as how they spend their conversation time with you.
If this is a recurring theme, where every time you spend time with this friend or group of friends, you come away feeling depleted, angry, emotionally drawn, or exhausted, it's time to explore the nature of your friendship.
Questions to ask yourself:
Yes, friendships have seasons, where you may be receiving more than you give or giving more than you receive, but seasons means that it passes. It shouldn’t always be this way. Friendship is mutual. A two-way street. When it is always one directional, that is a different kind of relationship, and it requires different things of you. Know which is which.
Friendship is the relational space where you build each other up, enjoy each other’s company, find ease and presence, peace and comfort, and call each other higher.
Mutually co-existing but dragging each other down is not a healthy friendship—I would argue that’s not a friendship at all. If you are not uplifting one another or sharpening each other as iron sharpens iron, if this friend does not see you and call forth your best self, and you do the same for them—why are you spending your time with them? That’s not a life-giving relationship to be giving your energy and time to. It’s ok to let things go that have run their course.
Sometimes we misunderstand Jesus' invocation to lay down our lives for our friends to mean we should stay in draining situations. Jesus himself withdrew from crowds in order to recharge and pray. It isn’t to deny yourself—your personhood, your wellbeing, your boundaries—for the sake of your friends. It's in a time of life and death, that you would tend to the life of your friend. Key word here being friend. Understand when someone is being a friend to you and not parasitic or taking advantage of you. If they are only taking from you, they aren't a friend to begin with, and that ‘lay your life down' isn’t referring to them.
Also, if you are finding yourself repeatedly getting drawn into the drama of your friend, it's important to ask yourself why that keeps happening. What part of you is being served (whether you’re aware of it or not) in being drawn into this drama? Are you finding some sense of importance, inclusion, or excitement in hearing other people’s drama? If so, that's something to tend to and work on within yourself.
If you don’t want to be drawn into your friend’s drama, all power lies within your hands to remove yourself to change the subject or remove yourself from the situation. Know when your iron is being dulled rather than sharpened. No one else is responsible for your wellbeing. Love your friends by telling them the truth, and be clear, because clear is kind.
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Joel Vande Werken