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You’re Only as Healthy as the Company You Keep


I’m often amazed to hear about clients’ unhealthy friends—substance abusers, unstable people with mental or physical health problems who refuse treatment, dangerous risk-takers, perpetual victims in abusive relationships who won’t acknowledge problems or leave, and narcissists who take advantage of clients financially or emotionally or both. 

Clients tell me story after story about these “friends” and come up with all kinds of reasons they keep them in their lives: feeling sorry for them, having been friends for years or since childhood, their possessing many redeeming qualities, or friends having no one to care for them. Clients accuse me of being coldhearted when I suggest that these so-called friends don’t add much to their lives and take away a lot. 

I explain why it’s hard to detach from friends or at least reduce contact or closeness with them. Sometimes clients have too much compassion for them. Or they overidentify with them. Or they don’t want to hurt their feelings. While I applaud their compassion and caring, I remind them that their primary job is to take care of themselves which can’t happen with friends who aren’t relatively healthy and encouraging them to do so.

Here are some examples of behaviors of people which don’t bode well for having a healthy friendship. One client had friends, a couple, who would frequently ask her to babysit for their children, then they’d borrow back the money they paid her for sitting and spend it on marijuana. Sure, they often invited her over for dinner, especially at holidays, but these invitations only blinded my client to seeing how she was being used.

A single client had a friend from childhood who was a sexual addict. When the two women went out to bars, my client’s friend would almost always leave her there and go off with some guy. Not only did this woman have unprotected sex in the age of HIV and STDs, she denied she had a problem and accused my client of being a stick in the mud.

A married client had a group of high school friends who got together and always groused about how badly their husbands treated them. My client worked hard in sessions to improve her marriage, but her friends said they’d never go to therapy—so nothing changed. My client would complain to me about how tired she was of these women, but feared she’d be judging them if she stopped attending get togethers.   

Many people hang with unhealthy friends because it makes them feel healthy in comparison and because healthier people make them feel less than and insecure. However, if you want to be emotionally healthy you’ve got to choose healthy friends.