Secrets and Safety: Being a Good Friend

A “confidante” is someone you feel you can “confide” in, or share secrets with. Being someone’s confidante can be one of the most rewarding parts of friendship. It can feel as if we are specially chosen by a friend to be their trusted listening ear. This is a big compliment! It may also feel relieving, like you are glad this person has someone to talk to, even if you’re not sure why they picked you.  

But there are also times when being someone’s confidante can feel like a pretty big job, even if it’s a job you treasure.  What do you do when you worry someone is confiding in you too much? Or what if what they’re telling you makes you worried about their safety? This article will go over:

  • How to know when it’s too much for you
  • Setting a boundary without harming a friendship
  • When to break a secret
  • How to get help for a friend

Being a teen or a young adult can be an especially challenging time for solving problems and keeping secrets. Teens and young adults are often caught in a “gray zone” where you can have adult-level problems, but still only have kid-level power in making decisions or changing your circumstances. I call this “Big Problems, Small Power.” In these situations, teens and young adults may feel like it’s safer to talk to a peer than to an adult, because a peer may understand being stuck in this “gray zone” better. One issue though, is that you (as another teen or young adult) are also limited in your power to make decisions or change circumstances. So you may be listening to your friend’s Big Problems, but not be contributing any power to help them…. and that can lead to Big Worry.

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How to know when it’s too much for you

Here are a couple of signs that being your friend’s confidante could be creating a mental health burden for you:

  • You are spending large part of your day worrying about your friend
  • Worry about your friend is distracting from other tasks, like school, family commitments, or other friendships
  • You’re losing sleep or your appetite because of worry about your friend
  • You feel pressured to make time for them even when you’re not available
  • You feel like the “only one” your friend has to rely on
  • No amount of advice or listening improves your friend’s situation

Setting a boundary without harming a friendship

What do you do when you realize that being your friend’s confidante has become harmful to you or them, but you don’t want to hurt or alienate them by setting a boundary?  Here are a couple of conversation ideas that might help:

  • Redirecting: “I’m so sorry you’re still struggling with your girlfriend.  Let’s find something else distracting to talk about.”
  • Validation: “I love being the person you talk to, and I want to keep being that person in the future, but this is weighing on me, so I need a break from this topic for a week or two.”
  • Recruiting: “I know you’ve said I’m the only one you can talk to about this, but I really think [other person] is a good friend/family member, too. Can I help you tell them what you’ve been going through?”
  • Direct: “I don’t want to hurt you, but this is too heavy for me right now, can we please talk about something else?”

When to break a secret

When your friend confides something in you that you suspect could mean they, or someone else, are in danger, it’s time to break that secret.  Remember, your safety and the safety of others is more important than hurt feelings or breaking trust.  Try this conversation opener if you don’t know where to start: “Thank you for telling me this secret, I’m glad you trust me.  This problem is too big for us to solve alone and we need help.  Who is a safe adult we can tell?”  By partnering with your friend to agree on an adult to tell together, you may be helping them make a healthy choice they were scared to do alone.  If your friend is in an emergency situation, you may need to break that secret and tell an adult without their permission.  While this is hard, remember, your duty as someone who loves them is to do your best to keep them safe.  Big Problems often require Big Power to solve, which usually means telling a safe adult.  Secrets should be broken when they compromise safety.

Some examples of times when safety is more important than secrets are:

  • If they you they are being hurt physically or sexually by an adult or a peer
  • If they tell you they’re thinking about suicide
  • If they tell you they’re thinking about hurting other people
  • If they tell you they’re planning to run away from home
  • If they tell you they’re planning to meet someone from online, and no one else will know where they are

How to get help for a friend

There a lot of options available for mental health support, even some that are completely teletherapy-based, like Joon Care.  Other safe adults in your friend’s life can include:

  • a school counselor (they are often offering online appointments right now, too, just ask your teacher if you don’t know the counselor already)
  • a teacher
  • a coach
  • your parents, or another family member you trust

Visit our resource page for crisis resources you can share with your friend, or call/text yourself! If you believe you or your friend is in immediate danger, always call 911.

January 22, 2021
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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