I have a close friend who is also a colleague; we spend a lot of time together. She shares a lot of her feelings with me, and a while ago I found that her low moods were causing my mood to drop as well. I made an effort and have had success separating my mood from hers and protecting myself from “catching” how she feels.

Recently this seems to have made me less of a helpful listener and friend to her. It’s very important to me to be as available and present and helpful to her as I can, so when she accused me of dismissing her feelings when I thought I was trying to coach her to move past them, I felt terrible.

On reflection I think my response in those recent times, which was more advice-giving than sympathy, came from feeling that, in the stressful time we currently find ourselves in at work, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to help shoulder her burden. Since she has made it clear that what she wants is sympathy and commiseration, not answers, I want to give that to her. I care about my friend and wish for her happiness; how do I offer compassionate listening without taking on the emotional burden myself?

A. Your friend is asking the impossible. Basically, your friend is asking you to “suffer” with her. According to your correspondence, you have listened to her and with enough compassion and empathy to cause your own moods to drop.

You listened and offered advice, but she has made it clear that when talking to you she does not want advice — she simply wants you to feel her sadness and depression. You were trying to help her by reducing her sadness by providing advice and answers, but “she has made it clear that what she wants is sympathy and commiseration.”

What she wants and what she needs are two different things. She wants commiseration, but she needs answers that will reduce or eliminate her suffering. The choice is hers. Face the hard realities, make corrections and end the suffering or to stagnate in her own misery.

Please allow me to make a reference to religion. There is an old saying, very common and very well known, “God helps those who help themselves.” When someone uses this expression the generally accepted meaning is that the first step is to try and “help yourself.” In other words when someone has problems it is incumbent upon them to try and improve upon their situation. It is not enough, to simply pray to God and expect him to help them when they have done little or nothing to try and help themselves.

Your friend should be doing all that she can to help herself and that includes seeking out and accepting helpful advice and answers. Of course, the best way to do this is through professional counseling. You are ill-equipped to provide the help that she needs. It is good to show all of your friends, through your actions, that you do indeed care about their well-being.

Continuing to listen and discuss your friend’s suffering is little different from driving a drug addicted friend, who is suffering, to a rendezvous with their drug dealer. The real cure is to advise them to enter rehab, over and over again, and then drive them to the rehab center. But you cannot force them to enter rehab. They must want to cure their problem. Your only power to help is the power to advise.

It is up to you to see the situation clearly and it seems as if you have. Your first reaction was both to commiserate and offer advice, advice on how to improve her situation. You have done all that you can to help her, and you need to accept that. She needs to make changes that would best be done with a professional in a counseling format. Good luck.

Dr. Kristina Randle