When a Friend is Self-destructive

talking friends

It may happen suddenly after a traumatic experience, or it might be a gradual drift: self-destructive behavior does not have one particular trigger. Excessive drinking or substance use, sabotaging relationships, and selfish, rash acts are all symptoms of a deeper psychological issue inside a person, and one or more of these symptoms can plague most of us at one time or another. It is painful to watch a friend go through a difficult period, but it can be almost unbearable if those difficulties cross over into negative or damaging behavior patterns.


If you’re keen to help someone who is on the road to emotional catastrophe, how close the friendship is may determine how you handle things. If this is merely a strong acquaintance, and her closer friends and family appear to be handling the situation, it might be best for you to back off and give them room, unless you have some specific training or experiences that may help. Also, you have to consider your own welfare. If the person in question is a very close friend, you will probably think she’s worth the trouble of you getting personally involved. If she’s just someone you hang out with on occasion, however, and she has her own life that’s pretty much separate from yours, you might be better off letting someone closer to her know your concerns, and then extricating yourself from the situation. That may sound cold, but realistically you cannot save every person in the world who needs help, so you have to choose your battles, especially when your own emotional health is at stake. Helping out someone in trouble can be exhausting, and if you don’t know her all that well, you may not be the person who’s best equipped for the job. You need to choose what’s best for both of you, rather than trying to be the hero.

If it is your close friend who is in dire need, and she has indicated that she wants help but doesn’t know how to pull herself together, don’t try to bully her into shaping up by placing conditions on your friendship as a threat. If you really want to be supportive and help her through this, let her know you’ll be there for her no matter what. In my own experience, I have observed that the “tough love” approach doesn’t really work well on friends who are spiraling out of control. This does not mean that you have to enable your friend’s behavior or pretend you like it when you don’t, but if you give her an ultimatum it can make her even more anxious or depressed, which can lead to further self-destructive acts.

If, on the other hand, she refuses to admit that she is on the road to major calamity, unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot you can do, short of an intervention, which may or may not work. People cannot be helped if they don’t want help; and if they can’t even admit yet that there’s a problem, then your chances of getting through to them are lowered significantly. You can try to make your friend see how she is hurting herself and others, but it may take some experimentation with approaches, and a whole lot of patience. People don’t like to be told what they’re doing wrong, and especially so if they’re using their behavior as a way to mask other negative things that are going on in their lives. Don’t blame yourself if you try to help but it gets you nowhere — you can only do so much, and she has to be willing to try to meet you halfway. You can also contact a professional therapist for advice, but in the end it has to be her choice to want to get better. You cannot hold yourself responsible if she’s not to that point yet.

It can be heartbreaking to watch someone you care about head down the wrong road, but you must remember that even the most dire situations can have a happy ending. Don’t lose hope — we all hit bottom at some point, but it is from that point that we can start building ourselves up again. It may take time and a few wrong turns, but a strong friendship bond gives a person in trouble a much better chance of regaining her emotional strength and getting herself back on track.

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