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Talking with Friends about Triggers and Boundaries

By: Courtney Davey MA, MFT

Talking about Bipolar Disorder can sometimes be difficult to do with people that you care about. It can be exhausting to educate people that you care about on the way that you interact with your symptoms and the world when you experience them. It is not your job to teach every person in the world about Bipolar disorder, unless you want to be an advocate, which is always encouraged for the betterment of everyone. However, in all relationships, directly or indirectly, we teach the other person about ourselves. If you are living with bipolar disorder, these symptoms can be intense at times and can have a major effect on your relationship. Choosing to have a conversation about some of the situations that make it harder for you should create a better understanding between you and your friend as well as strengthen the relationship’s resilience.

Here are some steps to take in having this conversation:

Identify your own triggers- No conversation or understanding will be able to happen if you are not able to identify some of the things that exacerbate your symptoms. In particular, what kinds of triggers happen around your friend that will affect you, them, and your relationship? Do certain activities, like going drinking or staying out all night increase the intensity of symptoms? Do certain behaviors that they do, like using “bipolar” in a way to describe indecisiveness upset you?

Start the conversation- It may feel awkward or uncomfortable to talk to a friend about triggers, because they can often be connected to more intimate information about you. Starting the conversation should ease some of the discomfort quickly. The conversation could start something like this: “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something. As you know, I have bipolar disorder and sometimes certain things make it much worse for me to experience, and so I’m asking for your help in managing through that”. Describe some of those triggers and how you want to deal with it.

Hear what they’ve noticed- Friendships are two-way streets. Humans naturally tune into others’ needs, habits and patterns. Ask if they have noticed anything that makes you more manic, depressed, or just not totally stable in that time. You may be surprised that some of the pieces that they noticed you thought were not visible to others, or may not have been something you realized before. Take their input into consideration, and if you begin to feel defensive, remember that this is a friend and are bringing it up because they care.

Identify boundaries that you don’t want crossed-Each friendship you have has a different set of rules and expectations for interactions, whether it is what you are doing, how often you talk or see each other, how direct you can be with them, etc. Discuss what kinds of boundaries work for you, and if you are struggling with some, what you want to be different. This can be a tricky part of the discussion if the boundaries have been in place for a long time. If they get upset, that is okay as well, even if it does not feel that way in the moment. Everyone is entitled to their emotions, but what they choose to do with them is where we must enact expectations. For you, choosing to restructure boundaries that are for your best mental health and for the relationship is going to be an important step in having healthy support.  

Identify how they can help-If you have a friendship, at one time or another, you have asked for help or been asked for help. This could have ranged from helping someone with benign tasks such as moving to serious situations, such as helping them get to the hospital and everything in between. Finding a way that your friend can help you avoid triggering situations and boundary issues as well as handle triggering situations when they occur will strengthen your relationship. Your friend knows that you are someone who trusts them to help and can be counted on. Brainstorm together things that can help. Choosing to not go drinking regularly or having a code word to use when you feel like your emotional reactions are starting to be symptomatic rather than your usual balanced ones can be important in helping your friend identify how to help. As well, what are some things you do not want them to do? Are certain words triggering in situations that may be best not to use at that time, but can be discussed later? Is there a way to point out that a boundary is starting to be crossed? Come up with a plan.

Plan for it to be continuous work- In the same way that your work managing your bipolar symptoms is lifelong, this conversation cannot occur only one time. This may be difficult for them to be a part of at first, and it may take some time to work out what is realistic to ask of them and yourself. If your plan did not work as well as planned when implemented, reconvene and talk about what worked, what did not, and how to fix it. Check in with your friend about how they are doing in supporting you, and as triggers and desired boundaries can change over time, make sure that you keep them updated.  Being able to have an open conversation about certain triggers or boundaries that are created will help you, your friend in understanding, and your relationship for having an important form of support and connection.

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