Friendship SNAFU
December 6, 2009 9:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I rectify this friendship and change?

So, to sum up my problem right now: I have a nasty habit of treating the few friends I have like my therapists. I've always had trouble making friends, and a lot of the few friendships I have had usually ended with that due to having no one else to talk to.

The most recent happened a few days ago. I met this guy over the summer, and we talked online a lot, but only met in person a couple of times. I felt we clicked, and I wanted to get to know him better as a friend, and I feel that--for a while, at least--the feeling was mutual.

But over the past few weeks or so I've been getting really stressed and anxious about a variety of factors, namely job searching. Since I don't have many friends, and I have trouble making them, he was the one real person I could talk to, and thus received the brunt of my worries. A few nights ago, he got fed up and told me that he needed some time to not deal with me. He told me he was concerned about my mental health, but frustrated at how I kept thrusting all my problems at him, and asked me what my idea of friendship was when I asked if we were still friends.

When he told me that he wanted a break, I became worried that he would never speak to me again (I've had that happen) but he assured me that he would talk to me again at some point, he just needed some time, and would contact me when he wanted to talk. I know I should take what he's saying at face value, because I know that rationally, I have no reason to suspect that he could be lying. But I'm still afraid that I'll never hear from him again, which sucks because then it would be just another friendship in the long line of ones that I've fucked up. And again, it would be even more of a shame because we never got to really know each other, and I wanted to, and I was sure he wanted to.

I've since decided to see a therapist. I feel like it will help, and I'm also committed to changing my behaviors and making this work. But I miss him, and I'm paranoid that I've fucked this up good. I know the easiest way to get over this is to try and make new friends, but believe me when I say that for me, that is much, much easier said than done. I feel like I'm the only person who's ever been in this situation, and so I feel like a huge, guilty douche.

So: how do I stop treating my friends as therapists and start treating them as friends? It sounds weird, but I don't know how to do that. Is it possible to rectify this situation? How do I do that? Help me, AskMe!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Its good that you went for therapy. From now on, all problems unload on therapist, till you learn how to deal with those.

Like the person said, give him a break. A long-enough one, depending on how often you interacted. Maybe a month? Then send in a short email/note saying that-
1. You are not perfect but you are working on improving. A sincere, concise apology wouldn't hurt. Absolutely no whining/repeating the point over and over again.
2. You miss him and were wondering if he would be available for coffee/lunch/activity you both enjoyed. Then, wait. If you don't get a response, you have a response too. No writing/emailing/calling again.

Wear a rubberband around your wrist. If you do get together, every time you are tempted to unload on a friend, snap. Think about the problem and what you want to get out after unloading on the friend. Are you looking for just venting or possible solutions to a problem that you actually intend to try out? If its the former, zip it. No mentioning of the incident unless the other person brings it up or wants to talk about it. Thanking him for meeting wouldn't hurt either.

Hope this helps.
posted by xm at 10:01 AM on December 6, 2009

In addition to what was suggested by 23skidoo, keep a journal. Most of the time we emotionally get boxed in by problems, the folks we share our problems with are really just "listening boards."

Many people use the journal and write entries as though they were sharing with a friend, so do this.

It accomplishes a couple of things. You express your worries, which is cathartic. Secondly, the act of exposition (writing) in many cases allows you to state the problems, freeing your mind to actually begin solving them, or framing them in context that's not so internalized.

This is really what you've been doing with your friends, but apparently infrequently enough, that in their memories, everytime they see you, it's only to unload your problems.

Every few days, or at intervals comfortable enough, take a peek at old entries and evaluate. If loyal to keeping a journal, you'll begin to see a trend in problems that "solve themselves" by other means (problems you weren't really in charge of solving, anyway), and other entries where actions or resolutions may become more obvious to you, now these troubles aren't locked up inside you.

Bottom line is most friends will enjoy another's company if it seems less like that person is a trouble magnet.

As for your friend in the near term, let him check on you in a while, give him his space, and be ready to present "good" news in your life, and while you're at it, ask him how things are going for him, and take some of the focus off of you for a while. Empathy's a two way street.

I promise, that journal's gonna help you out.
posted by uncorq at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's nice to be listened to, and that's what you're getting out of your friendships, but are you listening to your friends at all? It's exhausting to be on the receiving end of "MEMEMEMEME" and I've ended friendships because the other person never seemed to be able to turn the "MEMEMEME" switch off.

Seconding seeing a therapist so you can not only have a professional help you sort out your worries, but so that you can experience real back-and-forth relationships with other people.
posted by cooker girl at 10:07 AM on December 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

But I miss him, and I'm paranoid that I've fucked this up good.

It's possible that you have fucked this up good. I don't say that to be mean, just to be realistic. I should note that this puts you in the good company of exactly 100% of your fellow human beings. We all fuck up. All the time. Sometimes in a big way. Is it unfortunate? Yes. Do we all gnash our teeth over it? Yeah, some. Is it the end of the world? No.

As to improving yourself, apart from the good advice here, listen to yourself. Ask yourself "am I overloading this person? Would I want to be in their shoes right now?"
posted by adamrice at 10:24 AM on December 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I promise, that journal's gonna help you out.

I promise it, too!

I recommend The New Diary. A life-changing book for me and others.
posted by jgirl at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2009

Congrats to you for working to change this bad habit, I think a therapist will be extremely helpful. I found that talking to someone who was actually paid to listen to me meant that I had much less of an urge to unload on my friends and family. Most of all, be kind and patient with yourself as you work on improving.

As to your friend: he has said that he will contact you when he's ready, so don't pester him. Hopefully he will come back, but that's his decision to make. If he does contact you again, I think it would be a good idea to tell him that you're actively working on changing this habit, and maybe think about giving him some kind of keyword that he can say when you start venting that will stop you in your tracks.

Finally, just in general, remember this: most people love to talk about themselves. You're not alone in that. So when you meet people, when you see friends, ask them how they've been and try to get them to talk about their own lives, troubles, interests. And don't be afraid to let silence sit - it's easy to start talking about something that happened to you or your latest trouble when there's an awkward silence. Let the other person have a go at it, or fill the silence with questions.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

When you treat your a friend like a therapist, you're giving them a passive role in your life and you're probably more interested in talking to them than you are in any insights they might have. A good conversation always goes both ways. Friends are there for one another, but there's a reason why therapists are trained and paid for their jobs - and why your therapist isn't your friend.

Dump your troubles on your therapist and let your friends be the people you can just be with (and vice versa).
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:06 AM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of ways to change behaviors, and that's what you need to work with your therapist on. To your friends, learn to say, "I've been talking about me too much; how are you" and then listen to the response. Follow up; pay attention to what your friends are up to and ask them about the problem they had at work last week, or their garden, or whatever. Learn to say "You're a great listener, and I appreciate it."
posted by theora55 at 11:40 AM on December 6, 2009

Good for you for being able to see this pattern - a lot of people can't.

Try what the other posters have said about listening and reciprocity. Before you call a friend or make plans to hang out with someone, imagine yourself going through the entire exchange without talking about yourself. Start small if this is hard for you. Say you want to check in with a friend; make a ten minute phone call (time it if you don't think you can go longer than that without launching into your own life) where you say something like "I wanted to say hi and see how you've been doing. I'm curious about what you've been up to lately." Don't mention your problems. If they ask about you, say that you've decided to see a therapist to work out some of your problems. Leave it at that. Don't go into detail.

If your friend does call you again, tell him you've taken his complaint to heart, and that you're actively trying to be a better friend and that you've been seeing a therapist to help you with that. Say no more and let him steer the conversation after that.

That said, I think you need to develop confidence in your judgement and your ability to solve your own problems. You don't say what it is that you're looking for or wanting when you start hashing out your problems with your friends. If its advice and guidance, you need to practice being your own best counsel. We all need outside perspective from time to time. However, if you're overly relying on your friends for this, you need to start asking your self how you might tackle X or Y issue on your own. A therapist is built for just this sort of thing. Journaling is good for this sort of thing too. The more you trust yourself to manage your life, the less you're going to depend on your friends to do it for you. Best of luck.
posted by space_cookie at 12:58 PM on December 6, 2009

1. Keep a journal. Online (private, and don't tell anyone) or a real paper journal. Once you get your thoughts out about any problem a couple of times, you won't feel the need to talk about it as much, saving your friends the trouble of listening to something over and over until you get it out of your system, or listening to ALL your problems. Writing about something can really help you figure out what should be done about a situation.

2. Find more friends. Not sure how to do that, but if you talk to friend A about boy problems, friend B about work problems, friend C about family problems, etc, then at least friend A won't be hearing about ALL your problems. Not the best solution, but it works. If I ever feel like I'm burdening a friend about a current problem and something else comes up, I make sure to go to another friend to talk about it, just because it really is annoying to hear someone complain constantly.

3. Make sure your friends get to complain to you too, ask them how things are going with them, and really listen. This way it'll be a back and forth give and take friendship.

4. Do things with your friends that involve something other than just going out to dinner and talking. That can seem burdensome, but if you're walking around a museum chatting, or hiking and talking, your friends are less likely to notice the complaining.

As far as your current friendship, take a couple of weeks off from talking to him, then next time you talk to him ask how *he's* been doing and listen, and when he asks you in return, say that things are going well and you're doing this-and-this about your job search. The key is to sound positive.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 3:22 PM on December 6, 2009

[He] asked me what my idea of friendship was when I asked if we were still friends.

It might help, first of all, to ask HIM what his idea of friendship is. Then you'll know exactly what you need to do or not do for a good friendship with him.

Also, what is your idea of friendship? I don't think you've directly addressed that question (you say you treat your friends like therapists but it seems like you're even saying yourself that you don't really think that's all friendship is.)

I think part of your idea of friendship is a person who will be there for you. The thing is, friendships are like bank accounts in that way. You have to make deposits before you can make withdrawals. You have to make a LOT of deposits before you can make a big withdrawal. So while relying on your friends to be your therapist is something that happens in some friendships, it is still a withdrawal and it's one that has to be offset, first, in relation to how big it is for that person.

And you have to get to know the person before you find out what the deposits and withdrawals are for them and how big they are for each person.

For example, my mom and all her friends looooooove to complain to each other on the phone. Hearing complaints, for my mom, is a very small withdrawal, and her friends offset it by listening to hers just as much.

There are other people though, who can tolerate very very little of that, and it sounds like your friend is one of those. It might be that with him, having him listen to even a little complaining is a HUGE withdrawal for him and you would have had to like, save his life in a war to offset it.

So, right now you're overdrawn with him. Just leave him alone for a while as he asked. Then, when you're back in contact, find out what HE sees a friendship is being.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:14 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well this is my very first post on this site, so hope this is useful.

As you're anonymous you won't be able to answer but I would suggest you ask yourself what you get from talking to your friends. Is it actually their opinion or do you just you want to clarify (to yourself) how things are? I know I try to keep conversations on the later short, whereas the former (in moderation) can be benefical for the friendship.

I assume you talk about other stuff than your problems? Such as interests, holidays, politics, their relationships and all that. If not I suggest you start, and ask them questions.
To use Ashley801's terms, make some investments.

As for "I don't have many friends", most people don't have as many as you would think. Don't sweat that part too much. Make sure value the ones you have.

Good luck.
posted by 92_elements at 4:19 PM on December 6, 2009

Hey there, it seems like you might want advice about finding a therapist, or maybe someone to talk to. If you want to MeFi mail me, I will tell you about my own experience with a similar issue. I only want to write back and forth a couple of times. I am telling you this now so you won't feel like you've done something wrong when we stop talking to each other.

It seems like you have problems with maintaining appropriate boundaries. That means that you meet people and you can't figure out the right way to interact with them so that you both feel safe and respected.

You say in part of your post that you didn't really know each other. The way you were interacting with this person was not appropriate for a short friendship. People usually wait until they have had fun with someone and had pleasant interactions with them in a variety of situations before they start asking them for emotional support. Even then, it is inappropriate to rely so heavily on one person that they feel like they are responsible for your mental health.

I don't know if you did this, but avoid telling your friends "you're all I have", "I need you", "I couldn't get through this without you." It is inappropriate and they won't like it because they will feel like you are putting a heavy burden on them that they do not want.

I know you do not have many friends, and feel like you do not have enough support, so I suggest that you find a therapist. Try to find a therapist who is very structured and who will give you concrete goals. He/She should have very good boundaries so you can practice respecting others' boundaries. That means that your therapist should have policies in place about when and how you can contact them. The therapist should follow those policies.

Even when you have a therapist, though, you will not be able to talk to them all the time, so you will need to learn how to handle your emotions better when you are by yourself.

If you can find DBT exercises, or a DBT group, it would be very helpful for you.

Did this friend say anything or do anything that would indicate he needed more space? Have your other friends? Or do they just seem to disappear into thin air? Maybe there is a pattern you can see so you can stop yourself, say to yourself "I am behaving inappropriately towards this person" and channel your energy elsewhere for a while.
posted by kathrineg at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm the sort of friend that a lot of people latch onto in this way. Which you know what? I don't really mind most of the time, because I like helping people out and learning about them and seeing the world through their eyes. Though yes, it sometimes does become overwhelming and yes, some people wind up abusing this relationship and demanding too much time/attention/therapy/what-have-you. There are people who I take breaks from. It doesn't mean I don't care about them or don't want to be friends with them. Really, most often it's just a matter of knowing that I can't really give the kind of help they need. I can't save you, I want to say. Also, I am hoping they will reach out and talk to other people, maybe even get real help. That part can be really important.

Once you have a therapist, any "therapy" from your friends will be purely supplemental. It will make a big difference. You have someone whose JOB it is to listen and care and help. Now you can actually spend the time you have with friends learning about them and seeing the world through their eyes. Which, in turn, will help you in its own way.

You know what your issues are. Whenever you find yourself talking about them, stop yourself -- if you need to jot down a note to remind you later of something you want to discuss with your therapist, do that -- and then change the subject. Don't desperately just start asking empty questions ("But anyway, HOW WAS YOUR DAY? TELL ME ALL ABOUT YOU FOR A CHANGE"). It's okay to talk about yourself and your life -- it's just that there's a lot more of it than you usually get around to sharing because you're hung up on certain things.

In short, drawing people into your world needn't necessarily mean drawing them into your inner psychological chamber. Talk about what's happening around you. Talk about what's happening in the world. If they are game for getting the latest scoop on what's up with all your mess, they won't be shy about asking.
posted by hermitosis at 7:23 PM on December 6, 2009

In addition to giving your friends time and space for them to talk about themselves, too, also make sure you talk about positives too.

That is, when it's your turn to speak, don't just talk about problems. Talk about the things you're happy about, things you're totally relaxed about that are going well, etc. (don't have any? well, get some; that's part of what the therapist is for.)
posted by nat at 8:34 PM on December 6, 2009

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