How to deal with an insensitive friend.
August 17, 2010 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Suggestions on how to deal with a friend who is unwittingly insensitive to others despite being quite sensitive herself. I would like to figure out a tactful way to push back on specific insensitive comments. What is the best way to do this?

I love this friend and do not want to end the friendship. I do limit my time I spend in close quarters.

I am very close to her, and am one of the few people who can push back with her, and one of the few people she very rarely opens up to. The reason for this, is because she is estranged and essentially abandoned by her mother. I also have had similar experiences so we connect on this level.

Examples of her insensitivity:
- constant negative comments
- others plan thing and/or do things for her, never any acknowledgment
- never doing things for other people

Once I said to her, "It's hard when you always say negative things." And she said "that's cause there's nothing good to say." I have kind of decided that I want to push back a little more on her behavior.

Some of you may ask why am I friends with this person. She is fun, and funny and smart and we have common interests. So here is my question.

What is the best way to approach this situation?
How to handle someone who is very sensitive and doesn't take criticism well?
How to handle someone who is deeply insecure?
posted by E-Boogie to Human Relations (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You can point out to her that even if her criticisms or complaints are valid, she should express herself in a tactful way in order to avoid needlessly offending people. You can give examples of this (I won't give examples because I don't know what she has actually said, other than that it is constantly negative).
As for the fact that others do things for her but she never does things for others, those people who are doing things for her should stop doing things for her. As long as people are willing to do things for her even though she won't do things for them, there is nothing you can do about this. Perhaps you are one of the people who does things for her; you can stop doing that. You can also explain to her why you are stopping, if she asks about it.
And how to handle someone who is deeply insecure? Carefully.
posted by grizzled at 3:32 PM on August 17, 2010

There really isn't a good way to approach it. You are guaranteed to hurt her (or at least appear to hurt her), and unfortunately that's by design: her behavior has probably come from her defense mechanisms.

You would want to see what motivates her, and perhaps work in that way. However, she's guaranteed not to change unless she wants to. Clearly, saying, "This really hurts me. Could you please try not to do that?" isn't enough, since she's shown herself to be insensitive to other people's needs -- including yours. That comment that you mentioned: OUCH.

She sounds like she has all of the power in this relationship. Are you sure that there's nobody else who could provide that kind of support or share the same interests? Because it sounds like what you're getting out of it is way less than what you're giving, and that can get awfully draining. Walking on eggshells is difficult and can ultimately become abusive, and you may find yourself letting some really awful behavior slide (like what you mentioned above) because you've grown to see it as par for the course with her. You also might let it slide because it's easier than getting embroiled in the drama that surrounds her.

Ultimately, her behavior can reflect back on you -- people might see the relationship and wonder why you're friends with her. You've already articulated that in this question.

I highly suggest you look at this (referenced in this post by Pope Guilty). It sounds like you're playing along with her "game" (we all have one, to some degree), and that's why she can get away with the sensitive/insensitive routine. If you don't play by those rules, she can't have as much of an impact, and she'll slowly learn that either a) the game won't fly anymore or b) she needs new players. And then the decision will be up to her.

To be a good friend, you need to take care of yourself.
posted by Madamina at 3:47 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm thinking the problem is with her selfawareness (or lack thereof.) Maybe you can start asking her "If someone said that to you, how would that make you feel?" and then insist she really answer the question.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:55 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I actually came here to suggest something similar to Alia. When she's needlessly critical, I would say "you wouldn't respond well if it were me saying [X] to you, you know." If her behavior gets bad enough, then her friendship may not be worth the trouble, and the true-friend thing would be to confront her: "Your behavior lately has made me wonder whether it's worth the trouble to be your friend"—something like that. She's certain to take it badly, but it might be enough of a slap in the face to get her to straighten up and fly right.

I would also stop going out of my way to do her favors, knowing that they won't be appreciated or reciprocated. The way I see it, if she doesn't appreciate the favor, you're not losing anything by not doing the favor—and neither is she.

The reason for this, is because she is estranged and essentially abandoned by her mother

This might be an explanation (or might not), but it's not an excuse.

Deep insecurity is a tough one. The only thing I've seen cure that is time.
posted by adamrice at 4:09 PM on August 17, 2010

i have friends like this & maybe i've been a friend like that before. i can tell you what i've learned. sometimes the question becomes "is this person trying to be hurtful?". if they are, then it might be worth finding out what the hurt is about.

but sometimes, the person might not have the words or the tact to express themselves in another way (sort of like those southern belles that can say the harshest things in the sweetest way).

2ndarily, i think how you approach the friend is equally important. initially, i try to be light about it b/c i think that the person is probably already feeling badly (hence the insensitive comments). so i might say, aw dude really? it's not that serious or ouch" if you want to try a less head-on approach, it really depends on what will make the person feel less under the spotlight so they have a opportunity to address/correct the situation.

my cousin is a pro at this. her feathers rarely, if ever, get ruffled. she doesn't seem to personalize other people's anger, insensitivity & harshness so she remains emotionally agile and able to respond sensitively.

i commend you for wanting to keep the relationship! good luck!
posted by UltraD at 8:52 AM on August 18, 2010

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