I feel so uuuussseeedddd!
January 25, 2011 8:31 PM   Subscribe

I feel like a lot of my friendships are a one way street. I'd like to add another lane.

I'm the kind of person that people call when they want help doing some kind of monotonous task or when they need a shoulder to cry on. I am happy to be that person, but only if I am also the first person they call when they have something fun and positive going on, and a lot of the time I'm not. I feel like I put in a lot more to some of my relationships than I get out. I don't want to be the crisis friend unless I'm also a friend during the good times.

So my question is-- what is it about me that makes people think that I am that person? And I know that the obvious answer is: "because you are willing to be that person," and I think that's part of it, but not all.

I don't really think my problem is not being able to say "no." I can say no, I do say no... But I feel like I am approached for favors more than other people, which puts me in a position of saying no all the time or being a doormat. I don't want to be an unhelpful person, I don't want to be a person who won't do people favors. But I also don't want to give casual friends the impression that I am the person (out of a pool of closer friends) they should call if they need someone to help them de-louse their head on a friday night. (true story!) How do I find the middle ground?

But on the topic of saying no-- how do you say no when someone a few levels up from acquaintance is asking you to spend your night combing them for knits? A lot of what people ask me to do would be totally legitimate if I felt like they would do the same for me. I'm fine with telling people no in many situations, but it's really difficult to tell someone calling in tears "I'm sorry you're getting divorced, but you didn't even invite me to your wedding, so I don't know why I should spend the next hour listening to you cry about it." Why would that person feel like it was appropriate to call me in the first place? Is that normal, or is it some kind of vibe that I'm giving out?

oh, and I've seen the 'ask vs. guess' culture response on metafilter to preempt people from linking to it, but I think this is a different situation... because I wouldn't have trouble telling someone 'no, you can't stay with me' or 'no, I can't lend you $50 right now.' But I feel like the situations I outlined above are a little different... Maybe not. Let me know what you think.
posted by geegollygosh to Human Relations (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Do you call up other people to do fun things with? (And, I suppose, do you call them to be a shoulder to cry on/ask for help moving house?) It may just not occur to them that you, too, like romantic comedies or bowling or whatever their Friday night pastime is if they don't ever see you there.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:36 PM on January 25, 2011

Sometimes the not-so-close friend is a better choice for whining or bitching too. If they don't know the full story about a relationship, or a situation, you can frame it however you like and not worry so much about being called out about your own shortcomings. Plus, if and when things get better, you can drop that person and not be constantly reminded of the bad times.

It's a shitty thing to do to people, but I've seen it happen many times.

So I wonder whether getting closer to these people would solve the problem. Once you are really best friends, and friends with their partners and families and spend lots of time together, they will go elsewhere for their objective advice, for someone to show the negative side of their personality to, etc.
posted by lollusc at 8:56 PM on January 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

I wonder if you seem like you enjoy doing fun things with them. I don't think the problem is that you're the crisis friend; I think the problem is that you're not the fun friend. Start initiating plans to get drinks or go bowling or play tennis or go to a movie or whatnot.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:44 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't owe anyone your time and friendship and you are certainly under no moral or social obligation to let people use you. Heck, you're not even under any moral or social obligation to spend time with people who merely bore you!

So, use an iterative filtering process to weed out bad friendships and replace them with good friendships:

1. Stop spending time on people who just use you and/or aren't fun to be friends with.

2. Use the time you used to waste on bad friendships to go out and make new friends.

3. Repeat this process as necessary as you ascertain which of your new friends are users vs. which provide reciprocal friendship.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:53 PM on January 25, 2011

Keep score.

Literally make a note that if you do a favor to person A, you don't do another one until they have done one for you. If nothing happens spontaneously solicit one. If they turn you down and then don't very soon offer a different favor, distance yourself.

That friend who asked you to spend the night combing nits out of her/his hair? A week or so later you need to mention that getting your bathroom ceiling painted is going to be quite the job, wait for them to offer help, and if they don't say something like, "Hey, doing my ceiling would be more fun with two of us. Want to come over on the weekend and help me paint and watch (appropriate movie) while we wait for the first coat to dry?"

Ideally your friends know that they owe you one, and will pick up the cue that your talk about the bathroom ceiling (or some other chore) is a solicitation for reciprocation. This stuff tends to be unconscious though and people often have other plans on the weekend or can't deal with paint fumes, or know they would dribble paint on your floor, so there is a strong possibility they will turn you down. However if they don't offer you a counter favor very soon after turning you down they are a bad bet and may require up front communication.

"I helped you with your hair. Can I get you to drive me around in your car to help me run a couple of errands."

You are trying to play a game of tit-for-tat here and it's not quite working, so taking a careful look at the sequence and making some personal notes and even inventing favours for them to do for you to clear the balance sheet is not out of line.

You may just be being a tower of strength who never needs or wants to call her friends to cry on their shoulder, so they may have the problem of not being able to find favors to do for you. You may be brushing off their offers to help (I do that. I can't figure out why yet.) Or you may be disregarding various favors that they do for you to clear the balance sheet, for example if the hair-nits friend bakes you a chocolate cake and you don't like chocolate (or are uncomfortable feeling obligated) so you decide it doesn't count.

This is why having a bit of up front communication may be in order. If the response to "I helped you with your hair. Can I get you to drive me around in your car to help me run a couple of errands?" is "But I always stay late for you when you need help to finish your work," it's time to evaluate if you are discounting favors. But if the answer is "Umm...crap. I am almost out of gas money this week. Could we maybe copy a bunch of mp3's for you that you mentioned you liked?" you know you are still in the game and in the negotiating repayment stage.

Keep it fun if you can. I very much enjoy brushing and tending my dd's hair, a process we only got into as a regular habit and learned to both enjoy when she got lice and needed me to do this for her. It worked so well we do it for social time now. It's a real sensory pleasure to work with her hair. Getting you to do the nit combing may have been a huge imposition in the mind of the person who asked, as in asking you to deal with something icky, or they could have seen it as a small not-really an imposition at all, like a mutual grooming session.

For best results ask for favors they will enjoy doing -thus the bait of watching a movie between coats of paint or stopping for ice cream during the errand run. It might be fairer if they had to do something unpleasant in return for you doing something unpleasant but hopefully you are not trying to make them miserable, only make sure you are getting something back.

It occurs to me that your examples may indicate that you are regarded as a safe confidante and are therefore getting asked for things because your friend with the nits knows you would never blab it about the office that she picked up head lice where everyone else you both work with would. In that case you are supplying something more than usually valuable, not just time but trustworthiness and it may mean that you have to make it clear that your discretion ought to be paid for but you are open to return favors that don't involve discretion, such as a lift home with a twenty minute stop at Trader Joe's on the way.

Also watch your technique when you do ask for favors. Do you make it clear that you don't really want to ask and that they can refuse if they want to and you feel bad about even asking? Because if that is the case it could be that you are giving the impression that putting in two hours combing nits on the wrong side of town is worth a lot less than turning on the coffee machine tomorrow morning if they get in first. And with a presentation like that it would take a really socially adept other person to over ride your diffident request with "Of course I'd be glad to put the coffee machine on tomorrow! In fact I am going to make a point of coming in early so the coffee will be ready when you get here!" and then supplying bagels to go with the coffee too. Diffidence signals that what you are asking is of higher value than what you gave and they will probably automatically react to that with a refusal as it gives a much clearer cue to them than the memory of last week's combing session, especially if they are embarrassed about the nits and trying not to think about it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:40 PM on January 25, 2011

++restless_nomad. Are we talking about people who've consistently declined to do favors that you asked them to do, or are we talking about people who haven't spontaneously invited you to do fun/pleasant stuff or offered to do unsolicited favors? It seems you don't think you're a guess culture sort of person because you can say "no," but if you are hoping for little favors and treats that you haven't asked for, that's very guess-culturey. This matters. They might be happy to include you in the fun stuff if they knew you were interested.
posted by jon1270 at 2:44 AM on January 26, 2011

Just say no, and only help those who have developed a stronger bond with thee.
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:50 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd like to disagree with the idea that you should spend even MORE of your time monitoring what you've done for others vs. what they've done for you. That is a recipe for further unhappiness. Please do not literally keep score. Friendships are not a perfectly calibrated transaction.
posted by Bebo at 3:58 AM on January 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

Some people are really easy to talk to. You're one of those people. So am I. For whatever reason, be it an empathetic streak, a neutral expression, the ability to nod and interject "Mmm-hmm" at the right moment, you and I are the people everyone turns to when they need to talk. I almost parlayed that skill into a career in counseling until I realized I don't like always being the person who does the listening. Sometimes I want to talk, too! Or sometimes I just want to blend in and listen to the whole group, not just Person A talking about a recent breakup.

And how can you be sure that you're the only person your friends are asking for this kind of help? Maybe you just have an extra-needy set of friends. Start inviting people out to do fun things. Start telling these friends that the next time they go do X, you'd just love to come along. Try not to see it as a tit for tat situation, though. That will only end in heartache for you.
posted by cooker girl at 6:26 AM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Bebo has a good point that keeping score can result in more discontent. If it feeds into a pattern of resentment where you keep thinking, "They owe me and aren't paying up..." keeping score will definitely make you more unhappy.

Keeping score is a temporary technique useful so you can reality test. Somewhere between the extremes of you-donated-them-a-kidney-and-then-they-unfriended-you-on-facebook, and dambnit-the-whole-world-doesn't-just-owe-you-an-easy-living,-it-owes-you-admiration-and-obedience-and-apology-for-sharing-your-air lies the actual position you are in. Keeping score is for the purpose of determining exactly where on this scale you lie and then moving your position closer to the middle.

I do know that towers of strength can wake up one day to find that they are doing everything and that everyone else is spreading the news that they are an easy mark, but I also have reason to believe that when estimating "fair" human beings appear to be wired to see getting a slightly bigger piece for themself as being even. Keeping score entails checking if you remembered to ask for favours and if there are favours that the other person can do.

Keeping score is hopefully a temporary measure. If your instinctive people skills make you too self effacing you may have to practice this for awhile but with luck after you try it out on a few people you will get an idea that: They were using you and you should cut all contact immediately or if they are people you should keep working with but with modified interactions.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:53 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I and my SO are you, as well (except for the picking knits thing -- I don't know that I'd do that for anyone). We have a saying in our house that we're the first ones called for trouble, last ones called for fun. Ironically, however, until I saw what restless_nomad posted, I never really considered that it was actually *us* who encourage this, and not others who just come whining to our doorstep when things go in the crapper. I'd strongly suggest taking that suggestion to heart. And, you know, say no to knit picking.
posted by liquado at 7:10 AM on January 26, 2011

People tend to do this to people who don't seem to have many social options /friends. Essentially, who is free on the weekend and maybe a bit too eager to curry favor with me/get invites /hang out?

They don't invite you to things, assume others don't either, and therefore assume you're a bit desperate.

Solution : have a fun interesting social life, or at least fake it a little.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:46 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmm. I think a lot of what y'all are saying is true, in that I don't usually ask other people for favors, and when I do ask I am not very direct. But this question is less about how I get people to do me favors than about how to get myself out of relationships with people where I'm on the short list of people to call in a crisis but much further down the list as a social friend.

young rope-rider-- for what it's worth, 75% of the time I run into nit-girl is at parties, in fact we ended up at the same party later that night. But there might be some truth in what you're saying-- i.e. I may go too far trying to please potential friends, because I like having new friends. But I don't think it's that people think I don't have anything better to do.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2011

I don't usually ask other people for favors, and when I do ask I am not very direct. But this question is less about how I get people to do me favors than about how to get myself out of relationships with people where I'm on the short list of people to call in a crisis but much further down the list as a social friend.

Perhaps the reason why these requests are striking you as impositions may be that you envy your friends for being able to ask for help with mundane things.

I'm going to suggest that your asking them for things in return is the simplest and most direct way to a) get your needs met and b) get yourself "farther down the list" with those who cannot or will not reciprocate.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:38 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Perhaps the reason why these requests are striking you as impositions may be that you envy your friends for being able to ask for help with mundane things.

This can be so true. Sometimes we subconsciously want to avoid being a burden so much that we isolate ourselves and give no opportunity for others to connect with us.

I would say, evaluate what you are doing for people and if you don't feel like doing a favor, excuse yourself politely. Never do more than you are willing to cheerfully write off if there is no reciprocation.
posted by griselda at 10:48 AM on January 26, 2011

(Also, an easy way to let go of friendship debt is to to chalk it up to good karma. Hopefully the kindness you show others will come back to you in some form, if not directly. But don't pick nits if you don't want to.)
posted by griselda at 11:11 AM on January 26, 2011

You feel like you don't have a reason to say no, or that your reason might sound petty or unpleasant. But you do have a good reason in the cases you mentioned: "I don't feel like doing that for you, given the nature of our relationship." Obviously, you don't want to say that to a person asking a favor. You just want to say no in a reasonable way.

You say you want to get out of relationships with not-really-friends who call when they have a problem. You can ditch anyone for any reason by not doing friend-like things with them or for them. It can take time till they stop contacting you, but withholding your side of the "friendship" is the standard way of letting an aquaintance relationship die.

But first, you have to let go of the idea that you need a Very Good Reason to honor your own preferences. While you're getting used to that, it can help to be "ready to say no." You can't predict who will call or what they'll request, but you can have generic methods prepared. They give you breathing room so you can easy into your 'no' without sounding abrupt.
-A pause: can feel awkward, but it buys you time, and sort of warns them that you may say no.
-Repeat what they just asked: just say it back to them, as a statement or a question. "You want me to feed your cat while you're away for a week."
-Be vague: "I don't think that would work for me." "I wish I could, but unfortunately, no."

Also, even though you know several people who impose on you, they're individuals who don't know others are doing the same. I get really pissed when a few people cancel on me in a row, but it helps just to think of each one individually. Maybe there's one you wouldn't mind staying in touch with, if you stopped doing the stuff that makes you feel resentful.
posted by wryly at 12:14 PM on January 26, 2011

To expand a little on what wryly wrote, the all-purpose no-fail reply recommended by Miss Manners is "I'm sorry, that's just not possible."

Rude person: "But why not?"

You: "That's just not possible."

Rude person: "But blah blah blah reason! And blah blah blah other reason!"

You: "It's just not possible."

Repeat until they give up and drop it.
posted by Lexica at 2:37 PM on January 26, 2011

Are you fun to be with?
I know some wonderful people who are great at listening and helping but aside from that are quite boring. Should also mention that I love them dearly and always return favors back. But I avoid spending my fun time with them because they are too serious.
posted by ivanka at 3:35 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You: "That's just not possible."

Yes. I'm fond of this variant: "I'm afraid I can't, but it's flattering/kind/nice that you think so much of my skills to ask me. You might try [friend]/[technique] instead."

Sometimes people who are flippant about asking favors will get gushy with compliments in an effort to guilt you into a task. "Oh, but you're the best at picking nits! Nobody else would do as good a job! Please say you'll help!" So this is a way of turning the flattery back on them and still saying No. If they keep at it, say again, "It's lovely of you to think of me, truly, but I can't. Let me know how it goes."

It feels very good when you get the hang of it.
posted by griselda at 4:45 PM on January 26, 2011

Yeah, if you go too far out of your way you are sending out a big signal to users that says "hey, take advantage of me!".

Favors between friends should be pretty rare and definitely not for "getting to know you" friends. (there are some cultural differences here so this isn't true of everyone).

Richer/younger people sometimes take advantage because they're used to getting what they want without thinking about the cost. Are these people maybe spoiled in general? When I went to college I was shocked by the attitudes of the wealthy kids. Many were incredibly entitled about everything and would ask crazy favors like the nit thing.

If this is a circle of friends consider that you're being introduced/discussed as "sooooo nice". Which is a double-edged sword.

In some friend groups I'm the responsible one, in some groups I'm the wild one. People get an idea about you and they stick to it.

Also, offering favors without being asked can come across as a bit needy. I dont know if you do that or not. It sucks that being generous can lead to people taking advantage. Sorry people are being butts to you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:02 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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