She said "just friends". We are. Now what?
January 6, 2012 12:47 PM   Subscribe

What techniques can I use to quell or quieten emotional turmoil? Avalanche of special inside.

I am not a person who develops interpersonal connections easily. I have a few very good friends, and feel fairly distant to people outside of this circle, though I get on with most easily - I don't have difficulty interacting. As a result, friends are precious and I am also slow to develop serious enough interest in someone to consider asking them out. Some less-than-optimal experiences with other methods have reinforced this conviction.

So in short, it's necessary that I consider someone a good friend before anything else (see where this is going yet?) and it is awkward if I bump my nose against the reality of anything else not being wanted. I find myself at this point now.

First off, I'm not dropping this friendship, and I know from experience that a break won't change things, so no arguments along these lines will be considered. I'm capable of behaving in a way that won't make my friend feel bad, I'm only concerned about dealing behind the scenes with feelings that Just Won't Go Away. Part of the issue is that I was turned down in a way that allows for the possibility of a different answer at an unknown future date. I know, intellectually, that the little voice encouraging me on this point is not helping things in any way, but I haven't been able to shut it up. I would absolutely still be having this issue if the answer had been 'never', but possibly with slightly less intensity.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that meeting up recently with a friend from school who had inspired similar feelings (we'd stayed in touch with occasional meetings every year or so) reminded me of exactly why I thought so highly of her, and I learned that neither of us had changed so much that I'd think differently. I don't believe in 'one true love' or anything similar and my reason is unable to conceive of why it should be wrong to feel equally, or near equally strongly attracted to two people at once (though multiamory doesn't interest me at all) but I somehow feel guilty about it.

Basically, I want to stop feeling like my emotions are the universe's favourite snow-globe.

Ok, so that's the main party, but the other guests are:
- I have in the past dealt with serious levels of depression. I'm pretty much out of that hole now, but I still encounter self-esteem issues, and on my darker days I still lack conviction that I'll find someone.
- I have a pretty high sex drive. I am a teensy bit frustrated. Please don't suggest going solo with porn. I don't think bars and hookups are inherently wrong, but the point at which I'd be comfortable getting naked with someone is the point at which I might as well just ask them out anyway.
- I am dubious about therapists. I spent a fair amount of time there in my teens, and all I got was a label for my social difficulties and the recognition that I could hide depression from anyone including the people who were supposed to know how to deal with it.

If it's relevant, I am male, under 30 and in the UK.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a fair amount of time there in my teens, and all I got was a label for my social difficulties and the recognition that I could hide depression from anyone including the people who were supposed to know how to deal with it.

My teenaged son is suffering from depression and anxiety right now, pretty seriously actually, and his experience with therapy has been similar: "even though you don't want to be here, I'm going to label you as flawed and then teach you exactly what you need to say to avoid being in this room with me." He is, finally, seeing a CBT/mindfulness-type of therapist with his eyes wide open and his defenses down enough to benefit some from it, but even in this more hopeful setting, his therapy experience as a teenager is vastly different to my experience as an adult.

This is to say you might want to reconsider therapy now that you are an adult. In order to do it right, you have to accept the idea that the way you view and interact with the world, the way you think, the actions you take and reactions you have, are ALL WRONG. It really pulls the rug out from under you. It's hard enough as an adult to do that, when you have some experience in the world and some accomplishments to fall back on, but it's asking a lot of a teenager who already feels like crap and is in the social/academic crucible that is high school.

So I would suggest giving grownup therapy a try. It's really a completely different thing than the teenaged variety.

Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Now? Now you think of her as just an awesome friend, and you work on yourself. Not because her answer might change if you get a little more self esteem and become fitter and more interesting and even more awesome than you already are. Oh no! This isn't for Her, it's for you.

Because you are working on becoming fitter and more awesome and more emotionally resilient and mentally Well in order to a) distract yourself from thinking about her, b) get happier, and c) become the awesome sort of partner you'd like to have for yourself.

It may not entirely distract you from thinking about her that way. But hopefully you'll feel better about yourself and find yourself in a place where you more often have happier things to think about.

(PS - Therapy helped me with this, and it wasn't the first therapist that helped. YMMV)
posted by ldthomps at 1:15 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and while working on yourself may not make her change her answer, it Has been known to happen that "not now" meant "not until you're cool with yourself and can be an awesome partner". At least it worked that way for my ex-boyfriend with his future (awesome) wife.
posted by ldthomps at 1:17 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

In order to do it right, you have to accept the idea that the way you view and interact with the world, the way you think, the actions you take and reactions you have, are ALL WRONG.

What? That hasn't been my experience at all. It's more like, you have to accept that in order to change the parts of your life that aren't working for you, you might have to try some new things. But it doesn't mean everything you do, think, and feel is WRONG. That's a lot of shame to carry around.
posted by liketitanic at 1:22 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey! Sounds like I'm a lot like you. I develop friendships intensely but slowly, I tend to want to become friends with people before I feel comfortable acting on romantic interest, I have been turned down by friends when I tried to advance our relationship, and I have definitely dealt with issues of depression and low self-esteem in the past. I'm a 30 year old male. So the good news is (first part of the good news, anyway): you're not alone.

Another thing I'm thinking I have in common with you is an instinct to couch difficult topics in obscure language to avoid the fear and maybe shame? of speaking about them directly. So yes, I get it, it's scary, but I'm having a little bit of difficulty ascertaining your actual question here. You approached a friend about becoming more than friends and were turned down (vaguely or politely or in some way that leaves the door open a little), right? And now you're trying to figure out how to maintain that relationship despite continuing to have feelings for this person. Correct me if I got any of that wrong.

The first issue you have to address is:

(1) you can't just make feelings go away by wishing it were so. You can't just wish to stop feeling something, no matter how hard you think at it. What you can do is distract yourself, or sublimate those feelings somehow, which is good news too because

(2) no matter whether or not you think the issue is still open in the future, you must act for the present as if it is not. Your friend is unavailable or uninterested right now, which is the only pressing fact with which you need to deal. The future is the future, and you'll be prepared for it as it comes but you can't plan for it. There is a chance that whatever it is they said ("I'm not interested in a boyfriend right now" is a common one) was their idea of a polite way of letting you down, yes, but that's not something you need to really consider too deeply either. And whether or not you can continue this friendship without dropping it is not entirely your decision. Deal with what is in front of you. This relationship, right now, isn't going to happen. And so the summation of 1 & 2 is

(3) any energy spent on these feelings for this person is currently wasted or harmful. Do literally anything else. Do whatever you have to do to not think about it. Speaking as a fellow-traveler in the world of depression, sometimes it feels like your emotions are what resolves the things around you into the shapes they have. That you are how you feel. Exactly the opposite is true. You feel what you do. Get up, get out, do things, be active. Hang out with some of those close friends of yours, so long as they don't remind you of this person. Fake it. Fake it until it's not fake anymore.

You'll be okay. This happens. And it shakes you up and gives you all this raw emotional energy that you have nothing to do with except direct inside, and sometimes huge volumes of self-directed frantic/negative energy are a bad thing. Direct it outward, into something. And then just wait. Gradually this will be less and less of a deal, gradually you'll make more close friends (seriously, it takes time I know but it happens) and gradually you'll find somebody else you're willing to take a chance on. You don't have to do things that feel unnatural, like dating around or going to bars. Just do something with yourself and give it time.
posted by penduluum at 1:23 PM on January 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

You sound like someone who is deeply protective of yourself with strangers. That is fine: there's nothing wrong with that. It's gotten you this far.

But you also sound like someone who, perhaps because he is deeply protective of himself with strangers, is less willing to protect himself with people who he has identified as friends.

The impression that I get is of someone focused on carrying himself ever so gently, in such a way that you do not appreciate the dangers you are exposed to by carrying yourself ever so gently.*

I think (since you asked) you should think about working on yourself. Take some risks and get some scars and figure out that getting scars is not the worst thing in the world.

It also sounds like you might benefit from having someone to talk to: I know you had a bad experience in therapy but a good therapist can help you accurately assess the risks that you are considering taking and how you are responding to them. There are a lot of bad therapists out there, but that doesn't mean therapy is a total waste of time. Give yourself permission to try different therapists out until you find one that works for you.

Be kind to yourself, especially around friends. If being "just friends" with someone is painful, acknowledge the pain but also that you are choosing it and that there is nothing wrong with choosing something else.

*For instance, because your friendships are few, you may have too much invested in your few friendships to set boundaries that work for you.
posted by gauche at 1:25 PM on January 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

To understand the physiology of emotions and how to use that physiology to calm yourself, read the Buddha's Brain
posted by allelopath at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2012

I think allowing yourself to feel the feeling is how you get through it. Acknowledge it without accepting all of the baggage you feel like adding to it automatically. You can't escape it, you can only work with it.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:39 PM on January 6, 2012

She isn't that special. There are billions of people on the planet. Don't rob life of its richness and complexity by believing that someone is worth obsessing over. Use your imagination. So how I would deal with "feelings that just won't go away," is I would tell myself, "Damn, that sucks, but she isn't the only person in the world." Don't fool yourself into thinking that because you have difficulty connecting with others that this is some grand, unique opportunity. You've said it yourself when you mention being attracted to another woman. See? It will happen again. And again.

Just don't feel guilty about being attracted to two people. Just don't! Everyone is attracted to everyone. In my opinion, it's one of the finest experiences in life. You don't have to DO anything about your attraction, you can just simply enjoy it as a solo feeling if you'd like. But you're not even in a relationship, so you especially have nothing to feel guilty about.

I think you need to believe that her answer is "NO," and it will never change, because that's the reality right now. If you want to be friends with this person, just eliminate the possibility from your mind that anything will ever happen. Waiting around is not only a waste of your time, it's annoying to the person that has told you it isn't going to happen anytime soon.
posted by Elizabeth907 at 1:50 PM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

What techniques can I use to quell or quieten emotional turmoil?

Meditation is a very good tool for this. You'll need to set aside time for it every day though, not just when you're stressed.

the recognition that I could hide depression from anyone including the people who were supposed to know how to deal with it.

Approaching therapy from the point of view that you want to work on your problems will probably have a better outcome. I'd give it a shot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:52 PM on January 6, 2012

So I read Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong recently and there's some really helpful stuff in there that might benefit you.

You must accept that there is absolutely no chance of anything romantic happening with your friend. Game over. Done. Finito. She gave you the answer, and the answer was NO.

On the upside, you now have a genuine friend, someone who went through that awkwardness and stuck by you. A good friend is way more valuable than a potential SO (which are everywhere, if meet-cute movies can be believed). Was she really your friend before, or were you being so careful to present yourself in a certain way because she might be a potential love opportunity that you were masking yourself so as not to destroy her theoretical interest (which you are now doing with this old school friend)? Well, now you don't have to. You can be that truer, imperfect version of yourself. You can ask her about things you find vulnerable, and not be afraid, and trust that she is being honest in return. She says she is your friend. Trust her.

"Jane, be honest, do I look like a snappy fellow who would be fun to date, or do I look like a lazy schlub?"

Now you are free to ask the question and hear the answer for what it is. A friend's opinion. And if you think her answer is crap (maybe she finds blue shoes really hot), you don't have to take her advice and run out and buy blue shoes just because you're trying to figure out the magical key to her underpants. SWEET FREEDOM.

Sounds like you are giving away a lot of your power to your friends. You hang a lot of your feelings on their feelings towards you. "As a result, friends are precious and I am also slow to develop serious enough interest in someone to consider asking them out." You have limited yourself to a very narrow field. Think about what you might need to feel and accept about yourself in order to be open to asking out acquaintances or strangers, whom you have less invested in approving of your romantic intentions. And also consider that if you make friends with secret romantic designs, you aren't being your real self at all, even to these close friends.

Then they reject someone they don't even know, and you had a sham friendship.

How sad is that?
posted by griselda at 2:15 PM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Taking literally the main question. One way to quieten internal turmoil that has worked for me is just counting in your head. The emotions and loopy thought loose their hold if inner voice is going 1,2,3,4... 500. You can think and act while doing that, but not with that damning intensity.
posted by Free word order! at 3:03 PM on January 6, 2012

I would add that quieting internal turmoil is easier by NOT keeping yourself in a state of constant "open heart surgery" by being honest about whether you can even really be friends with this person right now. I'm not saying the friendship won't work, but some times people really do need [ahem] "space".

Unless you are the incredibly rare individual who can really turn off those feelings you had and completely reframe how you view the relationship and what you want from it, there is a real possibility that you will end up just torturing yourself with some on going glimmer of hope or "what if". I've certainly done that in the past, and it's horrible and painful and self-defeating. I would suggest you give yourself permission to step away and focus on taking care of yourself for a bit or investing in other (possibly new) friendships at least for a while.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:32 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

" ... I have a few very good friends ... . As a result, friends are precious and I am also slow to develop serious enough interest in someone to consider asking them out ... So in short, it's necessary that I consider someone a good friend before anything else ... and it is awkward if I bump my nose against the reality of anything else not being wanted. "

I'm trying to parse this - I get a sense that in some ways you are investing a lot of time in these friendships because you see a possibility in a romantic relationship developing and when that doesn't happen you are obviously feeling bereft? If so, you're wrapping a lot of potential and unacknowledged emotions up in the friendships - that's a lot for you, and them, to bear.

The medium to long term solution is to find friends who are just that - friends. Cultivate relationships with people who you find interesting or stimulating, or with whom you share interests. Because those people will know other people, and as your circle widens, you are very likely to find yourself meeting lots of potential partners through these friends - and you also have all the benefits of a bigger pool of real, uncomplicated friendships to work with.

Short term - get physically active and tire yourself out - decorate your house, go for walks, whatever. I always find doing something mindless and tiring helps me to settle when my mind is ablaze.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:09 PM on January 6, 2012

I have similar friendship/romance issues which I'm currently trying to sort out in my own head. I'm also completely unwilling to give up on the friendship and not really able to just go out and find another girl to distract me.

If you are like me you are probably very introspective and spend a lot of time just thinking which pretty much equates to torturing yourself at this point. I think the only solution to this is to distract yourself with work, exercise, hobbies or whatever. Meditation also helps me a little but I find it harder to empty my mind at the times when I really need it to be empty if that makes any sense.

Recently I've found writing letters to the friend I'm fixated on has helped. I mostly don't send them to her but the act of writing down my thoughts clarifies them for me and has a cathartic effect. In fact I think it's probably best not to send them. Sometimes I need a small amount of alcohol to get the words flowing.

The other thing I realised is that I really only have one close male friend (I'm a heterosexual guy) and so something I'm working on is developing closer bonds with my other guy acquaintances.

I suspect, unfortunately, that time is the only thing which really works...
posted by neilb449 at 2:22 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Ironmouth has it. Mindfulness meditation is also good training for dealing with things in that way, if the approach appeals to you; it will help you learn to observe your inner turmoil and let it go, rather than wrestling with it which only makes it hang about.
posted by flabdablet at 5:23 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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