bad friend + mefi = better friend?
May 8, 2012 2:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you manage feelings of frustration when someone in your life is behaving in a self-destructive way?

This can come up in a professional context (e.g. I may, in future cases, represent a victim of abuse who returns to the abuser or maintains contact with the abuser despite this being against their best interests). I am asking, however, because it has come up for me in a personal context. Someone who is a friend and with whom I would like to maintain a close and lasting relationship is behaving in a way that is fairly self-destructive. I've tried being a sympathetic listener and I've tried giving concrete advice, but there has been no change in this person's consistent behavior. That is, my friend consistently makes choices that result in their feeling miserable. In addition, I believe these choices are likely to have negative career repercussions.

My problem is that I have become incredibly impatient with this person because I see them making the same mistake over and over again and then feeling terrible as a result. I find myself judging my friend very harshly, and I really don't like having these cruel thoughts in my head.

I am worried that this is already impacting our friendship, because as soon as I sense that my friend is feeling terrible I react by wanting to wall myself off from it (especially at times when I myself am stressed). This is not the kind of friend I want to be. I also like to think I understand that people are flawed and accept them as they are, except that's clearly not happening in this case.

How do I get over my frustration with my friend for not making a change, not taking my advice, and constantly inflicting their misery on me? I realize that sounds selfish. I am trying to be honest about my feelings. I suspect ego is part of the problem (since obviously my advice is perfect and would solve all problems so why not take it).

My goal is to be able to interact with my friend without being overwhelmed by irritation and judgmental thoughts.

Thanks in advance for your help and advice.
posted by prefpara to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should clarify that one unique feature of this problem, and probably what is making it so difficult, is that this person is a constant presence in my life. I am trying to keep this vague so that my friend doesn't recognize this question as about us, but it's the equivalent of being in all the same classes. So I can't manage how much time we spend together as a way to minimize this problem.
posted by prefpara at 2:51 PM on May 8, 2012

You CAN manage what you talk about however. When they ask you for advice tell them you have already given them advice and nothing productive will come of rehashing the problem verbally. If you find their drama emotionally draining, tell them that you don't like hearing about their drama and talk about somehting in your own life. If they are pushing your boundaries on a consistent basis, rethink your friendship.

Honesty is the best policy, there is no need to be mean, but you can tell your friend what you have said in your question. Ask them to make your friendship a more balanced one where their self-inflicted drama does not overwhelm everything you are trying to bring the the friendship. And suggest they get a therapist to unload on - it sounds like they want the "constant positive regard" of a paid therapist from a free friend.
posted by saucysault at 3:04 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

View your role during these types of conversations as simply a sounding board. The person may not even want your advice. They may ask you, but that's because they want to talk about their own decisions and their own thoughts. You can also state a metaphor in order to contribute to the conversation. This might give the person a new perspective without the frustrations that you might experience if you flat out told them what to do.
posted by livinglearning at 3:19 PM on May 8, 2012

You don't have to be THE friend on this. Although I don't know either of you, I can bet that if you stop being "such an awesome listener," this friend will find someone else to talk about it with.

I had a friend who was having an affair with a married man, and obviously lots of drama ensued, and my tolerance for hearing about it quickly dissipated. I tried all different kinds of approaches to responding to her: advice, sympathetic support, stern upbraidings, etc. But it was all feeding her own dramas and dialogues in her head, and she wouldn't stop talking to me about it. Eventually I just kind of became a blank when she'd bring it up, like I didn't know what to say or how to answer. No advice, not really any support. She eventually found some "well you can't help who you love!!!" friends, and she stopped talking to me about it completely.

I personally don't think you should have to feel mean or like a bad person or bad friend for internally thinking "Holy shit, this person is doing some totally fucking stupid things. AGAIN."
posted by thebazilist at 3:25 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A quick second clarification: one problem is that even when my friend isn't explicitly bringing up complaints about how miserable they are, they indicate their misery by frequent deep sighs and other such signals. My sensitivity to this may be a sign of how much I am overreacting at this point.
posted by prefpara at 3:46 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah you do not always have to listen to your friend's drama, and you can communicate that to them in a polite fashion. Also it is not your job to make this person make good decisions, so that might relieve you of some of the pressure? It does for me sometimes.
posted by beefetish at 4:16 PM on May 8, 2012

I recently stumbled across a similar question - here it is and here is my favorite comment from the thread. I'm not sure this pertains exactly to you and your friend as you don't indicate what self-destructive behavior they engage in, but it seems widely applicable.
posted by krakenattack at 4:16 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking about this from your friend's point of view, because I could imagine someone I'm close to writing this about me. I have one close friend who really doesn't like it that I am really unhappy about X in my life. When I'm really upset about it, maybe crying or just really really dejected, she gets frustrated with me. She says things like, I've told you what you need to do about this but you don't do it, so you can't complain. This makes me not want to talk to her about stuff that upsets, besides X, because I feel like I can't trust her to be kind when I'm upset. And her comment makes me specifically upset that (a) I wasn't necessarily coming to her for a solution, I was coming to her looking for empathy/commiseration, and (b) the solutions she's given would have worked fine for her, because she doesn't have a problem with X. A solution for my life looks really different than the ones she has given.

So I'm thinking, yes, it's so frustrating when someone is always upset about the same thing and doesn't do anything about it. You can definitely say, I don't want to talk about that anymore, but that won't necessarily help your relationship, and could really hurt it. What you could do, though, is either commiserate (repeat back feelings - "That sounds like it's really frustating!" "Ugh, that's tough, I know what you mean") or ask what a solution would be that you could help with ("I want to help if I can, and I know I've suggested ______ before, but what do you think would be a solution?")/think more about what a solution would look like for that person, and why the others you've suggested haven't happened. (I'm sure my friend has no idea why I haven't just done Y to fix X, but I've had very little success in explaining it properly to her.)

(Rereading your question, it sounds like you've maybe tried all of this before, in which case I see how it might be best to just stop talking about whatever the issue is. I'd just recommend doing it in a gentle way, that doesn't close doors but just sort of leaves them slightly ajar. "I know that ______ has been really tough on you, and I know we've talked about it before and I want to continue supporting you, but when you ________, I feel _________...." etc etc)
posted by violetish at 9:26 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My problem is that I have become incredibly impatient with this person because I see them making the same mistake over and over again and then feeling terrible as a result. I find myself judging my friend very harshly, and I really don't like having these cruel thoughts in my head.

Have compassion for them. You don't have to agree with them nor support what they do but you can feel compassion for the situations they find themselves in and for the decisions they make.

wanting to wall myself off from it

This is actually not necessarily a bad strategy because:

(especially at times when I myself am stressed).

means that you want to put yourself first (which you should) but you feel bound by your friend's decisions and you are accumulating resentment towards them, which results in you feeling increasingly irritated with their decisions.

You do need to be putting yourself first here, even though this person is your friend. Your friend's decisions are their own and you can feel compassionate about the poor decisions they are making. But they are not yours to solve. Backing away from your friend emotionally will provide you with distance so that you don't feel as responsible as you currently do. How far you back away will be up to you.

It sounds like your friend is depressed - have you suggested that they see a therapist? It sounds like they need to be listened to and that's what a therapist (a trained professional) is there for.
posted by mleigh at 10:03 PM on May 8, 2012

I have been in situations like this and I empathize with how frustrating it is. I am generally a pretty positive person and I don't like being around lots of negativity. There is advice in this thread that you should just sit and listen to this, but like mleigh above, I believe that if this is impacting how you feel on a regular basis you need to take steps to take care of yourself. The first and most important strategy for me was removing my emotional attachment to my friends' situations. I had compassion for them because they were going through such hard times, but I also didn't let that upset me on a regular basis. On a day to day basis, sometimes I would listen and respond with "that sucks" or similar, but not feed into the drama by getting really engaged. The second thing I do is respond with positivity.

If I offer any advice or comments I point out the up side of things even if it's "This is just a moment in time, it will pass," or "The important thing is to make choices that really nurture yourself. Try not choosing the thing that makes you feel bad." etc. This strategy does one of two things, either the person does not want to hear the positive--they're too engaged feeling bad about the situation--and they stop talking about it and seeking me out, or they feel a little better which is gratifying for me. I have some friends who come to me specifically because they want to feel better and I don't mind that at all, I'm always happy to give someone a pep talk. I have some friends who know they don't like to talk to me when they feel really bad because they just can't handle someone so positive. It's a win/win for me. And there will always be plenty of people who like to engage in drama so my friends who want to wallow for a bit will have other people to be outlets for that.

I don't mean to come off as cold or unfeeling, I love my friends and I truly want them to be happy and make good choices for themselves. They are there for me when I'm feeling down and I truly value our relationships. They just know that I'm not interested in wading into their drama with them, I am just interested in what they can do to feel better. The really nice thing the way I relate to my friends has set up is that when I don't feel all that positive, they respond like I do by helping me feel positive about things rather than wallowing in the negative and making things worse.
posted by Kimberly at 6:05 AM on May 9, 2012

I think the way you prevent yourself from becoming frustrated with your friend is to establish boundaries. What I mean is, think about what would be an acceptable level of discussion for this topic. Maybe its okay if he/she brings it up once a week or an hour. Maybe you need a two month break from talking about it. Whatever you feel is appropriate is what you should go with. And then set the limit and enforce it. In this situation, I would strongly recommend that you just talk to him/her about it and be clear and specific. You could say something like: "X, I really enjoy our friendship and I love you to pieces, but I need _____." And then just briefly explain why. It sounds like your friend is leaning on you pretty hard, so you will need to diligently enforce these boundaries.

Second, I just wanted to say that I believe sometimes people need to "take their knocks" so to speak. What I mean is, sometimes people have to stay in or return to a bad situation before they can get out of it successfully. Society tells us that relationships are "hard work" and people interpret that to mean they should put all their effort into trying to save/fix something, even if its not fixable or worth fixing. Its a good thing to keep in mind when your friend is talking about it.
posted by emilynoa at 8:32 AM on May 9, 2012

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