I discussed a friend's private, very personal, problem with my own friends, and now I feel terrible for doing so. Can I fix this?
May 15, 2012 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I discussed a friend's private, very personal, problem with my own friends, and now I feel terrible for doing so. Can I fix this?

Recently my friend - "X" - called me with a very personal problem related to a complicated LTR, an unexpected pregnancy, and a paternity question. It is very complicated, I am worried about how it will unfold, and I feel - even now - very confused how to provide support. It freaked me out. I found out right as I was headed to a small girls' night stay-at-home gathering with five of my friends. Later, when the discussion turned (without my input) to related topics (reproductive health laws and experiences, etc.) I started talking about why I was late, in regard to X's phone call. These people are not friends with X --- X is hundreds of miles away from these other friends and I. However, X is a best friend of mine, so even though they don't know her, they could probably figure out who it was based on the details. I feel terrible that I talked about this, especially since in followup weeks one or two women asked me about her, and how she is doing. And now that I think about it, they probably do know who it is, since her LTR is a recurring problem and source of drama, and I've talked about it before. UGH. I know I talked about this because I am scared and stressed about how to help her, and this group of women is very close to me, and very smart and knowledgable about resources. But I feel bad that I talked about it to people, since it's X's private thing, not mine. Part of me wants to just make something up to pretend it's not an issue any more. Short of that or inventing a mind-erasing machine that I can park outside of our next gathering, is there anything I can do about what I've done? My friend X didn't say "Don't tell anyone" but it is implicit due to how sensitive this topic is. I should have realized that, but am worried about her, and I don't know how/when to advise her. I even just called a crisis line (non-judgmental, pregnancy and abortion focused) to see if the line could be a resource for her, but also to vocalize that I am confused and scared. And then I think -- see there I go again, talking about this! And now here. Ugh. But I can't sleep and I am not doing well letting go of this and not internalizing X's situation. What do I do now?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You do nothing, unless the subject is brought up by your friends. Most likely, they won't bring the topic up again, but if they do, tell them that you mentioned this private subject in a moment of weakness, and it's not something that you'd like to discuss, and would appreciate if they wouldn't discuss it among themselves.

To bring it up again in any way is to invite more drama to a subject that isn't yours. Just let it settle. It's probably a bigger deal in your mind because you breached confidence, but if it becomes a topic of conversation, that's when you nip it in the bud.
posted by xingcat at 6:20 AM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]

Okay, you've got two things going on here.

1. You discussed someone's private business with some girlfriends. You didn't name names. Don't fret. Chances are it will never get back to X, and if it does, you can apologize and explain that the topic came up and since her situation was on your mind it seemed natural to discuss it to see if anyone has had a similar experience.

2. You have taken on X's problem as your own. It's not. It's her problem. She has to solve it herself. The best support you can provide is to listen to her, to bounce her ideas back to her and to support her in whatever decision she makes. Do not offer advice, do not offer to solve her problem for her. It's not your place.

You need to back off. Your girlfriend has made some mistakes and now she needs to deal with the consequences of her actions. Whatever she decides, it's HER decision.

Be her friend, but do not get wrapped up in the drama. It seems to me that you're WAY too involved in this aspect of her life and it's inappropriate. You didn't make the decisions she's made, you didn't get her pregnant. Ultimately you will not be living her life for her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:25 AM on May 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

You weren't gossiping about your friend. You blurted out something you maybe shouldn't have, but your intentions were to find her more support, and to find support for yourself. Supporting our friends is something we sometimes need the help of others in. It may not be ideal what happened, but relax. Your friends sound caring -- they've asked about your friend in trouble -- so you could mention to one or two of them you feel bad about saying anything.
posted by bwonder2 at 6:25 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

You talked about her in an anonymised way, and if you feel really guilty about that you can tell her that you talked about the issue in general terms with people you trust but named no names. You haven't done anything that bad.

You should remember that you can't be strong enough to help someone if you let it overwhelm you too. An outside voice is valuable, but your level of emotional stress means you are running the risk of losing your ability to give helpful advice.
posted by jaduncan at 6:41 AM on May 15, 2012

Mention to your local friends that you're sorry you brought it up, because you realize now you were sharing information you shouldn't have. Presumably this experience has convinced you not to share any more of her story as it develops, so perhaps next time they ask you about follow-up information would be the ideal moment.

"Anything more about my friend? She's doing okay. I was just anxious for her that day because I'd gotten off the phone with her right before I came over, so I was kind of using you guys to help me work through my feelings. Now that I've thought about it, I wish I hadn't said anything; she'd be really embarassed if she thought that I'd talked about her. I know you don't know her personally, but I still feel bad."
And "she's doing okay", or something comparably vague, is all you say about her.
posted by aimedwander at 6:42 AM on May 15, 2012 [19 favorites]

I've definitely been there where I wish I could just un-talk for a while. I definitely have problems with blurting things out. And in my long and storied career as a blurter-outer, the best advice I have to give is just let this one go and learn from it. There will be times in the future when friends tell you things and this will be a valuable lesson in that you'll remember that saying something to someone else made you feel like crap afterwards, so hopefully you can keep that in mind and not do it again.

Also: as much as you want to help your friend in a difficult position, you're not doing her any favors by taking on her problems as her own. If supporting her means you need someone to support *you,* you're taking this far too personally. Be there for her, but then when you hang up the phone remember that her problems aren't your problems. It's tricky for sure when you care about someone and want to help - but friendships, like all relationships, need healthy boundaries.

Also also: I truly don't think you've done anything wrong by talking about it in anonymous way to other friends in a private setting. The best thing you can do for yourself is just to recognize that you don't like how you feel about yourself when you do this and simply not do it again. In the situation for follow-up, I would say something like "It was so helpful to talk this through with you guys, thanks so much. Things are going ok right now and I really appreciate being able to vent a bit." and leave it at that. If your friends feel like they've helped *you* they're much less likely to ask for updates.
posted by sonika at 6:46 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think there's anything wrong at all with talking about an anonymous friend with people who don't know them.
posted by empath at 6:51 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

You are human, you did nothing "wrong". Say nothing. If there's an inquiry, respond in a friendly way with: "You know, I'm going to take this off my list of conversation topics -- it's X's private business."
posted by thinkpiece at 7:00 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

You didn't do anything wrong, exactly, but your friends now know you as the sort of person who uses moments of confidence as conversation fodder, and they will be less likely to confide in you, because they suspect you will talk about their situation to your other friends sometime in the future. Just keep that in mind.
posted by deanc at 7:16 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

i 2nd empath.
posted by anthropomorphic at 8:15 AM on May 15, 2012

Just tell your local friends when they ask about it that you're feeling bad about bringing it up to them in the first place because it feels like an invasion of her privacy, and so you'd rather not talk about it any further and you hope they'll understand. If they're decent friends they'll drop it from now on. (You could also raise it with them proactively rather than wait until they ask about it again, if you think that would make you feel better rather than sitting around stressing about if/when they'll ask about it. Either way, I bet they'll understand.)

And while sharing her story with your local friends is a complex issue that's arguably a problematic thing for you to do (but also arguably okay-- I don't think it's necessarily clear cut)... I think you shouldn't feel guilty at all about using anonymous sources, like a crisis line or AskMe, to support you in supporting her. It's really understandable that you have strong emotions in a situation where someone you love is struggling and is turning to you for support and help. There's nothing wrong with you getting help, advice, information, and emotional support related to "her issue" because clearly it's "your issue" too-- of course it's not nearly as big or personal for you as it is for her, and it's not appropriate to act like it is, but when people we care about are going through tough times that affects our lives too and we don't need to feel guilty about acknowledging that. You are scared and stressed and can't sleep because of this, it's clearly a major issue in your life... it's okay to think about yourself and figure out the assistance and coping mechanisms to get yourself to a better place.

So yeah, I think you should definitely lean on anonymous sources of support and advice (call the crisis line as much as you need to! come back to AskMe next week and we'll do the best we can! talk about it with your therapist if you have one!) without feeling guilt or shame or regret. And as far as people in real life, it's a little trickier to balance the importance of protecting her privacy and the importance of you getting support and advice... but even though you should put her first, it's still a balance, you don't have to feel bad about putting yourself in the equation too. By taking into consideration her feelings on privacy (some people would feel totally embarrassed and violated by having things like this shared with strangers, some wouldn't care at all, most are somewhere in-between), how vague you keep the details of the story/identifying details about her, whether the real-life people have ever heard of her or will ever meet her... you can try to figure out who and how to talk to about this in a way that seems right to you.

Good luck to both of you!
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agree with aimedwander. If any of your friends refers to it again, tell them that what you discussed with them wasn't your story to tell, that you were indiscreet in a moment of emotional stress, and you hope they'll understand.

You weren't gossiping--you were turning to one group of friends with your distress on behalf of another friend not personally known to them. Yes, that is not optimally discreet or respecting of your first friend's privacy, but people make mistakes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:22 AM on May 15, 2012

At first, I was like, "Oh shit," until I got to the part where she is hundreds of miles away. What you said isn't going to impact her and you were speaking in good faith to close friends. You don't need to worry about it. When people ask you about the story, say, "Everything is okay. I probably shouldn't talk about it anymore, because it is kind of her deal and I think she'd like to keep it private."
posted by amodelcitizen at 8:35 AM on May 15, 2012

They're asking out of concern and empathy, not because they are nosy or want to get in her personal business. They don't know her, but they know you, and you were upset about it so they want to follow up and make sure everything okay.

You talked about it with them for support. This is not gossip. Gossip goes like "Oh hey, do you know X? Well, Y and Z just happened to them!" Gossip may or may not be malicious, like "revel in her misery because this crap happened" and the purpose of sharing is to get more people to know about events.

This was you getting support for your role in your friend's life. It's hard to be a support person, and sometimes you need support yourself.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:36 AM on May 15, 2012

Are these people ever likely to meet?
posted by spaltavian at 8:43 AM on May 15, 2012

Write yourself a pass for making a mistake and learning your lesson.

You spoke out of turn out of a sense of sorrow and empathy. You're entitled to your own sorrow on behalf of your friend and you sought some help from your own friends. Yeah, you probably should have followed the "three can keep a secret if two are dead" maxim, but we all make mistakes. As others said upstream, you didn't do it with malice or to gossip.

If it comes up again do as aimedwander said and thank them for their concern and state that you wish you hadn't said anything. They'll respect your discretion and appreciate that you'll keep this in mind in the future when they open up to you.
posted by phearlez at 9:26 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your intent in anonymously sharing your friend's troubles appears to me to be coming from a place of concern and a desire to help that friend, therefore I don't think you should be overly worried about speaking to your circle of friends. Add the caveat that what you share with them is private and you expect their discretion.

The fact they are asking you follow up questions is a mark that they are good friends themselves. It is hard to be a 'helper' as you are in this case, where do YOU go for help in processing all the information you've absorbed from your friend in distress? Why, you turn to your own friends.

As long as you were not sharing your friend's troubles for gossipy or malicious reasons, I personally feel you have nothing to worry about as long as the people with whom you share the information know that their discretion is appreciated.
posted by kuppajava at 10:01 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think you did anything wrong as long as your motivation was genuinely to try and figure out what to do in what is clearly a difficult situation (rather than just gossip) - which is sounds like was the case. Some of the above posters have said things to the effect of "this isn't your problem, don't stress about it." But in real life, that can be WAY easier said than done, especially if this is a close, long-time friend who you do really want to support (and don't we all sometimes need a friend to support US in difficult times?). If you're genuinely upset and conflicted about how to help your friend, I think it's appropriate to turn to your friends for help, as long as you do it in a sensitive way (i.e. anonymous, don't ask friends who are also her friends, etc.). Next time this group of friends gathers, I might say something to the effect of: "I feel like I may have overstepped in sharing this info the last time we got together, but I was feeling really conflicted about how to deal with it. I would really appreciate it if you would keep this to yourself and not spread the story further." Then if there are one or two close friends you need to continue to lean on/ask advice of, you can do that with an understanding that things go no further.
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:10 AM on May 15, 2012

I don't get all these responses saying you didn't do anything wrong. Of course you did something wrong--it may have been with good intentions, and it sounds like really, it isn't that bad and all you need to do is a little damage control. But your instincts were right in that the need for privacy was implicit. So, that's just something to keep in mind in the future.

However, I don't think you should beat yourself up about it, or really, feel all that guilty about it. Being wrong isn't the same thing as being evil. Everyone makes mistakes. Would you feel this guilty if you had told someone that 2+2 = 5 accidentally? No, you'd just correct yourself and move on.

Just tell your friends that "Hey, keep the discussion about X on the down low. Thanks!"
posted by thewumpusisdead at 10:34 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

To be honest, if I found out my best friend told people I'll never meet about my problems in an anonymised way, and if they can probably trace it back to me, I'd feel a bit awkward and I'd wish you hadn't, but ultimately it wouldn't be such a big deal.
It's the kind of thing I sort of expect good, caring but stressed out people to do and as long as they are discreet and I don't have to hear about it I don't care.

Same thing if my husband posted an anonymised question about some marital problem on AskMe. It's okay if he gets outside support that way, I just really don't want to hear about it.

But that's my attitude. Do you know what your friend's attitude would be? I would let that inform my further actions.

If you think your friend sees things similarly to me then please please don't apologise for what you did! Super awkward! Just take the opportunity stop doing what you think is wrong and live like a better person (that is, a better person in your eyes).
posted by Omnomnom at 11:31 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

isn't it human nature to share information, especially when you're scared about something and searching for answers? people gossip as a way to bond with eachother and its not alwasy malicious in nature. by sharing with your group of friends, maybe you were able to glean from them ideas on how to advise your friend in this situation?

i try so hard to gossip, but i also realize talking about others' experiences in life is really a part of being in a society, staying connected to eachother and problem solving. it seems innate almost to talk about others to others. that may sound confusing but i'm sure i've read a stastitic somewhere about gossiping/talking about others.
posted by BlueMartini7 at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2012

meant to say try to hard NOT to gossip.
posted by BlueMartini7 at 11:49 AM on May 15, 2012

empath: "I don't think there's anything wrong at all with talking about an anonymous friend with people who don't know them."

nthing empath. When I have had horrible problems that I have received confidential help from my friend, I would expect them not to talk about it with people we mutually know, even anonymously. But people who don't know me? Fair game. If I dump on somebody else, to the point that they are emotionally impacted by it, I think they have the right to share their burden with somebody else. I mean, when I was going through a hard time, I wouldn't want somebody to come back to me and say "Hey, that thing you told me -- I'm having trouble with it" -- because, hey, selfish (them)! But I also wouldn't want my problem to become a problem for them too because, hey, selfish (me)!

If you feel their paths might cross, I might say something to your friends from last night about keeping it within the group, but if not, don't fret, and if you still can't get over feeling bad, just don't do it again.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:58 PM on May 15, 2012

aimedwander REALLY has your answer here!

I think it is important to tell the friends you discussed this with that they helped you work out your own feelings and discomfort, but that ultimately you feel/know how inappropriate it was to discuss this private matter.


Here's the thing. I try NEVER to discuss friend's stuff with other friends. Like you, I think it is ICKY!

That said

Sometimes when you are super duper trustworthy, people unload stuff upon you that just blows off your stable center. Then it becomes your problem, too. Or at least, a deep concern for a time until you process things.


I've been in this position. I've done what aimedwander advised. All good in the end.


Professional therapists have therapists that help them make sense of their patient's issues and how it effects them personally. This is common practice, and totally understandable.

As a lay-person dealing with your best friend's upsetting dilemma, it's great that you talked it out, but kept it anonymous.

Good People already understood that was too big a burden to bear all alone. You did what the professionals do - you reached out for your support and well-being.


I know it felt funky. Just letting you know talking it out was understandable and kinda necessary. These types of situations do arise.
posted by jbenben at 10:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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