Low self-esteem and its dangers.
July 11, 2012 1:43 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with a (somewhat close) friend's extremely low self-esteem?

There are certains behaviours (which they have repeated time and time again) which irritate me beyond belief and have led me to feel somewhat resentful towards them. Such as:

. Apologizing for every. single. thing they do. I've been told I used to behave like this, with the contant apologizing/begging for forgiveness but it's only now that I actually realize how incredibly annoying it is. Even if there is absolutely nothing to be sorry for, they'll add the word and act apologetic/downcast around me, which drives me batty! Especially when it involves them being sorry for things they cannot possibly control/external influences.

. Being extremely (impossibly so!) defensive of anything I perceive as not okay/perfect. For example, if they tell me something I am not completely okay with (which I assume is normal among friends, or at least, that's been my experience thus far) or I refute their ideas, they'll just refuse to take in my opinion or will constantly change theirs just in order to continuously refute mine. (changing their tune, or at least that might be the best expression to describe it).

. Refusing confrontation. There are times when I (being a fairly headstrong and fiery person) will get in a situation where a confrontation/friendly discussion should happen and instead of talking to me they'll just withdraw and keep to themselves, which inevitably ends up with each of us resenting each other. Of course, I don't expect them to just discuss with me, though I do think that would be the healthiest course for some of our interactions.

I suppose none of these things would matter much. However, we talk pretty much every day and I feel like I have to constantly censor myself in order to maintain a conversation with them. And yes, of course there are friends/acquaintances this ends up being inevitable. The thing is, they're one of my closest/best friends and over the months/years I've grown more and more fed up with their behavior. I'm not saying this is their fault or anything, I know how difficult low self-esteem can be to overcome, and I'm not asking (nor will ask) for them to change themselves for me...

What I'm asking is help in finding a way of helping ME deal with it/them. How to be more okay with the way they are, etc. (For the record, they didn't use to be like this. When we first met I thought they were extremely confident. It's only recently that their self-esteem seems to have degraded.) I'm pretty sure they are in therapy as well.

I'm also not looking at just ending the friendship. Besides these issues I really do like them!
posted by Trexsock to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
People don't exist in a vacuum - when their behavior/attitudes change, there is usually a reason for it. You say that your friend was confident in the past, and that only changed recently - perhaps you should see if you can find any external triggers. If that doesn't work, ask about internal sources - do they have a history of depresison or anxiety, for example?

Helping your friend to resolve the underlying reason for their low self-esteem might be a better long-term fix than simply training yourself to live with it. Even if there's nothing you can do to help solve their problem, understanding the situation in more depth may help you experience more empathy towards them, especially when they act up in ways you don't like.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:51 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

It might help to realize that your friend may not agree that a confrontation/"friendly discussion" is the healthiest course for your interactions. I wonder, even, if it's possible for your friend to view you as a person with low self-esteem because of what may seem like your insistence on getting a friend to agree that the world is against you, fighting minor topics to the death, and having big confrontations about normal friend disagreements?

Some questions that might be worth consideration: Do you tend to vent your frustrations about life in general to them? That could explain why they go for the "sorry" when they otherwise don't know what kind of response you're looking for. Similarly, could your friend be backing away from something you "refute" simply because he/she doesn't enjoy confrontational discussions with their headstrong/fiery friend?

It certainly doesn't sound like you're raising each other up the way you'd hope close friends would. It may help to give this is a friendship that a bit of air until you can re-strike a more positive, supportive balance.
posted by argonauta at 2:07 PM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

You describe yourself in this post as a potentially confrontational and abrasive person. You mention "refuting ideas," which I imagine happens more or less regularly, and getting into situations that are potentially confrontational, again seemingly in a systematic way. I'm sorry if this is way off, but is it at all possible that you yourself have been under more stress, or have become more irritable, or appear less approachable that you have in the past? If a friend of mine was becoming progressively blustery and assertive, my instinct would be to back off and exercise politeness and cautious restraint. To a certain extent, it sounds like that's what your friend is doing.
posted by Nomyte at 2:08 PM on July 11, 2012 [13 favorites]

Have you seen interactions with this person and other people? Are they always apologetic and defensive, or only with persons who act dominant / annoyed?

Maybe there is a vicious cycle, where you are increasingly fed-up with their behaviour, which makes them pre-emptively defensive and downcast, which annoys you, etc.

On preview: Nomyte said what I wanted to say.
posted by Triton at 2:13 PM on July 11, 2012

Only the first sounds like an issue, and I admit that would be hard to deal with. But it might just be because the friend is around you, and he acts like this because he feels you're on the edge of "blowing up" and demanding a confrontation, so he pre-emptively apologizes for every little thing in the hopes of heading you off.
posted by deanc at 2:19 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nomyte and Triton: That is exactly the thing, I think. Which is why I am asking for help on how to deal with it. I admit I am possibly acting less patient towards them because their behaviour infuriates me beyond belief and because I feel like I have to keep myself in check at all times or risk upsetting them. Which does annoy me.

I certainly don't complain about every little thing that goes wrong with me and try to be as understanding as possible but I know this is something wrong with me as much as it might be with them (what is causing the low self-esteem, etc).

As for the whole refuting things, I didn't mean to come off as abrasive, I meant that if they say something which I disagree with (for whatever reason, and it might be something as simple as not liking the same drink, or whatever) then I will tell them, which causes them to either launch on a defensive speech about my reasons or to retreat. I don't needlessly start discussions or confrontations but when something arises/they ask my opinion on something I am honest with it, for good or worse. I don't like sugar-coating.
posted by Trexsock at 2:21 PM on July 11, 2012

I don't like sugar-coating.

Reconsider this. What seems like sugar-coating to you might be referred to as consideration by others.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:24 PM on July 11, 2012 [7 favorites]

then I will tell them, which causes them to either launch on a defensive speech about my reasons or to retreat.

Umm, that pretty much sounds like the normal course of a "discussion" (argument, debate, call it what you will): claim -> counter claim -> some process of reason giving -> eventual disengagement.

Put another way, what would you ideally prefer to happen? If you're by nature somewhat assertive, and they aren't for whatever reason, then the scenarios you're describing seem to make sense. But again, I'd consider refocusing your attention less around being annoyed at what's not and more about what exactly an ideal/positive version of your friendship might look like. From there you/they will be in a better position to work towards that ideal, etc.
posted by 5Q7 at 2:59 PM on July 11, 2012

Not every conversation has to have someone come out on top. I don't have low self-esteem, I just see absolutely no value in arguing unless it's super important. Even if someone's blatantly wrong, I just don't care.

If someone came up to me and told me that the sky was green, I wouldn't argue, even though they're blatantly wrong. I'd just say "Huh, maybe you're right." This isn't avoiding "friendly discussion," it's saving my energy for actually enjoyable conversation. If I told someone I had that hydrangeas were my favorite flower and they said "No, you love roses" I probably wouldn't argue. I'd just say, "You're right, roses are pretty awesome and they do smell great." That's not "changing my tune" it's just... who wants to argue about flowers? Let's talk about Parks and Rec or spaghetti sauce or something else fun.
posted by that's how you get ants at 3:22 PM on July 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Um. Have you not explained to yourself exactly WHY these behaviors "infuriate you beyond belief"? That doesn't sound healthy to me if you don't have some other anger issue, which I'm assuming you don't.

So really. I don't know how you can deal with it if we don't know WHY exactly does it bother you so much?
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: I once had a girlfriend who apologized all the time and seemed to have low self-esteem. She came from a religious family who adopted a sibling who wound up being schizophrenic and going after the family with a knife at some point. Critical mother, highly dramatic in general. We broke up, but I still think of her fondly, and think that therapy is something that would have helped her. Point being, consider that she's motivated toward these behaviors by more deeply-seated issues than you can or are willing to help with.

In the aftermath, I think I see that it's a self-reinforcing thing, a spiral. If someone is afraid of being criticized, they're going to pare their personality down to the most agreeable parts, not try new stuff, and generally become socially conservative in order not to be criticizable. I don't know if that matches up with what you're experiencing, but suffice it to say that compliments can go a long way. With the woman I'm talking about, as well as other women (seemingly usually women) who compulsively apologize, there is very little to criticize in them, so knock off the "you're being irritating for being too nice" if that's what's happening. Think of it as them walking on eggshells around you.

I've said too much already, but consider something else: when you were the one overapologizing, were you simply hunting for confrontation? There is no "normal," so holding this person up to an ideal that seems to be constructed as to allow you to be confrontational is not fair. Having dealt with similar behaviors, perhaps you have completely dealt with that yet and are expressing your frustration in being reminded of it, or being nostalgic about how easy it was for you to overcome. "Oh, just X, Y, and Z and it'll be better."

Lastly, another "normal" behavior is indeed to censor ourselves. You don't have to express every opinion you have, especially when it has to do with other peoples' personalities.
posted by rhizome at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

When I start behaving like this, it's because for some reason (whether justified or not) I have the idea that the other person doesn't think very highly of me, even though I'd really like them to.

The cure in that case is every now and then for you to sincerely compliment this person on something you admire about them. Particularly if it's something that you can't or don't do as well yourself. If it's at all appropriate, ask for their advice or help sometimes with things they are particularly good at.
posted by emilyw at 4:06 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

People's motivations/reasons for things are many and varied. Keep that in mind.

They are the one with the problem, not you. Be compassionate for the pain they are going through.

Don't feel as if you can fix them or save them. There is an element to that in your question - but only if they'd be more confrontational! But only if they'd be less defensive! But only if they'd be less apologetic!

Unlike your family - and, well, even then you get something of a say - you choose your friends. Does this friend have the qualities you need in order to continue to be friends with them? Or do you need someone more confrontational, less apologetic, less defensive?

Also keep in mind, though, that part of being a friend is that there are ups and downs - currently your friend is experiencing a down - be compassionate!
posted by heyjude at 7:14 PM on July 11, 2012

If she's truly unhappy and feeling bad about herself and you need to be fiery and confrontational because the behavior of a person who's going through a tough time is so infuriating to you, maybe you both should give the friendship some space for a while. I don't understand voluntarily spending a lot of time with a person who makes me angry. If she's not a coworker and not family, do you need to talk nearly every day if these conversations make you so mad?

And in the grand scheme of things, is a person being kind of wishy-washy really worth getting angry about at all? You could practice smiling and letting go of trivial things that provoke your anger.
posted by citron at 9:27 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Spend less time together. Be nicer. Stop being so confrontational. Find a new friend who loves to argue and argue with them.

It doesn't sound like your friend necessarily has "extremely low self-esteem," but it does sound like they're not into this kind of combative interaction that you want to have. This is a vicious cycle because their reaction is to step away from confrontation, which makes you even more confrontational, and so on.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:11 AM on July 12, 2012

I agree with emilyw and perhaps small_ruminant: some honest compliments and sweetness from you may help your interaction. If you really don't want to change the interaction, just how you feel about it, maybe consider your friend the way you might consider someone with a sickness, injury, or such: deserving a degree of consideration for their weaker state. Imagine how you'd feel in their shoes.
posted by ead at 8:37 AM on July 12, 2012

If you used to do some of these things, are you perhaps reacting to the reflection of the old self you "outgrew" that you see in them? It's an easy thing to do, if you disliked that behaviour in yourself.

I find a certain wry amusement in the fact that you're frustrated at this person both for being too pliant (apologising, taking on blame) AND for standing up for themself (refusing to be drawn into a confrontational debate, refusing to "take in your opinion" - what does that mean, anyway?). You're framing that self-assertion as another sign of weakness. Even if these things are context-specific, there seems to be a contradiction in that?

I'd suggest using this as an exercise in cultivating compassion and patience. Perhaps you could try a gentle, sympathetic version of Ding training, but it has to be sensitive if you don't want to make this person feel worse about themselves. I've done the "sweetie, you're apologising again..." thing with friends - inevitably the response is "Sorry!" so you have to be able to meet that with compassion and gentle amusement rather than frustration. Being able to find the humour in someone's apologising for their apologising over apologising helps!

As far as the "discussions" go, however, remember that both people have to agree to participate in a debate, and to the tone it takes. If your friend is constantly working to sidestep or defuse what you yourself describe as "confrontational" conversations, respect that! You may even find that once your friend isn't constantly feeling on the defensive, like they have to be ready to demur as you try to draw them into fiery debate, they relax a bit and some of the behaviours that frustrate you start to subside.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 4:49 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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