"Validate meeee"
March 26, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

How to be a better friend to a very insecure person.

So, I've been friends with this person, call him B, for ages. B is accomplished, popular, kind, personable, smart, and has CRIPPLINGLY low self-esteem. I understand the circumstances that have led to this and I empathise with him. But I find it hard to take him in large doses because of the constant validation and reassurance that he seeks.

Even a situation which has no link to him, he finds a way of twisting into being his fault. Does that make sense? For example, say we're on the phone, and I, like, yawn or something, he'll go, "I'm so sorry to call you when you're so tired, I feel so guilty"; if he's got a problem, he cannot talk about it without prefacing it with, "I'm so sorry to burden you with all this,", etc. He will not say this sort of thing just once. Hell no. He'll keep saying it until he is absolutely satisfied that he is worrying about nothing. I find it exhausting to have to constantly reassure him. "No, no, it's fine, I'm not too tired to talk." "No, no, I'm interested, please go ahead." Once he sent me a text while I was asleep, so I didn't reply immediately; I woke up to a barrage of texts asking why I was angry with him because I hadn't replied immediately.

Not only is he terribly sensitive to imagined slights, he thinks that others will be similarly sensitive. He is overly solicitous of me and his other friends. This also bugs me, but I know it is not his fault; he doesn't realise that not EVERYONE wants to be treated the way he would like to be.

He also allows mutual acquaintances to bully him into doing things he doesn't want to do, which makes me crazy to see, and I often jump in to defend him from the bullies.

At the moment I do the whole 'ding-training' thing for whenever he apologises unnecessarily but it doesn't seem to work. I think he finds it funny, but it doesn't stop him.

Whenever he finds a way of blaming himself for something which is not his fault I try to point that out to him in a kind but unsentimental manner. I try to be straightforward and honest with him.

I know that this is entirely my problem because I can't hope to change this guy. How can I allow it to bug me less? He's staying with me for a few weeks next month, which I am mostly looking forward to but I am worried that I won't be able to hide my irritation if he acts too demanding or insecure. I want to be a good friend to him and make him feel good about himself, but not at the expense of my own patience or sanity.

FWIW, I am a female but there is no possibility of a romantic attachment between us as he is gay. Using my sockpuppet account so that I can keep this separate from my main Metafilter account. Sorry for the length.
posted by sockandawe to Human Relations (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have a work-friend who is like this. Drives me batty and the thing is you have to be extremely firm and unyielding in what you'll put up with. "It makes me uncomfortable when you apologize to me, stop doing that" and then when they say "oh me me me me" say "no, this is about me. I am asking you to stop doing that because it makes me uncomfortable."

I am worried that I won't be able to hide my irritation if he acts too demanding or insecure.

Your irritation is bound to come through if you feel frustrated and manipulated but don't say anything. You can't control what this friend says or feels, you can only control your own response to it. If you find the attention-seeking off-putting, then be a good friend by telling him so.

Whenever he finds a way of blaming himself for something which is not his fault I try to point that out to him in a kind but unsentimental manner.

Which reinforces his behavior. If you want him to stop doing that, stop responding that way. An honest response is "You're making this about you. Stop doing that."
"This isn't about you."
"My yawning had nothing to do with you."
"If I was too tired to answer the phone I wouldn't have answered the phone."

Ding training will never work if you respond to his attention-seeking with attention.
posted by headnsouth at 5:12 AM on March 26, 2013 [13 favorites]

I know that this is entirely my problem because I can't hope to change this guy. How can I allow it to bug me less? He's staying with me for a few weeks next month, which I am mostly looking forward to but I am worried that I won't be able to hide my irritation if he acts too demanding or insecure. I want to be a good friend to him and make him feel good about himself, but not at the expense of my own patience or sanity.

You want us to give you advice on how better to lie to him about how you feel? If anything I think you need to be more open about how you feel and stop sparing his feelings.

And it's not entirely your problem. It's not even really a little bit of your problem. His insecurity is his problem. You may not be able to solve it for him, but if you're a friend, you tell him clearly that it bothers you when he apologizes for everything and assumes the worst about even a minor gap in contact with you. Tell him you'll be straight up with him if something bothers you about him and that there's nothing that can't be worked out if you're both honest.
posted by inturnaround at 5:39 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

If he sees this as a cute funny harmless personality quirk, and you want to be his friend, and you don't want to constantly validate him, then you need to just find a way to basically ignore the apologies and guilt.

You could come up with a very short kind reassuring repeatable all-purpose response like "You're okay, B" or "Relax, everything is fine" or "Don't worry, that's normal."

If he goes on about it anyway, you could say "You're okay, B, but I don't want to talk about this any more. Do you want to go do X or talk about Y?"
posted by steinwald at 5:54 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is not your problem. This is his problem. Call him on his shit every time. "Dude, stop talking about how you feel guilty. The world does not revolve around you, the world's problems did not come from you, and if you keep doing this kind of woe-is-me-everything-is-my-fault you are going to see some self fulfilling prophecy stuff happen ASAP. Knock it off. You're being a self absorbed dick and I won't have it anymore. Stop believing everything is somehow inexplicably about you. You are now allowed one 'sorry' and if you go down in some shame spiral now because I've called you out on your shit, I'm gonna frogmarch you to a therapist because this has gotta stop."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 5:55 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wow...some of these answers are a little...harsh? I get it, tough love is needed sometimes, and/or you're not obligated to put up with his whining. But calling someone with low self-esteem a "dick" is probably not going to help, and it seems that you value this person so you wouldn't want to cause him more problems.

If you wanted to be a little nicer, you could try:

"I don't like to hear you talking about yourself that way."

"why are you so down on yourself? I don't want to listen to it. I don't like people insulting my friends."

"If you keep berating yourself I'm afraid I can't listen much longer."

Another thing you could try is to praise him for things or point out his good qualities. (when he's NOT seeking attention or feeling sorry for himself).
posted by bearette at 6:09 AM on March 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have been this kind of person, and I still sometimes am this kind of person, and, as I think you know, it is pretty agonising. Telling your friend he is a bad (self-absorbed, irritating, etc) person for having these kinds of thoughts is very unlikely to be helpful; in fact, it will probably make the problem worse. It's like having someone in your head who constantly tells you everything you are doing is bad, and if you tell someone their apologies are a bad thing, it adds fuel to the fire and gives the bully in their head extra material to work with.

I'm also not sure where people get off on making moral judgements about what is a symptom of mental illness; believe me, if I could stop feeling bad about everything I do, I would. I think you're going to have to see this a bit like being friends with someone who has a physical disability and occasionally needs help standing up or carrying things. Don't make a big drama out of reassuring him, but I like steinwald's suggestion of saying something short that effectively means 'It's OK, nothing to see here, move along'. You need to take his side against the things that are trying to tear him down, so it's important that you make clear that:
-He doesn't need to worry
-This wasn't something that warranted an apology
-He doesn't need your forgiveness
-As far as you are concerned you two are fine.
Keep it short and informational. You can be compassionate towards him without getting deeply involved.

It also might be worth talking to him about whether he can communicate his distress to you in a less anguished way. When I am talking to my friends now, sometimes instead of saying "Oh god, I'm so sorry, please, please, I feel terrible about this", I just say calmly, "I am feeling quite guilty about this, as if I'd done a terrible thing. Have I done a terrible thing?". And they say "No", and we move on.

When it comes to sticking up for himself, bear in mind the advice given to friends of people in abusive relationships: do not judge him for getting himself into bad situations, because when you do that you're not taking his side, you're taking the side of the people who think he's worthless. It's OK to get frustrated, but you need to show him the kind of respect you wish he'd show himself. You probably won't fix him, but you may well be able to help him a lot.

Remember that however bad this feels for you, it's much worse for him.
posted by Acheman at 6:25 AM on March 26, 2013 [23 favorites]

Just ignore him and continue with the conversation in a positive manner. It will work like a charm.
posted by puppetsock at 6:59 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

FWIW, yes, my route is the tough route. I have a few friends who have pathologically low self esteem, and it was only when I started standing up to them that they starte to realize that their behavior and attitudes about themselves were flawed. It took few times of tough love to get them there, and the script I used with one person who was basically identical in countenance and behavior to the person described in the OP was the script I posted above. The person in my life was getting off to the fact that people walked on eggshells around him because of his fragile self esteem, and it sounds to me like the person that this Ask is about is venturing into that territory too. Obviously you want to be kind when someone is struggling with insecurity, but at a certain point you can't let their behavior slide anymore. Sometimes coddling someone who is acting like emotional leech isn't the right thing to do, even if that person can't help their behavior for whatever reason. YMMV. My apologies for not clarifying why I chose the script I did in the first place.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:25 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Remember that however bad this feels for you, it's much worse for him.

The thing is, though, that you don't know that. When you are in your own head about how bad it is for you, you are unaware of the effect you're having on other people. Maybe that person suffers from anxiety as well. Maybe that person has been traumatized by a caregiver who behaved the same way. Saying "but my suffering is worse than yours" completely discounts the other person's experience.

The OP is trying to bend over backwards to help her guilt-friend feel better. She is trying to stifle her own legitimate, understandable, valid response so as not to exacerbate her friend's anxiety. And as a result, she is feeling anxious and asking how to better tiptoe around the eggshells. The answer is to say "hey, anxiety-friend, you've left a bunch of eggshells around here. Better pick them up before they get stepped on."

OP, they're your friend's eggshells, not yours. He brought them, he's responsible for them. You need to take care of yourself by figuring out where your boundaries are and then making them clear.
posted by headnsouth at 7:29 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

You will be doing him a huge favor in the long term if you can get across the message that this is not normal, it is destructive to his friendships, and that therapy can help. He will be upset in the short term, but think of it as an intervention. If you can't handle upsetting him in the short term, then you're not really close friends and I would just keep your distance.

I would do this face to face when he comes to visit.
posted by desjardins at 7:36 AM on March 26, 2013

I applaud you for being a good, supportive friend, but agree that therapy might help him. I used to date a man like this and it was almost like he got angry if I told him how attractive he was or how smart he was. I think it was both easier safer for him to go on believing this negative views of himself- as justifications of why he couldn't be happy. He has to come to a more positive self-perception on his own.
posted by Butterflye1010 at 8:01 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

She is trying to stifle her own legitimate, understandable, valid response so as not to exacerbate her friend's anxiety.

Understandable, yes, but legitimate and valid? I'm not so sure. Feeling irritation in response to this kind of behaviour is quite a lot like feeling irritation when someone is having a panic attack or is screaming in pain, ie something that is only possible if you lose sight of what it feels like for the person to be in the state.

I think it is overwhelmingly likely that it is worse for him than for her, and so I'm confident in reminding her of that. If she had a friend who was going through chemo and constantly didn't turn up for social engagements it would be overwhelmingly likely that this was worse for the friend than for the OP, even though I can construct a few scenarios (eg OP herself has crippling social anxiety) where having the friend not turn up would indeed be really destroying. If the OP does have significant baggage that means she can't deal with this, then she should probably try not to be around this person, but she shouldn't blame him for that, she should blame her crappy life experiences.

The OP is not a bad person for feeling irritated or even for feeling pretty upset out of sheer emotional contagion, but it would be a mistake to hold her friend responsible for causing this feeling. I actually think her question shows a lot more compassion, love and care than some of the answers she has got.

OP, they're your friend's eggshells, not yours. He brought them, he's responsible for them.

I don't understand what the last sentence even means. Why shouldn't the OP care about her friend's wellbeing?

Like many of the posters, I too think he would benefit from therapy, but he is most likely to get it, and to enter into it with the right state of mind, if it is suggested in a supportive way rather than as part of some kind of 'tough love' bullshit.
posted by Acheman at 8:11 AM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I like puppetsock’s approach, which signals that whatever your friend is apologizing for is reasonable, not some outrageous, tie-threatening expectation, and falls within normal bounds of friendship. (Sounds like he might be confused about that.) Suspect that extended commentary on the apology, whether affirming or challenging, might heighten his self-consciousness and sort of energize his anxiety. I think simply not engaging in the song and dance, while modelling “what friends do” in an accepting, casual posture might have a calming effect, plus, it spares you.
posted by nelljie at 9:42 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had a couple of friends similar to this, and this is the script that I've used (with slight variations):

"I value our friendship, but if that friendship is to continue I need you to trust me when I tell you that I am not the sort of person who stoically suffers in silence. If you do something that bothers me, I promise that I will let you know immediately. Then (and only then) you can determine whether or not you feel an apology is appropriate."

Once you've laid that out, it is up to the other party to decide if they have that level of trust in you. If they don't, and they continue to apologise for things that don't merit it, you get to decide whether you feel comfortable remaining friends with someone who doesn't trust you (personally, I'm not).

The important thing here is that you must be prepared to follow through on this. If something ever bothers you and you don't bring it up, and then later it comes out, you will have demonstrated that you are not trustworthy, and it will cause problems.

Be calm, be clear, and be firm.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:45 AM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

Boundaries. Boundaries are your friend.

He needs to get help from someone besides you. You are not a therapist! You are not HIS therapist! But he is draining your supply of self-esteem and energy, whether he means to or not.

You have the right to care for yourself. Tell him that his constant refrain of self-hatred is not ok, that it's hurting and painful to you, and that if it's not something he can stop (which it apparently isn't) that he needs to seek help.

If he refuses or delays, encourage him gently, but back off a bit. Cut conversations short, refuse social outings, whatever you need to do to reduce the amount of self-hatred you have to hear day after day. For the sake of your own sanity.

And the thing is, there are some kinds of self-hatred that are indistinguishable from narcissism; even if he hates himself, he is still obsessed with himself. His problems, his errors, his low status, his whatever.

Where are you in all this? You even say, that when the topic is You, suddenly his litany of doom makes it about Him. So are you getting much of anything from this friendship, other than feeling useful?

Whatever his intentions or yours, you have a dysfunctional toxic dance going on. You can keep dancing or do something to break the pattern. He probably won't like it, but he's not exactly having fun now, is he?
posted by emjaybee at 9:47 AM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with Parasite Unseen. You'd be doing him a favour in letting him know how you feel.

While his low self-esteem is something that needs work, I don't like the libertarian lean in the above comments, ie: "don't let someone ever drain you of your precious energy, you have the right to feel awesome at all times and dump anyone who challenges that". this guy sounds like a kind person (if excessively so), and kindness is a virtue.

He needs to talk to a counselor about his worries. Maybe not full-blown therapy, but counselling could help. He needs reassurance and recognition and a counselor could provide an outlet.
posted by winterportage at 9:56 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you ever told him that you find it exhausting? There are gentle ways to do this, and I have found it effective. After all, I have found people like this are truly concerned about whether they are putting you off or inconveniencing you, and it's at least somewhat helpful if you are completely straightforward. They usually still worry some, but they will cut back on the exhausting behavior.

For example, I have told friends like this that, "No, I'm not mad/tired/whatever at all, no worries! But if you keep asking or apologizing I will get annoyed, so relax and don't let it bother you." I also sometimes say, "Do you really think I'm the type of person to be upset over that?" or "Do you really think I'm so stupid that I would pick up the phone if I didn't feel like talking?" "Do you think I'm so lonely I hang out with people I don't like?" You have to use a friendly teasing tone to avoid making them feel bad (or well, any worse than they feel besides less rational reasons) but it can help to make them question whether they aren't creating the situation they wish to avoid. The few friends I have like this have gotten comfortable with me because they slowly began to trust I am not harboring secret resentments of them and they have cut back on the exhausting behavior a lot. Now, as someone upthread mentioned, they just need the quick reassurance here and there and it doesn't get belabored anymore because they either trust my answer, or know that they must.

I think it helps that I am actually the sort of person who will speak up if I am annoyed and even paranoid friends take some comfort in that; I too get nervous around people if I think they won't say anything if I annoy them! So consider if your personality isn't feeding this behavior a bit, because you actually are annoyed by some of this friend's behavior but it's not clear from
the post how upfront you have been to your friend. A lot of people are raised to keep the peace but it can make those around them very nervous.
posted by Nattie at 10:59 AM on March 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I imagine others are sort of Shamu-ing him -- just ending the interaction when he begins to do this -- and you're still around, being a scratching post, of sorts. He has this need to apologize, and it must feel good to do so, somehow, and since you allow him this behavior, he'll do it to you (and the other people for whom the delight of his company exceeds the drainingness).

I think others have given great tips on how to give the gentle talk of "Look, I will let you know when something's wrong, and otherwise, please assume that things are fine, because that will be the correct conclusion."

To extend and synthesize, could you conclude this talk by asking him if you two could have a phrase (e.g. "cherubic peppers") that means "it's fine"? Essentially, this is 'ding' with meaning. The advantage of having meaning is that when he beg-pologizes, you can say it and feel that you are assuaging his insecurity, or whatever. However, he's not getting any specific forgiveness or reassurance ("no no, I'm not tired! I'm interested, please go on!"), and it will be less satisfying and fail to reward the behavior.

Sorry for the tone -- I am fiercely projecting my attitudes towards an acquaintance of mine who did this same thing onto your situation.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:30 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Blue jeans everywhere   |   Can no longer bang head against financial wall. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.