How can I stop fretting about standard communications with friends?
November 10, 2014 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I spend way too much time worrying about the way my friends communicate with me -- specifically, I worry that any delay in response time means that they're angry or annoyed with me, or, even more dramatically, that they don't want me around anymore. I wonder if there are any good ways to talk myself out of this. Snowflakes inside.

Needless to say, my friends all have different communication styles: a couple of them like to talk every day, while some don't, and I have friends I sometimes don't speak to for quite some time (as in months). I absolutely recognize that this is standard operating procedure for human beings; not everyone has the time or desire to keep in touch 24/7.

However, I can't quite seem to translate my understanding into everyday life. I have one friend in particular who has a rather complicated life for reasons beyond the scope of this question; while we tend to talk every day or every other, he'll sometimes get very focused on what he's doing and won't ping me for a couple of days. He always, or pretty much always, answers emails, but doesn't initiate. At times, I find myself literally counting the minutes between my emails and his response, and I constantly worry that he's trying to do a slow fade.

I have another friend who gets very depressed at times, and as is common for people who suffer from depression, doesn't want to talk to anyone at those times. I totally get it, but find myself worrying that this is finally the time that I've said the wrong thing to him and that he's finally gotten sick of my bullshit and just wishes I'd go away.

Basically, any more-than-slight delay in response to an email or text causes me huge anxiety, and makes me positive, and I do mean positive, that friend X doesn't like me anymore. I'm always just waiting for the lightbulb to go off over my friends' heads and for them to realize, "Hey, holborne is a real pain in the ass, isn't she? I'm going to start avoiding her and hope she gets the hint."

Of course, this tends to cause real problems for me and my friends, as its relatively common for me to email or text them asking, "Hey, are we cool?" or words to that effect. I imagine this constant checking in gets very annoying to them at times, so of course I then start worrying that my anxieties will become self-fulfilling prophecy. This just adds to the loop of worry and amplifies my anxiety. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I should note that around 15 years ago, I did have one friendship blow up in a rather spectacular fashion for reasons that would make this question even longer. But I'm pretty sure that my constant fretting about the friendship was a contributing factor.

While I recognize that this is an emotional problem and not a rational one, I'm wondering whether anyone has had similar issues and whether anyone can give some words of wisdom on how to work with all this. (It doesn't help that I feel like I'm way too old for this shit -- early end of Gen X.)
posted by holborne to Human Relations (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This was totally me, I had some abandonment / attachment issues from childhood.

I worked through it by finally deciding to assume we were ok unless my friends showed me otherwise. So I would call them up and act as if nothing was wrong... and behold nothing was wrong.

I remember the first time I called, left a message and then panicked all night afraid that I'd set them off or whatever. I lay on the floor of my room and said to myself: these feelings are bad, but they are false feelings, and I promise if I don't act on my anxiety and white knuckle it tonight, the feelings will go away, my feelings will never be as bad as they are right now. This is the beginning of the end. It is all downhill (in a good way) from here.

And it came true!
posted by serenity soonish at 6:29 AM on November 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is a fairly common phenomenon-- one of my friends posted about it on Facebook and many others chimed in that they have experienced the same feeling. They call it FOBI (Fear Of Being Iced).

Actively looking for reassurance when this happens may make you seem insecure or needy. Unless the other person hasn't responded in days, don't send a follow-up.

A big part of the stress is the unknown response time. It's like a slot machine except the "reward" is social validation. And because the reward could come at any minute, your brain is constantly waiting for that text chime.

One thing you could try is turning off text notifications giving you control over the timing of the "reward." You'll still need the discipline to not constantly check your email/phone.
posted by justkevin at 6:50 AM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're counting minutes between email responses, I think you're paying too much attention, and maybe give yourself some blockers that can distract you from this constant checking. Maybe initiate a schedule where you only check email at certain times of day?

Also, I find a lot of worry for me happens when I don't have too much going on in regular life. When I'm all-out busy with my own things, I tend to stop worrying about the intricacies of friendships.
posted by xingcat at 7:24 AM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Of course, this tends to cause real problems for me and my friends, as its relatively common for me to email or text them asking, "Hey, are we cool?" or words to that effect.

This behavior is actually a way of reinforcing the anxiety -- you're anxious, so you act on that anxiety, you get a positive response ("Yeah, we're cool") and a neurotransmitter rush that makes you feel calm, so you've just rewarded your brain for feeling anxious, which teaches your brain that causing you to feel anxious gives it a reward.

The suggestion to pretend that nothing's wrong is a good one. It will likely make you feel suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper anxious for a while, because you're taking away the behavior that you've been using to cope with the anxiety, but over time it teaches your brain that you won't reward it for causing you anxiety. Using distraction methods like exercise or self-soothing methods like reminding yourself that everything is ok, it's just anxiety talking, during the period of anxiety may be helpful.
posted by jaguar at 7:26 AM on November 10, 2014 [22 favorites]

As a person that tends to withdraw from communication, I would say that it may be helpful to think of folks like us -- when it comes to communication and timescales -- as being like Matthew McConnaughey, flying along out in space and slowed down by relativity. Or maybe an Ent. What can seem to you like a reasonable amount of time to wait for a response several times over, shading into must-be-deliberately-ignoring-me territory, and then blowing right through that and into the "CLEARLY THEY HATE ME IT'S THE ONLY EXPLANATION" zone, can feel like just the blink of an eye to us. Seriously, it's like we look away for a second and bam, it's been five days since we should really have answered. And, well, let's just say that can come with its own anxiety and guilt for us as well which is 99% of the reason I might miss/"miss"/"ignore" a message.

I don't know how useful that is and I'm afraid I'm not sure I really have any tips to help, other than the usual techniques for dealing with mental peccadilloes -- treating yourself right, therapy, meds, etc as appropriate. But hopefully it might offer some insight to help to fill the gap that your anxiety is trying to fill.

Best of luck sorting this out. It's good that you're engaging with this and trying to work through it, well done!
posted by Drexen at 8:40 AM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

At times, I find myself literally counting the minutes between my emails and his response

Of course, this tends to cause real problems for me and my friends,

I don't know that I've ever come into a question and suggested therapy before, but if your anxiety is so bad that you are obsessing over the minutes between replies and your anxiousness is causing real-world problems for you, then I think therapy would probably be an extremely useful way to get to the underlying issues. (Apologies for not knowing which kind(s) of therapy might appropriate.)

I have another friend who gets very depressed at times, and as is common for people who suffer from depression, doesn't want to talk to anyone at those times. I totally get it, but find myself worrying that this is finally the time that I've said the wrong thing to him and that he's finally gotten sick of my bullshit and just wishes I'd go away.

It's not clear if you are actually contacting your friend during these times, but if you are, especially repeatedly, please know that this may be causing your friend real distress. As someone who goes through these phases it's extremely stressful knowing that I either have to come out of that cave just to make it stop or I feel awful for ignoring people that are worried about me. On preview, I see that Drexan covered this point, too.

If it helps, know that it's not just you! There are definitely down-sides to having so many ways to communicate 24/7.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This doesn't solve the anxiety problem, but could you commit to never expressing your anxiety to your friends? You may not be able to resist the urge to worry (or maybe not without lots of practice, or therapy, or meds or something), but you can resist the urge to pick up the phone. This would at least stop the loop you mentioned where you check in, and then you fear that checking in made things worse.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:13 AM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it can help to put the less reliable friends in a different mental box. The guy who responds intermittently? Only text him if there is no need for a response. Otherwise, wait until you see each other or until he initiates. Your friendship may downgrade somewhat, but if you are making more effort than he is, and it is causing you stress, then it is worth it! I have a friend like this- I love her, and she's so fun when we do see each other but I never initiate contact anymore because she leaves me hanging/cancels at the last minute. She's not 'toxic' or anything. She's lovely. But for whatever reasons, she is really unreliable/not into the habit of answering texts. If I do text her now it is with the expectation of no response. She's just a different kind of friend.

I don't have any friends I speak to every day, apart from my husband. I do have friends who have imsg open on their laptops, or whatever, who I know will be quick responders. That is nice. They are the ppl I text the kind of random thought msgs to.

Getting on top of your anxiety is a desirable and worthy goal, but I think that part of achieving this in life is to just stop putting yourself in situations that test you quite so often.

Do you have full time work? I am on Mat. leave and find this is much more of a thing than when I am at work, surrounded by ppl all day. So addressing the ordinary social-ness of your everyday life can help I think, too.
posted by jojobobo at 5:21 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Would it help to talk to a couple of your closer friends about it? It's probably not the kind of thing you want to go into with ALL your friends. But just saying something along the lines of, "hey guys, sometimes I get really anxious when I don't hear from you and my head goes into these loops about how I've done something wrong or have pissed you off or something. So it would really help to know that if you are actually offended by something I say, you'll tell me."

Mind you, that only works if it actually would help for you to know that. If that doesn't help the anxiety, then that's out.

I do know where you're coming from. I've gotten like that before in relationships with people who were more avoidant, which just exacerbates my anxiety. It's really awful. Some things that can help, some of which have been mentioned above:

- Distract. Especially if it involves something like, I'm not going to look at my phone until I've done the dishes and watched a movie. This may not completely relieve the anxiety but can help with the constant time-monitoring that I think really exacerbates the anxiety.

- Spend time with someone else. If you are busy having a good time with another friend, it's very soothing to the part of you that thinks no one likes you or wants to be around you.

- Meditate. Seriously. Don't start out doing it when you're feeling anxious, start when you're okay. Build up a habit. Eventually you can get to the point where even when you're not meditating, you can tell when the intrusive, anxious thoughts are coming in and just recognise them for what they are without getting as wrapped up in them.

- Remind yourself that anxiety is like depression in this way: it lies. Especially if it's about the self-worth or people not liking you. I have that particular liar in my life (similar to your "he'll just get sick of my bullshit and wish I would go away", I have the "and no one would even notice if I DIED. In fact, they'd all probably be better off without me being sad and depressed and demanding and no fun at all...") I have gotten better at recognising this monologue for the lie that it is. This is also kind of similar to the noticing intrusive thoughts and dismissing them.

You could also try self-soothing techniques. If it seems like that kind of approach is helpful, maybe try looking at DBT.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:02 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Remind yourself that your friends lives don't revolve around you. someone doesn't respond to a text? assume "he's busy" not "OMG is he mad at me?" force yourself to change your mindset, and as above, seek therapy. This anxiety is unhealthy for you and, as you've pointed out, your friendships. good luck! don't be too hard on yourself- This is not a character failing but a behavior that you can correct.
posted by emd3737 at 4:36 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

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