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February 20, 2015 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Growing up, my family moved every few years and I was constantly a "new kid" navigating unfamiliar social situations. Although as an adult I now have many great friendships, I have an almost compulsive desire to be inclusive and not exclude others. I have a pattern of befriending people who say they are lonely and then feeling responsible for making them not feel lonely. How can I be compassionate to lonely people without reliving my childhood anxiety?

Especially in adolescence, I spent a lot of time alone and anxious about social relationships because I was a very shy, introverted girl forced to quickly evaluate and survive an ever-changing landscape of lunchroom power dynamics. I coped by adjusting my personality to fit whoever I was with and flying under the radar -- watching with horror as other less fortunate "new kids" were ostracized or bullied.

Once I survived high school and went to college, I began to develop real friendships and romantic partnerships. Now in my 30's I have had the gift of many sustaining, mutual, close relationships over the years.

However, I have maintained an almost compulsive desire to be inclusive and not exclude others. If I meet someone who says that they are sad and lonely or that they don't have strong friendships, I feel personally responsible to be their friend - even if they are not someone I click with or even really like. Even if I don't enjoy being around them, I feel guilty for not inviting them to things. And if I do invite them to things and they continue to say that they are lonely/unhappy I feel responsible, as if I have failed and am one of the "mean girls".

Currently I am dealing with guilt over a friendship with someone I met last year who is a very negative and critical person. Upon meeting him he shared that he had never had close friendships and was very lonely. When I met him he was getting ready to change jobs and would go on long angry rants about his current job. I thought, "This is odd that he is angrily ranting for a prolonged period of time to someone he barely knows, but when he changes jobs maybe he will be happy and he'll be fun to hang out with." Well he has changed jobs and he is still going on long angry rants, just about different topics. He does not affirm me or celebrate anything in my life and only seems to tune in when I am sharing hardships or problems. Whenever I talk with him I am in a funk afterward for several days.

I have tried to distance myself from him but at the same time I feel very guilty since he still talks about how lonely he is. Although I feel frustrated with him, I also see that he is in pain and that he suffered a lot of childhood trauma.

For some reason, it feels like distancing myself from him is being cruel to my childhood self who was lonely and isolated. Because I felt so much pain being lonely when I was growing up, I don't want anyone else to feel that pain. In observing my friend's behavior it seems clear to me that his loneliness is at least in part self-created. But if that's true, what does that say about my own painful childhood? Was it my fault for being isolated and lonely? Should I have done something different? I don't want to blame the child I was for the anxiety and the fear I suffered around my peers growing up, and it seems like moving away from this friend would be doing that very thing.

Most of the relationships I have in my life are great, mutual and affirming but I do have a pattern of systematically getting close to people like the friend above. This small percentage of friendships brings a disproportionate amount of stress and guilt to my life.

Would love to hear from people who grew up lonely who are now able to be compassionate to other lonely people while setting their own boundaries. And in the case of the above friend, any advice about protecting myself in a compassionate manner would be appreciated.

Thanks (and please be kind... I know that I'm not being logical or rational here, I basically revert to childhood the minute anyone says, "I'm lonely!")
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Human Relations (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have a similar issue, where I seem to collect depressed people because I grew up inside my mother's depression. If I may extrapolate, you may on some level be thinking that you are the cure for other people's loneliness. In reality, you are not, and you never can be. Also realize, you solved your own loneliness problem...they can too, if they wish to, and it will happen (or not) without your involvement.
posted by Riverine at 12:11 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think this is a more generic problem manifesting itself through this strong feeling you have. The real issue is that you're trying to be the cause of a fix for someone when people can really only fix their own shit. You don't have to be a friend to someone feeling a little lost and lonely, you can simply be friendly.

Trying to be a "fixer" is something a lot of us struggle with. I now struggle with it as a parent, where I do my son the best help when I am less helpful about some things. But I can just do X and solve the problem! Similarly a lot of us, particularly we men, struggle with listening rather than trying to tell people What To Do to fix stuff.

Maybe you need to work at reminding yourself, when this crops up, that you can do these folks a world of good by being a kind voice and accepting at the right moment. You don't have to carry their whole burden. You may well be doing this person no good at all if you're enabling him to be a taker by just bitching and being negative all the time. If you don't want to be his friend at all, gently disengage and be less accessible. If it's salvageable then maybe you just need to firmly set some whining boundaries and maybe it'll help him to realize he's driving people away. In either case I bet it's well addressed in the Captain Awkward archives.
posted by phearlez at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

You have 'broken wing syndrome." You believe that by adopting these lost souls that you can fix them, and change them and then they will flourish.

The problem is not so much that you empathize with someone who is lonely, it's that you fail to see that there are legitimate reasons why this is the case. As adults, there are very few people who are excluded for no reason. When your acquaintance started ranting at you, instead of saying to yourself, "Ah! I get it now. This guy is a total downer. I don't have much in common with him," you say, "Oh! This guy is really sad and upset and all he needs is to make a change, then he'll be completely different!" What does experience tell you really happens in these cases?

So, knowing what we know about rant-man, what can we now surmise? He made a change and he's still unhappy. He is exactly who he is. Do you like him where he is right now? Why do you believe that you are the person who must befriend someone whom you don't like?

It's not selfish to count among your friends those whom you enjoy. If you meet a person and you don't like their company, it's perfectly okay to say to yourself, "Gosh, Jack sure is angry, and he doesn't seem to want to change. I don't enjoy his company. Time for the slow fade."

Now if Jack asks you why you're fading, you might want to tell him, "I'm an optimistic person and you have a different world view. I think it's better if we don't see so much of each other." But really, it will be pointless. He's not going to pick up what you're putting down.

So my advice is don't be so quick to adopt the broken wings. Make friends with people you enjoy, not each and every person that you perceive needs YOU as a friend. You just can't spread yourself that thinly.

Also, isn't there a wee bit of condescension in your friendship? Are you REALLY that person's only friend? If you actually are, that's on them, not you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:25 PM on February 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It might help you to know that this is a well-known geek social fallacy, that it's never okay to not include someone and this comes from every good place, but it's popular among people who were excluded a lot as kids. I have this problem. I have people in my life I hang out with who are (sometimes) very difficult to be around from time to time, often because they are grappling with depression or anxiety in a way that maybe isn't helping them. I can sympathize without them becoming my project. I also had parents who were super duper "Your job is to please me" about the world and I don't think that helped. I learned how to subsume my own desires for basically anyone else's. It's no way to live.

The thing that is helpful to me about boundaries is trying very hard to be my own friend in these circumstances and making it clear that it's okay for me to determine how I spend my time and how much time I can just help people manage their own negative energy. There's a certain amount of time you may want to give to helping people (in whatever form that takes) but generally speaking unless you do this for a job, other grown ups in your life need to be taking responsibility for at least working on their own shit.

The difference between you and your friend is that ... your life changed. You grew up and were able, once things were more under your control, to settle in to having friendships and a life you liked. That is a huge difference. Kids are trapped in much more of a way than adults are. You may be able to talk to your closer friends about this situation and get some perspective. Sometimes for me having friends to bounce these things off of "Your friend said WHAT to you? That doesn't sound very friendly...." can help me get perspective. It might also be helpful to do something that would more directly be helping your youthful self (maybe a Big Sister program) where you can interact with someone who could really use a friend but maybe isn't quite as mired in their own unhappiness. I know it's hard. I have some depressed friends who I have to keep more at arm's length because they don't respect my own boundaries (a lot of crisis management, not being there for me when I need a friend, sort of self-centered) and it feels bad and wrong in some ways but it helps keep me happier and saner. It's not okay for you to be someone's entire emotional support, especially if they are just a friend and not a life partner or family member (and sometimes not even then)

Also you didn't mention this at all but just to toss that out there: if this guy has latched on to you in some sort of boy/girl way (even if you are partnered and/or not interested for whatever reason) that may be dredging up more negative energy than the usual "I am lonely, I am having a hard time" situation. Give yourself a reality check to see if there might be some of that happening and that also might help you more with boundaries.
posted by jessamyn at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I've noticed that most people who grew up moving a lot tend to make friends easily after school (which for most people once school is done is when most people start finding it difficult to maintain and make friendships). So I think constantly being put in the "new kid" role growing up gave you more positive social skills than you realize.

Are you like this in general or only with friendships? Meaning- do you have a problem saying no to people whether or not it is in regards to spending time with them? If so this is more of your issue with saying no than it is about anything else.

It might help if you sit down for 10-15 minutes a day and just use that time to visualize a person that you let into your life really destroying your life in some way. Like this woman that you want to avoid? Maybe you visualize her poisoning your child or something. It seems horrific, but the truth is that when we let negative people into our lives sooner or later something terrible does happen to us. Maybe just something is stolen or they spread bad rumours about us... or even worse. It happens all the time. Live long enough and you'll probably meet someone who you thought was a little annoying, but nothing terrible and then you find out just how wrong you were the hard way. It's best to learn this the easy way though and just go with your gut. Practice saying no in the mirror daily if you have to.
posted by rancher at 12:36 PM on February 20, 2015

Best answer: Is this maybe your (commendable!) sense of empathy glitching a bit? One way we empathize with others is to analogize to times when we think we've felt the same way as whoever we're empathizing with. "Oh, X is lonely, I remember being lonely, it was awful, I empathize with X and want to help them." This is fine insofar as being empathetic is generally a good thing, but you shouldn't let the analogy grow to the point of conflating the causes of your own past experience with the causes of the experiences of the person you're empathizing with. You need to preserve your own sense of self even while empathizing. Your history is not their history; you are distinct.

Be a friend, not a savior. You recognize that your friend's problems are at least partly self-created. You should respect his own agency enough to communicate that to him in a gentle way. By the same logic you should respect your own agency and self worth enough to insulate yourself from his negativity, even if that requires distancing yourself from him. Enabling him is toxic to you and not ultimately helpful to him.

"Use I statements" can be cliche, but doing so in your interactions with him would actually serve two purposes: it would make it clear this is about you, not him, and it would help reinforce in your own mind how your experiences are independent from his. ("I feel sad after we talk; I need to work on focusing on the positive in my life.")
posted by Wretch729 at 1:12 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was this person, too. In school and afterwards as well. I finally made the decision to change after one person took up so much of my time and energy that I found myself thinking about her even when I wasn't with her or on the phone with her. It was never my turn in the conversation, in fact, I realized it wasn't a conversation. She was talking at me, not with me, and I sense that is what is happening with you, too.

Befriending someone or sharing a small moment at a gathering with a wallflower is different and should be commended or encouraged, but that's not what this is, and you need to try and figure out where that line is for you. What it sounds like is that you are part of an equation with this person where you could be substituted for any other "ear," and it's okay to not want to be part of that equation. It is okay to want the whole of a relationship to equal more than the parts (a great relationship), or to be equal (a good give and take), or even a bit unequal (as long as you know what your limits are), but try to avoid an equation that only takes away, it will wear you down over time.
posted by dawg-proud at 1:44 PM on February 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have been on both sides of this. I grew up feeling extremely lonely both because my family frequently moved and because I was an outsider in my family from the time I was very young. And--surprise--I have frequently felt lonely as an adult. Long story short: I slowly figured out that when budding friendships fizzled out with otherwise awesome people, some of that has been because I was depressed and wasn't doing much about it. Who wants to be around that?

When people keep bringing me down as much as you related, people who have no interest in me and just use me to dump on, I've simply let them go. My personality is such that I have a hard time saying "Can we talk about something else?" But here's the thing: when people say that to me or call me on my BS, I don't resent them for it. I appreciate it. I appreciate it because I actually care about and have interest in them. Doesn't sound like that's the case with your angry 'friend'.

I think it's great that you reach out to the underdog, but if they're not offering you anything, sometimes it's just best to let them go. Boundaries are great when they work, but sometimes people just don't get it and it becomes too much work. You are doing no one a favor if you continue letting him dump on you when that's probably the reason he is so lonely in the first place. He's self-centered and angry all the time. If you really want to help him, you might start by avoiding him, and, if he asks you why, tell him how you felt after your one-sided interactions. But if you do that, don't waste your time arguing with him if that's what he tries to do.

People are lonely for many reasons. It's sadly ironic, but self-centered, angry people are lonely precisely because they have little genuine interest in others beyond having an audience. Remind yourself that not all lonely people are lonely because they are excluded but because they are not including others in their thoughts and concerns.
posted by katherant at 2:19 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, I have a slightly different take on this. You mentioned about your friend:

Upon meeting him he shared that he had never had close friendships and was very lonely

I consider myself a pretty friendly person, and I don't have a tiny social circle, but I can never even once recall someone telling me something that personal, intense, and vulnerable upon just meeting them. Going forward, I wonder if something to think about might be how you interact with people when you don't know them so well or are first meeting. If this were a one-off thing, I'd say, hey, you know, people are weird and you ran into a weirdo. But it sounds like you're repeatedly getting trapped in these relationships with self-described "lonely" people who are opening up to you before the level of intimacy really matches a fully developed friendship.

It might be a good idea to keep things a little light and less intense at first...this lets you judge better how much you'd actually like to know someone as a friend before you're getting into the deep confessional stage of friendship where you might feel guilty about judging/rejecting someone. In this case, this person's negative personality might have encouraged you to not make a second meeting, without ever having to know that they felt extremely lonely.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:11 PM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hmm, I've encouraged friendships with people I've pitied more than liked, and it's never ended well (and it's usually, actually, always ended). In that case, the offer of friendship is a kind of unfair promise that can never really materialize, because there just isn't enough authentic connection to carry it. It's not fair to the other person, who's led to believe they can experience real closeness on an equal footing, when they can't - because your needs aren't being met, and you need to laugh now and then, right? - and it's not fair to you, because you're burdened, maybe beyond your ability to cope. Even if you can cope, that's being more of a do-gooder than a friend. I think you do actually have to get something from it, otherwise there's no getting past the imbalance.

I'm friends with flawed people who have growing to do, just like I have, and then, it's a question of managing boundaries. If you do get something from this friend's company, you can try to encourage moments when this happens, and listen to him unload maybe only sometimes, for a little while. Be honest with him about why, too. ("I can't only be your listening friend, Joe. I hear you, and I can be available to listen sometimes, but I think you need to figure out other ways of managing these feelings, too".)

I imagine he's tuned into negativity because that's all he knows to do, but it's not a good way to live. Tell him you're upset that he doesn't care about good things happening in your life. Tell him you would like to see him make a bit more of an effort to celebrate with you.

All this is important feedback for him, and it's fair to both of you to be clear about these things.

Plan some things that are fun, maybe see how that goes. It might open a door for him. If it doesn't, maybe you just see him a bit less often.

I think relationships can be very important in healing - often, the most important thing, imo - but sympathy and confession shouldn't be the only reason two people connect. It doesn't even really work, that way, or not for very long. (Unless both are dealing or have recently dealt with similar issues, like say, divorce.) Friendship is premised on equality, it has to be.

You're a lovely person for wanting to help him, though. Don't beat yourself up.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:55 PM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: "As adults, there are very few people who are excluded for no reason. "

Ah, good to see Just World Theory trotted out as usual.

In fact, lots of people are excluded--not for NO reason, but for very poor reasons. As a fat person, I've had LOTS of experience with that one. So have racial minorities who find themselves in communities where their ethnicity is rare, gay/bi/trans people in more conservative communities, atheists in religious communities etc etc etc.

The instinct to want people not to feel lonely is awesome. Don't turn away from it, just realize when you need to cut your losses and move on to someone who will value and profit from your friendship.

It sounds like you already have a great handle on the trap you are falling into, and why. Maybe you just need to value your own feelings enough to act to protect them. Aim some of that mother hen instinct towards yourself. Consider how you would treat yourself if you were a sister or friend--would you advise your sister or friend to spend a lot of time with people who are always angry, or whom they don't like?
posted by mysterious_stranger at 12:51 AM on February 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

Chiming in here because your question resonates with me on so many levels. I, too, have worn the hat of having broken wing syndrome and adopting people as pet projects to save them from loneliness. But, I really came here to tell you about the flipside of that: my feelings of misery and isolation and exclusion, and how no one person could have saved me from all that. I needed to take ownership of my life and I did.

So, not just in my childhood, but deep into my 20's, maybe 30's, I didn't understand why no one wanted me around. I knew I had a "good heart", and so what if my work wasn't fulfilling? Lots of people don't love their job. And my family had some drama, but doesn't everybody's? And my relationships were usually a bit unconventional, but the heart wants what the heart wants, right. Oh, and we live in a drinking culture. I'm not the only one who can tip a few back (yikes). When people I thought were close to me had weddings and parties and pregnancies and sorrows that were all kept private from me, like, again and again; and again and again I realized that I'm kind of alone with my shit job and abusive family and drunken foolishness, I spent time in therapy and finally said to heck with all the negativity. I took baby steps to improve or extricate myself from negativity in every aspect of my life (still working on that). Each facet was interdependent: a lot of cyclical misery was in play, so with each baby step, there was a sense of improvement of the whole.

If one person had martyred his/herself to be a pal to miserable old me, it would have been a disservice, I think, because I would have taken even longer to claim ownership over my life. In fact, I may have been so slow to clue in to what a mess my life was *because* of the kindhearted souls therein. Once upon a time I would have loved to have a friend to unload my baggage onto. These days, friendship isn't centered on that, and the baggage is way lighter.

TL;DR: Other people's misery isn't your problem. Really. It's theirs to sort out.

You sound like a very good person. I also think you should follow your heart in these matters, regardless of what good advice anyone gives you. The world is a better place for having you in it, so be true to yourself. (I don't know why my MF comments are full of cliches darn it :/)
posted by little_dog_laughing at 3:08 AM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You have some healing to do.

If you're wondering whether pain you experienced as a child was your fault, you need to stop worrying about others and start focusing on yourself.

When people who reflect a negativity of our past keep surfacing in our present, it is not because we attract it, it's because we accept it. We are open to reliving whatever pain we had experienced before because we have yet to do the healing work to fully close the door behind us.

You don't need to spend your time ruminating over the specifities of this particular person. He is one of many in a long line of people you will continue to allow into your life - who will cause you grief- until you set personal boundries against toxicity, heal old wounds, and realize that your life is precious and short and that you should spend it being happy.
posted by meeeese at 3:38 AM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

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