What to do when you're The Friend Who Is Okay and you're not okay
September 26, 2017 2:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm an adult in my 40s and am generally an easy and undemanding friend, despite high-functioning depression. Lately I am not okay, and I want some support from friends who value me as easy and undemanding. How do I navigate this shift in role?

So I’m a textbook case of high-functioning depression: I’ve spent my life maintaining friendships and relationships and civic engagement and hobbies and straight As (and the adult professional equivalent) while being quietly miserable. I’m in my 40s and my skills in pretending I’m okay are well-honed by now. (Before anyone asks, yes, I have a therapist, and no, I’m not interested in advice about mental health care.)

Five years ago my spouse and I moved to a new city. Our many social connections still feel new – turns out it’s way easier to build a solid network in a new place when you’re younger. A lot of our people here do emotional labor for a living (therapists, teachers, community organizers, etc.) and I haven’t let most of them in on the quiet misery – my closest emotional connections are with people where we used to live. Many of our local friends also are openly frustrated by other people in their lives who make taxing demands on their time and emotional energy. People here don’t ONLY like me because I am reliable and pleasant and don’t ask for much, but that’s definitely a factor.

Lately I’ve been having a very hard time. Relationship struggles, a life-threatening health problem (thankfully now resolved), home burglary, family deaths, pregnancy loss, new parenthood, a scary car crash and time at a wildly unhealthy workplace have all been part of the last several years. Combined with current events and a giant dose of vicarious trauma in my work, I’m not doing well emotionally. I need some support from people who don’t live thousands of miles away, and I don’t know how to step out of my social role as The Friend You Don’t Need to Worry About and ask for that without risking relationships. I acknowledge I might be overestimating the risk of people being irritated or unwilling if I want to talk frankly about how I’m doing, but I feel like people will flee for the hills.

I’m interested in how y'all have stepped outside this kind of social role, or supported someone who did. How does a person navigate having newly demanding emotional needs within adult friendships?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Far out, I'm so sorry you're going through all this. I am most definitely you, in terms of always striving to seem ok and suppressing my emotional needs in hard times.

But the thing about emotional connection with people is that it deepens when you show vulnerability. The first step is gently beginning to talk about the fact that you're not feeling ok at the moment. A couple of conversations where someone asks how you're doing and you say 'Actually, it's been pretty tough recently...'

We don't all have it together all the time. You are human, you feel things. Every time I've given that opening into my life (as a very emotionally guarded person), it's been met with great empathy and support. Give these people a chance to surprise you. I promise you they won't run away screaming.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 3:04 AM on September 26, 2017 [8 favorites]

First of all I have the greatest sympathy for you, and I hope things get better soon. The main thing I have to tell you is to remember that you also deserve to be helped. You are not being a bad friend when you have problems.

I suffer from anxiety and depression and thought this for a long time, but eventually I learned that I'm just like everyone else, and if I do my best to help people and stay as the person who doesn't ask for anything, that's an imbalance that does me a serious disservice.

If you can't talk to any of your new friends, then for the moment I recommend talking to your old friends over the internet. Skype is not quite the same but it can be a huge help, and you will at least be seeing your besties and getting things off your back.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 3:08 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I had a health issue earlier in the year. I was very reticent about expressing it but kind of had to as am a reliable volunteer for a group I'm in, and had to let them know I had to come off the rotas etc. It was actually quite empowering for me to share what was happening, as I found others then shared their issues but in a supportive and kind to me way. I was able to draw practical help from people around me when regaining my health, including people popping round, running errands or just meeting me for coffee which really helped me get out every day and maintain my mental health balance. So I'd try talking to one person and seeing how it goes. And good luck. It's hard being that person and then "admitting" you're not the easy, reliable one ALL the time after all.
posted by LyzzyBee at 3:23 AM on September 26, 2017

I do this by easing into the water - when you're in a situation (coffee, conversation that's obviously meant to last more than 2-3 minutes) where someone asks you what's new or how you're doing, you say "oh - we've had better times. There's been a lot going on."

If the person probes for more information, lay out some of the high points. If they reciprocate with similar things, offer to help, or hint that they're ready for a deeper conversation, go there. If they simply say "oh that's rough - life's tough sometimes" then respect their boundaries and try with someone else.

This is a normal part of developing friendships - it's not all rosy, fleeting stuff, and some of those around you may actually crave a deeper connection with you too.
posted by notorious medium at 5:49 AM on September 26, 2017 [23 favorites]

Hey! I'm sorry you're going through such a tough time. Two thoughts:
1) People actually like being relied on - it's a normal part of friendships. So asking for support and more concrete help can also strengthen friendships.
2) There's a huge distance between being the rock, and being someone who they "have to worry about." It's good in both the short and the long term if you can find that balance.
posted by mercredi at 6:13 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

On the friends who are professional helpers part of it: I'm a therapist. I get burned out by people who always expect me to be in that role for them, and I'm wary of situations where I think the other person has poor boundaries and basically wants me as an unpaid therapist rather than a reciprocal friend, but I absolutely 100% want to be there for my friends! I really, really appreciate getting emails or having conversations where the other person starts out with something like, "Hey, I'm really struggling. Could I talk to you as a friend for a while?" or "Could I run something by you?" I get a little nervous when people tell me they don't need a therapist because they have me as a friend (I mean, it's great that I'm helpful, but I'm not providing therapy), or make jokes about how it's great to have a therapist in their life (because, again, I'm being a friend in that situation, not a therapist). You not only already have a professional therapist, you are also highly aware that you'd be asking your friends for emotional labor, which means you are so unlikely to be taking advantage of your friends in ways that therapists, etc. worry about.

Reading your question, I really wish I could reach out and give you a hug and buy you coffee and let you talk for a good long while. I can't speak for your other friends, of course, but I think you're right that you're likely overestimating the risk of people being irritated or unwilling if you talk frankly about how you're doing. (And, seriously, *hugs*.)
posted by lazuli at 7:13 AM on September 26, 2017 [10 favorites]

I am sorry you're going through this hard time.

I think your assessment is correct--you are overestimating the amount of irritation others will feel at your disclosure that you're not okay. It is likely the depression distorting your perceptions. I think people will probably want to help you even more because it's alarming when someone who normally has their shit together reveals that they actually do not, and an actual friend worth keeping will step up when they see that happening.

I can tell you from experience, friendship does deepen when you show vulnerability. People like reciprocity; allow them to support you. I doubt you are going to be perceived as a "burden" at all, though you fear you will. I suspect you've been a steady support to your friends and they've appreciated it--they'd probably like the opportunity to do the same for you. My friendships have deepened as each of us seems to have gone through a pretty shitty time in turn over the last few years. And yes, each of us is in a high EL job, but these are our friends. The EL is reciprocal and appreciated, and that makes a world of difference.

Good luck--I really hope you do reach out.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:20 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you're dealing with this! I suffer from anxiety as well as being someone whose knee-jerk response is always, "I'm fine." because I don't want to burden others with my problems. It's only been recently (in my 40's) that I've reached out to people when I've needed comfort or support. It's been life changing and it's helped me get through some of the dark moments. I agree with notorious medium - if you feel comfortable with someone, when they ask you how you are, open up a bit say that things could be better.

I also recommend reaching out to old friends via email or text. Some of my college friends and I have a little text group going to keep in touch. Very often one (or more) of us sends out a message that says, "I'm struggling today." and we rally. Not only is it helpful when I'm not having the best day, but it feels so good to give someone else words of comfort when they need it.

Sending you many hugs!
posted by Nutritionista at 7:29 AM on September 26, 2017

This is a little bit easier to do if you truly have a local social circle (as in people who know each other) rather than a network, BUT in any case there is nothing wrong with sending out a group text or email, depending on local custom, saying, "I am overwhelmed with some shitty things that have been going on and I need some help. Would anyone be up for brunch/picnic at the park/local art walk soon? I could use some friendly faces."

This a) gets it out there b) gives everyone an opportunity to opt in c) doesn't leave them at a loss for what to do to start helping. What I invariably find when I have had to send out the call is that people will make room for you once they know it's urgent, and some of them will reach out to you individually (usually these are the people who are feeling most up to it currently) to see if they can help or offer to talk or maybe they can't do the activity you suggested but would be happy to have coffee soon.

I often find that just having rallied some people around me is a relief. And it'll at least crack the door for asking for a little more help than that from the ones who are able to give it right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:16 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

i am like you--
Being able to respond to "hey, how's it going?"
With an honest answer of "it's been rough "
Was the first step I had to take.
That was hard.

I do have one friend who helps me to ask for help from others.
She just reminds me that Person A offered to help with this and you should take him up on the offer. Or that I don't have to do everything by myself because now circumstances are bigger and harder to deal with alone.
She also has been sure that I get away from my house and my issues every once in a while. Is there someone who could fill that role for you?

There are also a few folks whom I have had to text updates to because I just can't verbalize what's going on with me more than once
That process has helped me as well.
posted by calgirl at 12:21 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do the friends who lean on you have little rituals to signal that they need a shoulder to cry on? Like, Kim usually texts "Let's hit the links this weekend" or Robin always says "I need cheese fries STAT"?

If so, don't be afraid to invoke those rituals on them. This is how my Friend Who Was Always OK finally came out as a mere mortal, back in the day.
posted by armeowda at 7:53 PM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

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