I hurt a friend and I'm not sure how to proceed
November 13, 2017 3:33 AM   Subscribe

My need for space hurt a friend, and I need some advice, please.

Two weeks ago, I had plans to eat lunch with a good friend who I hadn't seen in a few months because I was away from our city, had visitors etc. We don't meet up that regularly anyway.
She cancelled at the last minute and then asked if she could call me instead, which ended up being over five hours of mostly me listening to her talk about her latest bout of depression. I get it, depression is awful, and she was there for me during mine in the past, so I listened to her because I find supporting friends important and she would do the same for me. I told her if she felt suicidal, she should call me anytime, even at night.

The week after that, I had a major deadline in grad school and was completely frazzled and close to a nervous breakdown because I had way too much to do on top of my usual classes. During that time, she texted me to ask how I was doing, and I replied that I was "deadly busy". (We speak Japanese, and there is an idiom saying "so busy you could die".) I know I shouldn't reply to texts if I'm busy, but I thought it may be an emergency. I said I was extremely busy and had trouble with my academic supervisor, and in hindsight I shouldn't have opened that can of worms, and I should have asked if she needed to talk. I can only blame my frazzled state of mind here.

She kept asking me things and I kept replying, and then she kept telling me to see a counsellor at school because of my problems, and I kept resisting because a) the school's counselling center is a joke and b) I just needed to get my paper written before the deadline and couldn't make time for anything else. My replies got shorter and shorter and she pressed harder and harder, like this:
Friend: You should really go to the counselling center.
Me: Been there before, they didn't help much.
Friend: Here's a link to their website. They can help in all kinds of matters. You shouldn't overexert yourself. I'm really worried about you.
Me: Okay, I'll consider it.
Friend: If your prof gives you trouble, you should go talk to them.
Me: Thank you.
Friend: You need to make some time to take breaks. I want to improve my lifestyle as well.
Me: Thank you. I'm just really busy
Friend: Sorry to take up your time. Let's talk again when you have more time. Bye.
Me: Thanks for caring about me. I really don't have the mind space to talk right now, so let's talk again in the near future. Sorry.

I felt bad about being a bad friend last week and texted her this morning to apologize and thank her for her concern. She replied that I had been really harsh last week (??) and that she was hurt and didn't think she could pretend that last week hadn't happened. She also said she might feel like that due to her depression, but I'm basically sitting here unsure how to react. I get that she is going through a really rough time, and I think she tried to counsel me last week because I had counselled her the previous week and she wanted to even things out, but I am also kind of mad and I'm not sure I have the right to be. Continuing to text last week is entirely on me, although I was also afraid of just cutting her off mid-conversation. And I do want to cut her a lot of slack due to her situation, so I don't even want to point out how ironic it is to stress someone out who is already super stressed like I was last week.

We have been friends for seven or eight years now and I want to keep her as my friend, of course, so can someone please advise me how to make this situation better? Should I apologize again for being harsh last week when I don't feel like I was, or should I explain my side because she was honest with me about her feelings as well? I don't want to create any drama between us, and I still want her to come over for Christmas because she has nowhere else to go and I like her very much, but I'm afraid she'll withdraw from me now especially due to her depression... Help, please!
posted by LoonyLovegood to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would try something like, "I'm so sorry I made you feel that way; I was so frazzled with work that I was more abrupt than I should have been. I, of course, appreciate your concern about my mental health. At that point, the best thing for me was to just finish my work. I'd love to have lunch soon; when are you free?"
posted by Betelgeuse at 3:58 AM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'd find any excuse to meet in person. You want to give her souvenirs from somewhere, have lunch one day, what have you. That'll give her room to tell you what her problem was, and you room to say you were busy, and what would she like to happen better next time? Or, whatever happens,and how you end up feeling meeting in person. Text communication sucks normally, let alone when both parties are either stressed or depressed. Phone isn't much better. In person ftw.
posted by sacchan at 4:00 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Should I apologize again for being harsh last week when I don't feel like I was, or should I explain my side because she was honest with me about her feelings as well?

I'll be interested to read the responses to this question. Personally, I think you can be honest, in a very nice way. I felt annoyed for you, reading your post and how she continued to bombard you with communication when you said you were extremely busy and frazzled. But you have noted that she's going through a very difficult time, so now would be the time to temper your honest response with a lot of compassion. Something like: "I'm sorry you felt that way, that was completely unintentional on my part. I do appreciate your concern, but I was just really swamped at the time and not in a good place to respond."

Honestly, I feel like a general guideline, you shouldn't apologise when you didn't do anything wrong. You can say "I'm sorry you feel that way" which is an acknowledgement that they feel bad but not an acknowledgement that you yourself did something wrong, which you didn't. (At least, this internet stranger doesn't think so anyway.)
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:16 AM on November 13, 2017 [21 favorites]

As you know, depression and stress can color the way you interpret interactions. You tried to be kind, your friend didn't see it that way. Apologizing is not exactly the same thing as admitting you did something 'wrong', it's acknowledging that you are different people and that you care about your friend's feelings and want to make amends. 'I'm sorry you felt that way' is, to anyone hearing it, a half-assed apology that will raise their hackles. You can acknowledge that texting is a bad medium for emotional conversations, and that you appreciate her concerns for your well being, and yes, definitely make plans to see her again. Please don't beat yourself up for being a bad friend. You did what you thought was best at the time, and now that she's given you the knowledge that she wanted something else, you can talk about how to handle things in the future, and then do it. It will take time for her to process and hopefully feel less hurt, but it can happen. This is a slight bump in your friendship and time will help you both move past it.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 4:32 AM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

You didn't do anything wrong. Your texts to her were anything but harsh. While I feel for her, as her depression is obviously distorting her perception of what happened, mental health issues aren't a hall pass to request loved ones to walk on eggshells around you.

In your shoes, I would probably apologize once more for coming across as harsh* and then act normally. I wouldn't discuss the issue beyond that, because, well, it should be a non-issue at this point.

* I think it's much better to say, "Sorry I came off as harsh, I didn't mean it that way" than to say "Sorry I made you feel bad" or any variation on that. The latter tends to sound a little accusatory IMO.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:41 AM on November 13, 2017 [49 favorites]

I felt bad about being a bad friend

If your transcription of the text conversation on which you are apparently basing that judgement is accurate, I can see no reason why you should. Brief, informative and to the point is not "harsh".

That said, emotionally important conversations should simply not be conducted over text. It's way, way, way too easy for imagined nuance to overwhelm intended nuance.

I understand that I am an Old and that heartfelt texting is a regular thing for those less so and that this advice sounds like it's coming from the fuddiest of duddies. It is, nevertheless, correct.
posted by flabdablet at 4:47 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Well, you did nothing wrong at all here; but somehow you still have a hurt friend. That's hard.

Don't do the "sorry you felt that way" thing -- that's much worse than nothing, it's just another way of saying "your feelings are wrong." (Which they kinda sound like they are, to go by your transcript; but that's never a useful thing to suggest to someone.) "Sorry I came off harsh" is better, but still assumes responsibility here that I don't really think you have.

Call her when you're done with your paper. Don't text. Invite her to meet up for a drink or lunch or whatever. Have a real catch up conversation, tell her about your stress, see if she's able to be a good friend and listen. You've listened to her A LOT.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:11 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thank you for being so kind, everyone! I feel a lot better now, even though I still wish I could make her feel better as well.

Thank you for the suggestions, too. (I actually have a whole bag of souvenirs for her that I wanted to hand over during our cancelled lunch.) Unfortunately, it's very unlikely that I'll have time for a prolonged lunch date with her until Christmas break, and to be honest, I'm also a little wary of clearing up my whole schedule just to have her cancel again. I know I'm being a bad friend, but I also know about the "own oxygen mask first" thing...

I know text isn't idea, but I have to text her back something, I can't just ignore her until I have time to meet. I guess I'll go with "I didn't mean to hurt you and I'm sorry, let's meet when I have more time to talk" and hope she'll take it well. I could call, but as our last call was super long and I couldn't get off the phone forever, I'm wary of that too. And what if she berates me?

I'm sorry, everyone, I really don't have my wits together this semester.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 5:18 AM on November 13, 2017

Maybe it’s because I’m old, or old fashioned, but I’d just ring and ask to meet her for lunch.

I don’t see anything here that imperils the friendship.
posted by Kwadeng at 5:19 AM on November 13, 2017

I also think your replies were fine, not particularly harsh and reasonable given your circumstances. I also think if you hadn't replied (you say "I know I shouldn't reply to texts if I'm busy") would have just opened up a different can of worms of her being worried that either you were not talking to her or unable to respond because you were unwell so I don't think that would have helped.

Reading the transcripts it seems to me that she seems to be feeling a need to help you that isn't proportional to your level of distress you expressed in your messages and I wonder what's driving that. Obviously she's struggling in a lot of ways and she may have either projected some of that onto you or unconsciously needed to help you in order to give herself a sense of validation and usefulness. However since you said here (and in messages to her?) that you were close to a nervous breakdown and that she was there for you in a previous depressive episode maybe it was reasonable for her to be seriously worried.

It's hard to unpick from the information we have but I think might be worth thinking about for you. If it's the former then I think her frustration is not something you should feel responsible for and a gentle conversation with her reassuring her that you are OK, that you're grateful and appreciative that she tried to help but that in this instance it wasn't necessary, you're sorry for expressing that badly (or abruptly or harshly),and that will seek help if you need it might be helpful. If the latter then I think it's reasonable to say that you recognise that you needed some support but weren't in the right place to access it and you're sorry for worrying her.

Either way I think a phone call might be a better medium that text at this point.
posted by *becca* at 5:21 AM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have to text her back something

"Call me" usually works pretty well.
posted by flabdablet at 5:27 AM on November 13, 2017

There are three issues I have with the suggestion that you need to apologize. One is that, as a neutral reader of this exchange, I can't see where you were harsh. Two, she is not the only person here with emotional needs, and she ran roughshod over yours when you were already under a great deal of stress. Finally and most importantly, you were setting a boundary that your friend repeatedly ignored. She is not the only one with mental health needs, and she should have recognized your efforts to shut down the conversation. You should never apologize for setting a boundary.

I think your text is a good idea. When you meet her in person, I would tell her a gentler version of what I wrote above--that you were very stressed out and that you needed to set a boundary that she didn't seem to recognize.

I've been in situations like this before, where I was already stressed about something and I needed someone to stop and ARGH THEY JUST WOULD NOT STOP and I have to say you handled it with far more grace and tact that I have.

Unlike a lot of people, I don't think there is anything wrong with an apology that says something along the lines of "I'm sorry you felt that way" in limited circumstances with someone I'm close to. Sometimes we do have disproportionate emotional reactions to perfectly reasonable things another person does, and part of being a grown-up in a relationship is acknowledging that. I don't think that's something I would bring up with your friend, but I would suggest perhaps apologizing for the misunderstanding/miscommunication. (Your friend should also apologize to you, but I doubt that will happen.)

And maybe the two of you could talk about how in the future you could better communicate to her that you need space.
posted by tiger tiger at 5:32 AM on November 13, 2017 [11 favorites]

I think calling is a good idea - just have a hard stop that you can't get around. Like, call her 30 minutes before a study group meets or something like that. Say up front "I can chat for 30 minutes, but then I have to hang up because my study group is meeting." Set a timer.

In future if you get trapped in a text message exchange and need to get out without seeming abrupt, you can say "something like: I really hate to cut this short but I have to wrap up this project. Can I call you Monday?"

Five hours of listening to someone talk about their depression is above and beyond, IMO - and I'm not really sure whether it's all that helpful to her. There is some significant relief in being open with your friends about what's going on with you, but in my experience ruminating out loud about how you feel bad for a long time doesn't help much. I'd just be mindful of boundaries with her - particularly since it sounds like you need to be particularly careful with how you spend your time, with all the responsibilities you have. The trap of playing therapist is one that will exhaust you and won't fix her. Nudge her towards seeing a therapist if she hasn't yet.

Regardless of how you respond to her saying that you were harsh (particularly using the word "sorry" or not) you can reassure her of your friendship. For example: "I didn't mean to sound harsh; I probably shouldn't have tried to text when I was so busy and stressed. I care you and I care about our friendship."

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 5:32 AM on November 13, 2017 [16 favorites]

I have a friend (and have also been that friend possibly) who when she's had a hmm, a kind of 'loss of face' by having been too vulnerable with me at times when her personal distress was acute, often seeks my problems out. I find this to be a bit pushy, as you have also felt, and for me a transparent way of trying to even the 'vulnerability quotient' of our relationship. Maybe as a way of dealing with the shame of having the need, the emotions or illness that she shared, your friend came in trying to be helpful and knowledgeable or simply on your side, like I'm sure you were for her. She hasn't gotten the tuning right, but Being Useful and Empathetic are measures of her shame in some respects.

You were super busy and that is understandable, but if you do offer to be called any time, (especially by a suicidally depressed person) you need to acknowledge that when you next converse/text/hang out. You don't need to drop everything, but in that offer of listening anytime, a friend needs to feel and trust it's a real offer. It is often really hard to reach out to anyone, and often this isn't the super vulnerable expression of 'help!' but 'hey, I'm here' as a call or bid for care. When you weren't available as you'd assured, I think it was amplified by your friend in her state into mistrust or anger when she reaches out.

Perhaps when she reached out, you could have handled it directly like 'I've been thinking of you! Holding you in mind after our long talk the other day, but could you hold on with a brief wave from me until I finish this goddammed annoying essay I have due in a few hours? It's frantic work I'm afraid, but I will have a good chat with you as soon as I'm done, okay?'

This is not meant to be critical or blaming. This is to help you regulate the friendship. If you are talking about this episode together, don't make it about the actual conversation and litigate whether it was harsh. That's really not the point. If you care about her and want to be a friend, as you say she's been to you, then reflect upon what you assured her you'd give, and didn't in the moment. *even though* you had good reasons, you need to acknowledge that you promised to be there when she reached out, and you, for your urgent reasons, blocked her. Reassure her that her vulnerability is safe with you and you're listening.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:52 AM on November 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

She replied that I had been really harsh last week (??) and that she was hurt and didn't think she could pretend that last week hadn't happened. She also said she might feel like that due to her depression, but I'm basically sitting here unsure how to react.

To me, from the outside, it looks like

1. you did not do anything wrong, but also
2. You could have managed your boundaries better

I have a few depressed friends and I've been in very similar situations. It's difficult for me because I don't have a lot of "emotional bandwidth" and so long processing conversations (which I am happy to do!) can leave me sort of drained and unhappy. So you told your friend to contact you any time, but what you meant more clearly was "if you feel suicidal I will talk to you any time" and what your friend heard may have been more like "I am here as an emotional support when you are going through a hard time."

Once you found out your friend wasn't suicidal, you had a had time ending the conversation. This is on you, as you note, and it's something you could apologize for if you wanted "Hey sorry I should have been more clear that I didn't have time to talk. Let's have coffee and check in. Your friendship is important to me" and save your own frustration and anger either for another friend or just let it sort of pass on.

That said, depression is a messy disease and your friend probably also isn't quite thinking too clearly about things, that whole "I can't pretend it didn't happen!" stuff is her depressive parasite trying to keep her stuck in a bad place. The most gracious thing would be, to me, to sort of write that off and gently deflect and not get into hours of "processing" with your friend because it's not really productive
posted by jessamyn at 6:50 AM on November 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Yep, definitely her depression making her think you were being harsh, because your texts look incredibly polite to me. Too wishy washy, if anything.

I would have texted “Turning my phone off now so I can concentrate on this essay, let’s meet up next week once it’s handed in! xxx” and had done with it. You do not need to feel guilty for putting your work first over chatting with friends, no matter how fragile they are emotionally.

You wouldn’t have been texting back and forth all day if you were in an office job (and risk getting sacked), and grad school is exactly the same. It isn’t a hobby that you are doing for fun, it is your job (lots of grad students have trouble enforcing boundaries with this, people who work from home often have similar problems).

Your text is fine. She is being a little bit selfish, which is the nature of depression but you don’t need to bend over backwards.
posted by tinkletown at 7:40 AM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Does she understand the Japanese saying? Or did she see you as making a veiled reference to feeling suicidal? That would inform my approach if I were you.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:43 AM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

She replied that I had been really harsh last week .

I think you could tell her that a brief answer isn't always a harsh answer. Some of that is her interpretation. You let her know you were time crunched. Maybe use "Sorry, gtg" next time to let her know the conversation is over?
posted by puddledork at 8:02 AM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone above that a phone call to your friend would be better than a text at this point. However, I know you're very busy, but consider having that lunch between now and Christmas break anyway. Break is (I'm guessing) at least a month away and this interaction may weigh on your mind between now and then. I don't think you need the added stress of an unresolved argument with a friend on top of school stress. And if she cancels again, you could use that time for a little self care and relaxation before you get back to studying.
posted by Mouse Army at 8:13 AM on November 13, 2017

I don’t think you were harsh and in fact, I think you were and are being an excellent friend to this person. She admits that her depression is coloring her view and you have been making very generous allowances for that. I agree with the advice above that calling her, and making a face to face meeting a priority (even if you have to say that you only have time for an hour long meeting, you can always be up front and say that you think it’s important to see each other in person). It sounds like this person is important to you and having this misunderstanding between you for a month will probably weigh on both of you.

That said, I also agree with the advice above to think about your own boundaries. Yes, your friend has issues at the moment, and you are doing the right thing by giving where you can. At the same time, your feelings count, too, and you have not only the right, but the responsibility to take care of yourself and your own needs. Setting boundaries can be difficult in the moment, but ultimately, it is a kindness to both you and your friend to make sure that you are not drained to the point that you can’t keep up the friendship.
posted by rpfields at 11:24 AM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think you did anything wrong, but I can also see how she felt like you were curt. She was pushing for interaction when you didn't want / have time for any, and that's fine, but she also accurately picked up on the fact that you didn't want to talk to her. Of course, it's fine to not have time or want to talk to someone! But being depressed, she interpreted it to mean the worst.

In the future, rather than just responding to her texts, you might take a more assertive approach to ending the conversation along the lines of "thanks, I appreciate your concern for me. I have to run now so I can finish my paper, but let's connect Saturday after it's turned in. Hope you have a good week!" or something. Tone is SO hard to detect in text that it's often worth going out of your way to make yours clear.

For now, you could say something like "oh, sorry, I guess that was curt! I was just in such a rush that I didn't have time to write much. I would've loved to have had more time to talk to you."
posted by salvia at 11:37 AM on November 13, 2017

although I was also afraid of just cutting her off mid-conversation
It seems like this is part of the reason that you got into trouble with that conversation - you really wanted to cut her off and get back to work but were afraid that it would hurt her at a very vulnerable time.

I have a similar issue with a family member that has a lot of emotional issues. Over time we have worked out a system where she knows that in the big picture, she is far more important to me than anything else but in the little picture sometimes I have urgent things to do.

If she calls at a bad time, I will tell her what is going on and ask, "do you really need to talk or can it wait?" Or even "can it wait until [specific time when I know I can call back]?"

It helps that she both respects my needs and is also pretty aware of how she is doing so if she says, "talk now", I can trust that it is important to make her my priority. Similarly, if the conversation is running on for a long time, I will sometimes say, "I need to get back to [task], are you OK if we finish up now?" and she will say "no" if she still still feeling very needy.

I realize this kind of blunt honesty isn't for everyone - it is not just about me speaking up for my needs but also her knowing it is really Ok with me if she lets me know about her needs. (Can you tell I come from a very high ask, not guess culture?)Even so, it has taken us a while to get there but she knows that I will really be there if she needs me but also lets my needs count as well as hers.
posted by metahawk at 12:07 PM on November 13, 2017

Thank you, everyone! I sent her a text last night, not wanting to let her reply go unanswered for too long, but not having time to call, just saying I was sorry I had told her to contact me whenever and then not keeping my promise, but that now that the deadline was over, I hope we could meet soon. I also thanked her for worrying about me and assured her I was fine and doing what I wanted.

She replied this morning saying that she didn't want me to apologize for not being supportive enough, she wanted me to know that my tone had been too harsh and that she didn't think I understood that. She also said that it was my choice if I wanted to study really hard, and she knew I was focusing on my "married life" right now. (I swear I have never dropped the ball on a friend due to having a boyfriend/husband, because I hate that in other people, grad school just coincided with my legal marriage.)

She touched on what most people here said, that she shouldn't have talked to me without being able to see my face (she was the one who cancelled lunch and called instead...) and that she couldn't time her bad episodes with my free times. Which I get, but I also can't time my grad school deadlines which come from above...

Thank you for the advice, everyone, I really appreciate it and I can see where I went wrong now. I'll think of what I can do to make things up to her, but I probably need to let go of some frustration first.

*Since someone asked, "deadly busy" is a really normal Japanese saying that none of my Japanese friends nor my husband would find alarming (although I wouldn't overuse it), and since she is Japanese - which means a very much guess-oriented culture), she wouldn't misunderstand that. In hindsight, maybe I should have replied in German, which is my native language and which she is also fluent in, but I didn't at the time.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 12:58 AM on November 14, 2017

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