“Are you guys mad at me?”
July 3, 2019 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I always think my friends are mad at me for some reason, even though there’s no real reason for me to think so. This makes me pretty miserable a lot of the time. I’d like to find a way to address this.

The problem is actually pretty simple to state, but alas, not so simple to deal with: after I hang out with a friend for an evening or however long, I inevitably come to believe that I must have said something to make them angry or upset with me, even when there’s actually zero indication that they feel that way. I then spend a whole bunch of time afterwards trying to read tea leaves, so to speak, to figure out whether they seemed subdued when we said goodbye, or whatever. Even if they say something like, “Ok, I’ll pick up the check next time,” I worry that they thought about it afterwards and changed their mind. The worry generally continues until I actually get some outward sign from them that they’re not upset, like a friendly text or what have you. But needless to say, the whole damn cycle starts again the next time I see them in person.

I’m not really sure what to do about this. My rational mind tells me that I have no cause to worry. My rational mind actually believes this, truly. I give myself little lectures, like, “Sock, you really can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’re going to drive yourself mad. This has no basis in reality.” The only problem is that I can’t get the emotional brain to go along with it, and unfortunately, that part of my brain is a lot louder than the rational part. I feel as though I’m effectively killing the beneficial effects of having relationships by worrying myself to death about them.

So. I’d really appreciate any suggestions anyone can give me. I was in therapy for a number of years (like, really, a lot), and it helped me tremendously in many ways. But this particular problem remains.
posted by O Sock My Sock to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
When I feel this way (and it’s not uncommon for me to feel this way), I’m trying to get better at asking them. So if a friend that I find hard to read isn’t being overly enthusiastic via text, I try to work up the nerve to say something like, “you aren’t mad at me, are you?” And when, 95% of the time the answer is in fact no, they are not mad at me, I then explain that I sometimes have anxieties about that sort of thing and that, if it’s ok, I might ask them a few more times in the future. Which, if your friends are decent people, they should be okay with.

And then I do ask, as needed. And I try hard to take them at face value - if I ask them a question, it’s useless unless I’m willing to believe their answer. For me, sometimes naming my anxieties to other people helps. So if I am auditioning or interviewing for something, I’ll tell them I’m nervous. Or if I feel uncomfortable with something I’ve never done before, I’ll put that out there. It helps sometimes, just the verbalizing and acknowledging of the fact that this is something wacky my brain is doing.

(Mine also takes the form of “they probably don’t actually want to hang out with me but are just being nice.” Taking things at face value - like, they were the ones who invited me and then greeted me warmly and then hung out with me and worked on a project together with me and gave me snacks and stuff probably means that they like me and want to hang out because they like me - it’s not a pity hang out, it’s a hey-we-are-friends-and-I-like-you hangout.)

*hugs* brains are wacky.
posted by firei at 9:12 PM on July 3 [1 favorite]

My rational mind tells me that I have no cause to worry. My rational mind actually believes this, truly. I give myself little lectures, like, “Sock, you really can’t keep doing this to yourself. You’re going to drive yourself mad. This has no basis in reality.” The only problem is that I can’t get the emotional brain to go along with it, and unfortunately, that part of my brain is a lot louder than the rational part.

Those lectures are too complicated. The sub-rational parts of our minds don't really do complicated; think of them as rather unruly puppies you're trying to train, and work with them the same way. So, complicated is out, unkind is out, and more than a few seconds after the fact is also out.

What does work is instant, simple, direct and positive counters to irrational beliefs. Whenever you notice yourself explaining a feeling of sinking insecurity by telling yourself "my friend is mad at me", you need to get straight back in there with "my friend likes me just fine". And if you then find yourself trying to get in an argument with yourself along the lines of "well if my friend likes me just fine then why do I feel so terrible right now?" you answer "because parting company with a friend is a loss, and I am still learning to manage the associated anxiety".

Because when it comes right down to it, it's not about your friends. It's about your feelings in the immediate aftermath of parting company with one of them, and the beliefs that you are currently in the habit of using to make those feelings make sense to you and fit within your present worldview.

You can't change the feelings themselves - nobody can do that, it's not how feelings work - but there is absolutely no reason why you need to remain stuck with any specific set of beliefs that are currently associated with them.

And again, think unruly puppies. Your rational brain is fully aware that hanging out with a friend for an evening needs to end when the evening does, but your puppy part absolutely does not comprehend this. All it knows is that you were just a minute ago having a fine time with your friend, and now you're not, and the second thing feels worse than the first thing, and it now has a really strong need to understand why this is happening so as to keep you safe from this bad thing happening again.
posted by flabdablet at 11:06 PM on July 3 [49 favorites]

One more thing - and this is a point frequently missed by rational minds (hell, I know mine misses it all the fucking time) - is that knowing a thing and applying that knowledge are not the same thing. The second one involves much more work than the first.

Yes, your rational mind really does know that your friends like you just fine. And it's all very well for our rational mind to sit there in its little ivory tower feeling all smug and superior when puppy-mind presents it with difficulties; but all the knowing in the world is actually completely useless to us as a whole until Smartarse Rational Mind actually gets off its smart rational arse and does the work of applying that knowledge at those times when doing so is useful instead of indulging in endless narcissistic self-congratulation about what a wonderful rational being I am oh yes indeed.

Rational minds are also quite susceptible to mistaking themselves for our whole selves. Their customary method for achieving this is to distract themselves with the fact of their own existence as soon as they're woken up. A regular meditation practice can be very helpful in breaking this common habit, helping us get better at redirecting our rational mind's attention to where it actually needs to be in any given moment.
posted by flabdablet at 11:21 PM on July 3 [13 favorites]

Ah, yes. I understand this so well. I have the most wonderful friends, and I truly endeavor at all times to be the best friend I can be. But I feel this way all the time because of their emotional health, beautiful relationships (not idealizing, I really do have friends who are so securely attached you could anchor off it) and general calmness.

So our conscious mind can't just wish away our unconscious/emotional mind. What we can do is talk to it. The best way for me, and I think you should try this tomorrow, is by writing. Write yourself a letter from yourself on why you're a good friend to them. Be specific, I mean you're you after all. Please report back if this works for a bit. That's enough.

Also, talking to them is the best remedy. Everyone doubts themselves. Your anxiety is telling you that only YOU doubt and SO MUCH MORE than anyone ever could. That's false. If you explained to a friend, I think they would be sympathetic. You don't even need to go into the biggest detail if that's too hard just "I value our friendship, I hope you know that." and I am sure they will reciprocate. I've never had one of these conversations go poorly. What did go poorly was how I literally a week ago had convinced myself my very good friend who I worked with just didn't care about our relationship at all. Not cool, brain! Anyway, you got this.

I should stress above all you need to get this out of your head via writing or talking. (Hello, wonderful wonderful therapy!) I bet writing this made you feel better and you were like "aw geez, my brain is stupid" afterward but in a relieved, happy way. That's because you can talk to yourself and manage this.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:50 PM on July 3

Yeah, I’d start with a friend you particularly trust and, before this happens, share with them what you’ve told us: you get these notions that they’re mad at you, and you’re trying to work through it... and one way to do that is by talking about it an naming it when it isn’t happen, so that maybe when you are feeling this way, you can ask for some reassurance.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:44 AM on July 4

As someone in their 5th year of therapy, you may want to consider some inner child therapy and psychodynamic therapy, and doing some reading on inner child therapy methods. Everyone else is suggesting CBT-style ways of working, but honestly, those methods didn't really work for me until I processed the trauma and experiences that helped make that thought process sticky in the first place. I am of the firm belief that we have these thought processes as a way that we internalized an event or a series of negative events, and then did not get the proper support we needed to interrupt the setting in of those feelings. They are survival mechanisms for extremely unpleasant situations, where we blamed ourselves because we at least had control over our part of the situation, and if we took blame for the entire situation, well, we could always change and fix it for next time, right?

Simply telling yourself and cancelling it out is a useful tactic in addition to doing the difficult work of locating the root feelings. I would suggest combining both, and also being upfront about needing reassurance and having difficulties with your friends about it. I literally just had a conversation with a friend of mine today about how I have deep anxiety just bringing up my own interests, because of a million reasons and a half. He's reassured me again, but I know ultimately I have to process the pain where this comes from, because his reassurances are not enough in comparison to me being able to heal the wound that created this in the first place.
posted by yueliang at 12:46 AM on July 4 [9 favorites]

I mean you can undertake therapy if you want, but this also sounds like the kind of anxiety or intrusive thoughts OCD that can be helped with medication. That's the sort of thing your primary care nurse or doctor can help you with.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:48 AM on July 4 [4 favorites]

As an anxiety / depression / overthinking prone person, I understand. And this very much falls under anxiety / depression / overthinking brain stuff. Did you specifically try to tackle THIS issue in therapy? If not, I suggest bringing it up as a specific area to work on. (And, depending on how it impacts your life, talking to a doctor.)

This can definitely come from things in your background. Specifically I know I feel this way because I was bullied, because I grew up in a toxic and abusive environment, now I'm disabled and that makes social things complicated, etc.

In general, part of it is realizing that if someone doesn't like you - as long as you're not being a total jerk - it's not your problem. If someone is mad at you and won't talk about it like an adult, it's not on you to bend yourself into a pretzel to solve. If you DO upset someone and you talk about it, then you can hopefully find a resolution. If you can't, well, you can't. And I try to take people at face value with words and actions.

I think part of it is trying to find out WHY you don't trust those words/actions at face value. Does it only happen with specific friends? If so, why do you think that is?

For example, I had a lot of two-faced friends or toxic upbringing where people were doing things as manipulation. That means I'm slow to trust that people will follow through or do what they say. But it's about trying to trust and realizing I can leave a situation if it becomes unhealthy. It's not the end of the world if someone gets mad at me.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:18 AM on July 4 [8 favorites]

I get this all the time. In my case the root cause is twofold: I grew up with parents who expected me to pick up on their constant displeasure through very subtle signalling (body language/expression rather than explicit conversation), AND I'm mildly autistic and often really struggle to interpret micro-expressions and gestures. This combines into a perfect storm of "everyone is definitely extremely mad at me personally all the time and it's stressful and confusing to try and interpret the way they're expressing that", like my brain is primed to look out for displeasure from others and bend over backwards to try to fix that silently in the background without anyone ever having to talk about it but I also find the inputs really challenging to process.

It might be worth thinking about where this behaviour comes from for you, and what in your past might have conditioned you to respond like this - I find knowing the cause of stuff like this makes it much easier for me to unpack and address it in the moment rather than feeling powerless over it.

The thing that has worked the most is reminding myself repeatedly in the moment, just as is recommended for some types of social anxiety, that 99+% of the time people are not thinking about me anywhere near as much as I am thinking about myself. I've had to retrain myself to interpret these gestures and expressions as noise, not signal, after being raised to believe that they are always signal and never noise. And on the very rare occasions when someone actually is mad or displeased at me personally, they are entirely within their rights to communicate that to me verbally and explicitly, and I don't need to worry or take any corrective action until they've actually told me it's a problem. I try to structure my friendships in ways that make it clear that this is how I work, that I need/value open and honest communication, that I really struggle with hints and suggestions and unspoken expectations, so please be as clear as you can if you need me to do something differently, etc.

This works most of the time, though my brain is still kind of dumb at it. Recently I was certain a close friend was mad at me, and had to go through a very conscious calculus of "no, they've got a ton of really stressful stuff going on personally and professionally at the moment [reminder to self of exactly what that stressful stuff was and why it was stressful], they look stressed and mad because of that, not because of me or anything I've done." And even then I still had a few moments of "NOPE THEY'RE DEFINITELY MAD AT ME PERSONALLY" and had to talk myself down again. It's hard but I feel like I gain traction the more I do it.

One thing that kind of sucks and makes this harder is the fact that lots of people are terrible at boundaries and saying no and being clear about what they need or want. This means I can't guarantee that someone isn't secretly mad at me just because they're not telling me. But I still have some agency in this, like by choosing to be open with my friends about how my brain rolls and what I need from them, especially if they want me to do things differently. If someone hears all that and still wants to be my friend AND still wants to get silently mad at me and try to manipulate my behaviour via subtle rather than explicit signals, that's very much on them (and also it will probably be pretty unsatisfying to anyone who's actually a manipulator in that way now that my default behaviour is "assume it's not about me and thus be generally oblivious to any kind of covert behavioural correction that is going on" rather than "immediately set off trying to fix whatever I have messed up based on the other person's facial expression and body language alone").
posted by terretu at 3:48 AM on July 4 [6 favorites]

Everything above is very good advice. One other thing-- allow yourself to be a human, ie weird and imperfect and prone to emotional buffeting. You don't have to ALSO feel bad that you have this mental habit. You can accept yourself as you are and still work to change these thought processes so that you will be happier.

What you're experiencing is really common. Letting yourself be vulnerable about it with a really trusted friend will help a lot.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:36 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]

I struggled with post-social anxiety for years and for me it came down to self-esteem. It took me a long time to get that my friends spent time with me because they enjoyed it and not as a reluctant social charity outreach. Once I was able to accept that my friends got real value out of time spent, I no longer felt the need to tear myself apart after seeing them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:42 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]

Sounds like an anxiety disorder. If years of therapy haven't helped, you might want to consider trying a low dose of klonopin every evening.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:12 AM on July 4

There's a crash that happens immediately after a fun evening with people, that can be hard to learn how to process. For a long time for me it took the form of feeling lonely and like something was wrong and then digging into every thing I had said or done through the evening to find what I had done wrong. Because I was feeling sad and bad and mopey, so everything I had said or done got filtered through that.

flabdablet called it "puppy mind" and I think that's a useful analogy. You were having a great time! You were connected! Now you're tired and alone and not connected any more. I picture a puppy whining outside the door trying to figure out why the playtime ended.

Give yourself a hug and some gentleness. It's understandable that you feel this way! You were having a really nice time and now it's over until next time. it's not really about your friends, as you know. It's about the way you're feeling.
posted by Lady Li at 8:33 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]

Gore Vidal was once asked, 'Do you ever worry what people think of you?' He replied something to the effect of, 'No, and other people should be far more concerned about what I think of them.' Maybe thinking about it that way will help you.
posted by zaixfeep at 11:09 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]

I had this issue before getting a good antidepressant. I think you need to talk to your doctor about medication.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:49 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]

Just a suggestion to phrase it as “you sound subdued, what’s up?” Instead of always asking “are you mad at me?” As the latter can get old fast. Plus it frames it as most likely not about you at all.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:51 AM on July 4 [5 favorites]

Asking "you sound subdued, what’s up?" instead of “are you mad at me?” is a great solution. When I remember to do this, it often turns out that the person I asked actually is having a hard time with something completely unrelated to me and appreciates the question. It also helped me to understand that sometimes when I feel as though someone is mad at me, it's because there is something going on (your emotional radar is correct), it's just not necessarily about you.

It's also interesting to hear the theory about parting with friends being a loss, I definitely feel this weird insecurity after parting and had never thought of it that way.
posted by maggiemaggie at 12:56 PM on July 4 [4 favorites]

I had this issue before my thyroid was properly treated. I was a paranoid, anxious mess. Just a data point.
posted by oflinkey at 2:21 PM on July 4

Just a suggestion to phrase it as “you sound subdued, what’s up?”

A data point of one here... But I wouldn't necessarily call this a great solution. It wouldn't work for everyone. I am one of those people who dislikes it when/if her friends ask "Are you mad at me?" I'm sorry if this makes me come off as a jerk. It's not meant to at all. But it feels like I am being put in the position of having to do the emotional labour of soothing their anxieties by reassuring them, "No, no, of course I'm not mad at you, everything is fine!". I've definitely had people ask me why I am being subdued as a poorly-veiled rephrasing of "are you mad at me" and in both cases the outcome is the same: I have to undertake the emotional labour of reassuring them that all is well.

I've read your question carefully and I appreciate you don't ask your friends to reassure you. That's good instinct on your part and I would urge you to listen to the answers to suggest help with anxiety rather than finding ways to get your friends to reassure you. Good luck! I realise the first part of my answer didn't sound sympathetic, but I've been there, and it's something that has lessened with age, and with proactively addressing my anxiety.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:55 AM on July 5 [3 favorites]

I don't think it has to be such a nuclear solution - real friends are pretty okay with reassuring you and will let you know when it gets to be too much. But I think problem-solving together would be beneficial. Honestly, I just let my friends take a piss at me and they send me gifs and memes that make fun of my sensitive side lovingly, or they crack jokes about the worst possible result so I can laugh or be mad about it and we banter. They all know how hard I work to not need reassurance, and I've been going through really steady, intense improvements in my mental health, but they also know that I don't take it personally if they do get irritated every now and then, because we all struggle with stuff. Friends are here for you, you know? Let them decide their capacity, and you can just check in with them.
posted by yueliang at 9:00 PM on July 6

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