best friend's negativity driving me away
September 24, 2019 3:23 PM   Subscribe

I've been having a hard time feeling connected to my friend lately because she has just been so intensely, belligerently negative.

I consider her my best friend and we have been friends for over half of our lives, since childhood. She lives far away, and we have had a long-distance friendship for years. We were / (are?) very close friends and for a long time I really thought that if I had to invite just one friend at my imagined city hall wedding, I'd invite her.

Over the past 1-2 years, she has become increasingly negative. Everything I tell her (even when I think it is good news) manages to be spun in a negative way. Everyone outrages her. She acknowledges that she is angry and insecure these days and she's looking for a therapist, but she's said that she has been slow to find a therapist because she thinks therapists will judge her for her negativity. She doesn't really take an interest in my life. I noticed that I'm also more reluctant to share any significant event in my life with her because it either becomes a negative thing or I'm somehow afraid of getting her angry or upset, even though it hasn't happened yet. There are a lot of things that I want to share with her, but honestly don't feel comfortable sharing with her anymore because I feel like the response will be only painful or uncomfortable in some way. I feel like I'm mostly on the receiving end of daily rants about how somebody in her life doesn't get it and is racist and bigoted and passive aggressive or borderline personality disordered and so on.

I think in the past we had a friendship in which... we provided one another space for this kind of griping. I don't know if it was ever this extreme, but I do remember that as teenagers, when there was nobody else in the world who had the patience or understanding to hear us out with all our petty complaints, this friendship provided that space. I feel weird being the one to say, "enough with the negativity already!" when I know that in the past I actually felt that having the space to vent and get validation was very helpful to my own development. It is possible that I've simply gotten to a good place in my life where I do not experience many negative emotions or am not as deeply impacted by negative emotions, so now it suddenly feels like she's on a different wavelength.

There's nothing really toxic about the friendship, mostly just that she's very negative and diffusely insecure these days and I sense some sort of fragility within her that makes it hard to talk to her or give her any feedback. I think it also might not help that I'm kind of lukewarm about her fiance for reasons... my impression is that her relationship might be an area of insecurity for her. I've heard almost nothing about his personality or anything, just her gushing about his intelligence, academic field, and implying that she herself is highly intelligent for associating with him.

What can I do to both protect my own sanity but also be supportive and maintain this friendship if possible? I have so much history with her that I am very hesitant to do anything that might sever the friendship. Have you ever been in a situation like this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What do you want to look back on regarding this moment when you’re on your deathbed one day? Do that. Once I got much more well in myself I found I could hold space for folks who are struggling. In the current era given the political and ecological situation there will he more folks consumed with depression and positionally unable to get help. If you’re unable to help, you can’t help, and you can be open and honest about that to yourself and to her. You can also bust ass to get yourself well if that’s a practical possibility and need in your own life. I find people who frame things as positivity and negativity, and curate for positivity, tend to replicate structural problems. Like, I’m holding space right now for someone who is really really making decisions I don’t agree with - I’m showing up without validating bad decisions. I couldn’t do that years ago and I’m honoured to do it now. There’s a lot of compassion in your question - for you, and for her, lean into that.
posted by Mistress at 3:47 PM on September 24, 2019 [20 favorites]

This sounds like the kind of scenario that Captain Awkward is especially good at giving advice about. Scroll back through the archives of the Friendship topic and look around.
posted by matildaben at 4:34 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Can you become a little bit less available for communication? It's not clear what the frequency of your chats are, but it's fine to pull back, especially if she shows little interest in your life and you're also reluctant to share with her for reasons that are completely understandable. She needs a therapist and using you to just vent at instead is not appropriate. Her showering you with daily rants is especially not ok.

I'd pull back and then, if she directly asks about what has changed, I'd tell her. Honestly, what do you have to lose? You don't have to be cruel, but you can tell her that you find the negativity of the conversations to be difficult. I had a friend like this in my late teens and early 20's. Every time we got together I noticed that we were extremely negative and judgemental together. After a few years, I noticed that I was dreading her calls because they made me feel kind of gross. All that negativity just stuck to me for awhile and it was exhausting to talk to her (or, be talked at by her) and I ended up having a negativity hangover that continued even after we were finished talking. I also noticed that spending time with my other friends didn't do this to me.

I faded back and then the friendship ended naturally when she found others who were more available to be negative with her. You don't have to stay friends with every friend you make and you don't have to stay friends with people who don't show interest in your life and are just using you to vent at. That's not what a healthy friendship looks like. There's no prize for holding onto friendships that you've outgrown.

Encourage her to find a therapist and maybe tell her that you're also working on some life changes. No need to give her details, but maybe your life changes involve being less available to her.
posted by quince at 4:34 PM on September 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

It’s ok for friendships to ebb and flow. If you can’t be her support right now that’s ok but it’s also ok to try and rekindle it later
posted by raccoon409 at 4:56 PM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

I've been your friend, and I've also been you. The big takeaways from that dumpster fire are:

(1) Nothing is a better teacher than having someone drop you because you're difficult to be around.
(2) No one should feel entitled to having a non-professional listener deal with them being constantly difficult.
(3) Being discerning about the kinds of behaviour you enjoy being around eventually helps everyone be a better friend to someone (even if that someone isn't you right now).
(4) The corollary of "to have a friend, be a friend" is that you don't get the benefits of friendship (including emotional support) if you habitually don't show up as, well, a friend.

Look, it's healthy and even necessary for friendships to provide some space for griping. The healthiest friendships probably involve some degree of self-regulation on everyone's part to be able to shift gears away from griping towards other states. I'm not trying to make a case for one of these "positive vibes only" situations, yet, to quince's point, she does need to recognize that her continually being negative with you has an effect on you. Griping can't be the sum and whole of a relationship and TBH, someone who's only showing up to gripe isn't showing up well as a friend. Maybe she doesn't have the capacity to be a good friend right now. That's understandable, but it doesn't mean she gets to use you as an audience for her grar. If therapy is something she's uncomfortable with right now, there's journalling or even vlogging if what she really needs is a witness.

In my experience, it was that mid-late 20s period (that, doing the math, it sounds like you guys are in) where people started being a hell of a lot more discerning about how their friends were being friends. It meant that folks whose annoying behaviour was only merely being tolerated started finding themselves alone on a lot of Saturday nights. I might sound like a jerk saying all of this, but really, withdrawing from her life in a big way would be a real kindness. Be honest and compassionate with her if she asks, but she will learn that in general, she won't be able to keep up this dynamic in her friendships. You will feel better, and she will eventually learn to be a better friend if you start pulling back.
posted by blerghamot at 6:06 PM on September 24, 2019 [11 favorites]

I have been this friend. People engaged me less, but I'm incredibly thankful for the friends that didn't ditch me altogether because I had a lot of support elsewhere but was just going through a lot of heavy stuff, and I try to go out of my way to be there for friends who otherwise are pushing away the "positive only" people, and it would have been devastating to find myself isolated on top of everything else I was managing.

You do you, just sharing the perspective of someone who has been that overwhelmingly negative person and who has supported overwhelmingly negative people.
posted by crunchy potato at 6:20 PM on September 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you have the emotional bandwidth to do it, you could look into ways to help her be more positive when she’s around you, like shutting down negative avenues of conversation, praising her when she says something neutral or positive, counteracting her negative spin with positive spin of your own. It would take a lot of work but, writing as a reformed negative person, I would hate to see you and her lose such an old friendship over something that is definitely trainable. I hope you find a good solution!
posted by EatMyHat at 7:26 PM on September 24, 2019

The crux of this seems to be that she acknowledges that she needs a therapist, but is afraid to see a therapist? She's using you as her release valve, which doesn't work for either of you. Can you frame this to her in a way that comes across as concern for her : "You've changed and I'm worried about that, how can I help you to get help" ?
You will know whether it's time to tell her: "I'm sorry, but when you say x thing, it makes me feel really bad, so I'm not going to speak about x thing." or whether that will push her into defensiveness.
Avoid vague, general mentions of "negative" or "complaining all the time" because it sounds like she's already primed to respond badly to that. Try not to frame the issue as "negative" vs "positive".
Don't just try to power through and ignore your feelings "because that's what a good friend is supposed to do". You can't help your feelings, but on the other hand, she's not telepathic. When this has happened to me, I ended up resenting my friend, because I could not find a way to tell her what I felt, which was not reasonable of me.
posted by Zumbador at 10:15 PM on September 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

Obviously different things speak to different people, but the long term partner of a very negative friend of mine once said to him : "Look, you can be part of the Yes or you can be part of the No.”

It didn’t suddenly turn him into a happy smiling person, but it has stuck with him through years of emotional growth.

To be fair there is an implied threat in it, as no one can be expected to stick with someone who has accepted themselves as part of the No.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:47 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I understand this and have been in exactly your situation.

The nice thing about friendships (as opposed to romantic partnerships) is that you can just go with the ebbs and flows a little more fluidly. It's totally socially acceptable to dial down the friendship a little and take a step back for now. You can go into 'holding mode'/maintenance for a bit, keep in touch, don't drop her like a hot potato but not make yourself available for long one-to-ones where she complains endlessly about her issues and you're expected to just sit there and listen. Maybe invite her to group-outings or events where you don't have to talk too much e.g. a movie.
posted by unicorn chaser at 5:05 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

i was the super negative friend whose friends hated her. in college, a couple friends literally said to me: "you're way too negative, and we don't like you anymore, and we don't want to be friends with you anymore." and that was incredibly hurtful.

the thing is, i was so negative because my depression was crushing, and one of the ways my depression manifests is anger. lots and lots of anger. but i didn't know this about myself then, and so i was just an angry negative person.

your friend acknowledges she needs/wants a therapist. you should encourage her to do that and maybe see a regular doctor about some medication. if you tell her she's too negative and you can't deal right now, that may irreparably harm your friendship. it did with mine, as i never trusted them again.

what i might suggest is telling her to see the therapist, maybe giving her some names to call if she doesn't have the spoons to deal with finding one (it is super difficult) and tell her you'll check in with her in a couple weeks/months. it might be hurtful at first, but once she's been in therapy for a bit, she'll likely be able to better understand your choice.

you're also allowed to ditch her completely. but if you do, do it in a nice way, that doesn't imply she's a shitty person.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:33 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think there's a middle path between ditching your friend completely on the one hand (too cruel) and meekly "holding space" for her on the other (too hard on you, and eventually you'll either explode at her or wind up ditching her anyway).

Be her friend, but have a frank talk with her: "Cynthia, I noticed you are unhappy all the time and every word out of your mouth is something negative. I love you and want to be your friend, but you need more than I, a well-meaning amateur, can provide for you right now. What is preventing you from seeing a therapist? Can you keep a journal? You need to do something more than just dump on your friends, because your negativity is making it hard to be a really good friend to you. Is there anything I can do to help?"

You want to be the steadfast person who sticks by your friends, yes, but you also want to have your own boundaries. Don't be a doormat or an endlessly patient sponge for her negativity. That is on her to work with, and she needs a professional to help her.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:49 AM on September 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

"I want to keep sharing things with you, but not if you're going to immediately shit on everything I say. I'm excited about [thing]. Can you be positive or at least neutral for me? I understand you're going through a hard time. Bringing me down is not going to help either of us."
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 9:22 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

%Friend, I'm really noticing a strong trend of negativity. Have you considered the possibility that you're clinically depressed? There are a bunch of depression self-tests on the web. Irritability/negativity is a symptom of depression.

Listen to complaints/ negativity for 15 minutes, then redirect %Friend, I just hit my complaint quota for today. Tell me about your cooking/favorite tv show/ project.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think in the past we had a friendship in which... we provided one another space for this kind of griping. I don't know if it was ever this extreme, but I do remember that as teenagers, when there was nobody else in the world who had the patience or understanding to hear us out with all our petty complaints, this friendship provided that space.

It sounds like this friendship has maybe run its course. It's like if you used to be friends because you played tennis together, and the main thing you did was play tennis, and you didn't really see each other outside of tennis. And now you don't play tennis anymore!

I'm really struck by the fact that you don't include anything positive about this friendship. Do you enjoy talking to her at all? Is she great except when she's doing this? Or is this all there is? If the latter, it's probably time to dial your level of contact way back.
posted by Ragged Richard at 2:02 PM on September 25, 2019

If she's negative about her own life, listen and provide suggestions and encourage her to get therapy. If she's negative about your life, correct her there and show her that you're hurt. This runs from "no, I meant that as a good thing, I really like it :-D" to "Wow, hey, I was trying to tell you about a GOOD THING in my life and now I feel shitty about it, can you be a little nicer?"
posted by Lady Li at 2:40 PM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

You can also try "what's something that's made you smile recently?" or "hey, did you see that cute cat video?" Or other more specific questions, if she's just in the habit of complaining being how you bond.
posted by Lady Li at 2:42 PM on September 25, 2019

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