Boundaries & Feedback in the Time of COVID
April 6, 2020 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I’m realizing that one of my best friends is very self-centered and it’s gotten worse as life has gotten more challenging for everyone during quarantine. How do I give her feedback/set boundaries right now when I know that none of us are at our best and most resilient?

I recently found myself dreading texts from the aforementioned friend and avoiding reaching out to her. I realized that it’s because it almost always results in spending a bunch of time talking about the difficulties she’s having and how hard things are for her and how sad and anxious and depressed she is because of the pandemic. Aside from the fact that she is quite a bit more comfortable and financially secure than most people during this time, I’m finding myself annoyed when she goes on at length about her struggles as if we are not all struggling.

I’d feel differently if she did more to ask me how I’m doing or support me in my struggles, but when I do share with her I usually just get a single sentence’s worth of “I’m sorry, that sounds hard.” She doesn’t really ask how I’m doing or follow-up with questions or to ask for status updates on the things I’ve shared with her and in reflecting back, she didn’t do that before the world started ending either. This is true for things I share that are both positive and challenging. She has been a good, supportive friend at times, but I’m feeling now in hindsight that it’s always been more about her. I’m beginning to feel as if she offers me a basic amount of support and connection in order to keep me engaged so she can get what she needs.

I have a habit of ending up in relationships that are unbalanced, with me giving and listening more than I receive those things in return. I’ve been working on it in therapy and am learning how to listen to my feelings and then turn them into boundaries and feedback that support more balanced, mutual relationships. It’s a new skill, though.

I recognize that I’m also not at my best right now and I don’t want to end the friendship or take actions that would damage it, but I don’t want to continue interacting in the way we have been. Avoiding her isn’t a good option because it doesn’t change the dynamic and it makes me feel guilty and like a bad friend when she does reach out, until she goes into a multi-paragraph speech about how hard things are for her right now. I feel utterly stumped by how to talk to her about this, though.

How can I make our interactions less draining or offer her feedback/set boundaries that protect my energy?
posted by Colonel_Chappy to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You're right that this is a bad time to be confrontational or make big changes in friendships. Have you tried reflecting her behavior back onto her ever? By this I mean, when she dumps a big paragraph of stress on you, just reply "I'm sorry, that sounds hard" and nothing else. No follow up questions or anything other than acknowledgment that her feelings are valid. See if she notices. She might try to ask you direct questions like "what should I do???" and you can say back "I don't think anything I could say will help you much. I'm sorry, it's so hard." See if by retreating in this way she stops opening herself up to dump on you as often.

You could also use the pandemic as a great reason to make scheduled boundaries, too. Tell her that you're trying to keep to a stricter schedule to help with sleeping and stress and mitigating your screen time/social media stuff, or whatever makes sense for you. Say you'll only be looking at your phone to reply to texts during certain times of the day; you can even set up an auto-reply and set yourself to away on a number of messaging platforms and phone types.

If she does reach out to you and ask how you're doing, what's going on in your life, respects your schedule, etc, then offer her your friendship in response.
posted by Mizu at 2:19 PM on April 6, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Some people are just expostulators. Is that your friend? Or are you encouraging her by making the small talk most of us make, and that you yourself are missing in your exchanges? Some friendships are "I talk and unload, and then you talk and unload, and it really isn't about back and forth" and that's okay to.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:34 PM on April 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In addition to Mizu's excellent suggestions, how about if you also tried asking her more directly for what you need in the moment that you need it? Don't silently let your needs pile up until you're feeling sad and resentful about how little your friend cares about you! Recognize your need in the moment, and ask for the thing.

For instance,

You: [Talk about an issue]
Friend: I'm sorry, that sounds hard.
You: It is. I could really use extra support right now. Could you check in on me tomorrow, do you think? I find it hard to reach out when I'm not coping well.


You: [Talk about an issue you're going through]
Friend: I'm sorry. That must be tough. [Tries to change subject]
You: It really has been tough on me. I'm really glad I have someone is supportive enough to listen. [Continue talking through your issue]


Friend: [Starts conversation without checking how you're doing]
You: Oh, I haven't had any energy to think about all that. I'm still dealing with [old issue] like I said last week.
Friend: Aw, I'm sorry, that must be rough.
You: It's driving me nuts. [Continue talking about your issue]

Sometimes we have to coach ourselves to learn to take up space in relationships. It's okay for you to monopolize the conversation sometimes. It's okay for you to ask your friend to focus on you sometimes. Not taking up the space you need is a recipe for building up resentment against the other person.
posted by MiraK at 2:36 PM on April 6, 2020 [41 favorites]

Best answer: Oh man I hear you here. I have a group of friends and maybe one or two of them who are in this boat. Not necessarily more comfortable/secure but also they have a subjective feeling that things are extra bad for them and they want to talk about it a lot. And, like you, they don't really leave space for me to have the same degree of talking about my stuff.

What I usually do is plan interactions "Hey I have 30 min for a phone call" or "Let's chat on Signal this evening before I go to work" which can bookend the conversation so it's not always some looming gloomy text that you don't want to answer. And be proactive. Tell your friend you are going to change things up. Emphasize that you still care about them. But also be more "sticky" about talking about your own things and when time's up for their end of it, try to be a little more assertive about "Yeah I really need some help with this problem" or whatever. But I
'll be honest, in some cases, I just either somewhat ghost them or shift entirely to exchanging long emails (these friends are often exactly the same ones who don't like email I think because it doesn't get the spot light on them with someone else, oh well) so we can at least exchange news. Letters can often be good for this also.

Alternate: I have been looking into video chatting using Jitsi and I have to say I LOVE the feature where it can tell you how much speaker time each person is using. Maybe you can try a few Jitsi chats and then be like "You know, you are doing 85% of the talking and it's getting a little tiring for me"
posted by jessamyn at 2:47 PM on April 6, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If she's been this way for awhile, not just in response to the crisis, I'd judge that little but therapy will change her. The choice, then, is yours: Courage to change the things I can change; serenity to accept the things I cannot change; and wisdom to understand the difference.

If you decide you cannot change her--I hope you will--the self-protective thing is to limit contact. Hard I imagine to do for you; easy for me to suggest.
posted by tmdonahue at 3:01 PM on April 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is your friend in therapy? If not, suggest it.

Another thing you can do, in line with suggestions above, is to put some boundaries on your time with her. If she sends you a flurry of texts, you can say "Sorry that's going on - I'm busy with X right but I have time to chat this evening around 6 if you're free then." If this means inventing some structure for yourself, that's okay. Have an exit strategy too - "Gotta go - my mom is calling/the timer just went off/whatever."

It's been helpful for me to learn that different regions/subcultures have different cultural expectations. You might be able to have a meta conversation with this friend - perhaps when you're less frustrated - about how you both think of conversational roles. Some people expect others to share what they want to share without prompting because questions are invasive, others feel that asking questions to show interest is essential.
posted by bunderful at 3:06 PM on April 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Next time she calls, and she starts wallowing (sorry) just tell her you heard of a technique you can try and is she interested in hearing it? Tell her every time she calls instead of going into detail about everything that’s wrong with her life, she has to talk about three things she’s grateful for and you’ll do the same. No wallowing allowed. Hopefully she’ll give it a try because it can actually work.

If she turns her nose up at it or shows no interest in changing the dynamic, you’ll know she’s really not interested in fixing anything, she just wants to use you as a dumping ground.

For her to be constantly doing this to you is bad for your own mental health, and I’d tell her as much (kindly) and that you care about her but if she can’t stop doing it, you’re going to have to start changing the topic or cutting back your conversations because it’s starting to affect you and that’s not fair. Next stop for her; therapy.
posted by Jubey at 3:41 PM on April 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with Mizu's suggestion of saying things like, "That sounds difficult," "How frustrating," "I'm sorry you're dealing with that." These are actually good responses anytime, because they imply empathy and don't involve giving advice or solving a problem. When someone does ask me for advice, my first line is to ask what options they can think. This is way less effort than suggesting things yourself, and I don't get frustrated that they're not trying whatever suggestions I might give.

I also agree with Jessamyn that it's okay to begin the conversation by saying you can allow a certain amount of time. Another possibility is to say that you're stressed and ask to talk about positive things.

I had the same problem with a couple of people in my life. I felt as if all my listening wasn't helping them at all, and I kept hearing about the same things again and again. After rehearsing with my therapist, I was able to say to each of them, "I find we keep talking about the same issues. I'd like my role to be _______ and ______; I don't want the role of someone to vent to." Of course I said it in the kindest way I knew how.
posted by wryly at 3:42 PM on April 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just be like "hey I need you to show more that you care about me. I know it's tough right now. But I need you to try to take more of a real interest in me and my life. That would mean a lot to me."

Things to avoid:

1) making it an "always" or an "you've been like this forever" thing
2) talking more about what you don't want than what you do---try to focus on what you'd like to see
3) talking it to death---I'd actually have a built-in excuse like "hey, you know what, the doorbell is ringing, let's get back to this later" or something if either one of you starts getting super upset.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 3:48 PM on April 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I had a friend who was, not exactly like this, but similar enough. She was going through a legit tough time (that I was not), but it got to the point where I couldn't keep doing what we were doing and stay friends.

I picked a day when we were getting together anyway (for you it'd be a call) and I started it out with "okay, I'm not doing so great today, so we're only going to be positive or lighthearted. If you really need to vent or something, that's fine, we can get together another time; I'm sorry you'd need to find someone else today. But I'd love to talk to you about [what we've been watching on TV/funny pet stories/etc.]." And for the rest of that evening, whenever The Misery came up, I lightly said, I'm sorry, we just can't, not tonight." And it worked! I didn't do it every time, but she was actually someone who was able to get the picture and things got more balanced.

I will add that there is a weird balance right now, in that a lot of people I know who can chat for ages are struggling for conversation. I think it's partly that most of us just aren't DOING anything, so there's not a ton to talk about. I think a lot of people are defaulting to talking about the challenges of this experience because it is all that's going on in their lives.

Not sure what to do with that thought, except maybe think of conversational directions ahead of time. Good luck dealing with your friend.
posted by gideonfrog at 3:49 PM on April 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I text one friend every day, and every day she goes on about how miserable she is. I'm not going to straighten her out; she has good reasons and may recover at some point, but honestly before this happened she was just as self-centered. I like her anyway. When I talk about what I'm going through, she says, "You're so cute!" as if the fact that I'm dealing better than she is with just as much is adorable.

I just text a different friend right after I text her, for balance. And I don't spend too long on our exchanges. That works for me.
posted by Peach at 4:27 PM on April 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think I’ve been your friend before in a relationship. It came as a complete and pretty heartbreaking shock when my then-friend told me I was a bad friend, unloaded 7-10 years of festering resentments on me, and then essentially dodged contact from then on.

It doesn’t sound like the same situation exactly - I asked about and followed up on her stuff too, but probably to a lesser degree than I should have because I was in a very rough period myself.

Here’s the thing - I vented about my stuff to her because I felt like I had nowhere else to vent, and because I thought we were close enough friends that she’d vent to me in turn whenever she needed to. She did not, and she grew resentful and eventually quite mean. I thought it was reciprocal, she thought I was just dumping on her. When she did mention a few things in her life, I often would say “that’s really hard” - but not as a request to shut up and get back to me, but as a way to validate her feelings and be with her in her pain and discomfort. I’d have been happy to problem solve if she’d wanted, but it seemed equally problematic to jump right in with “have you tried this? How about this?” Sometimes she was too problem-solving with me when all I wanted was a verbal hug, and I didn’t want to do that to her.

I think the thing that would have saved the friendship, and hopefully can still save yours, is a very frank and honest but also open-hearted and kind discussion. It would been so so much better if she had said, “you know, I feel like we’re spending a lot of time talking about you and not much time talking about me and my feelings. Can we adjust this balance?” I would have replied “oh my goodness, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even realize I was doing that, YES, tell me what’s going on with you.”

Instead I assumed she’d be as straightforward with expressing her needs to me as I was to her. She assumed if I wasn’t spending as much time asking as talking, I didn’t care. Two bad assumptions, and now a broken friendship that may never improve.

Don’t be us. Don’t wait till the pandemic is over - there will always be a next thing and a next thing and your resentments will build until you’re not interested in putting any more work into the friendship and she’s bewildered and heartbroken. Talk now. Bring it up with as much kindness and with as many assumptions about her good intentions (if cluelessness) as possible. Lay out clearly what you’d like instead. Be reassuring that you love her and do care about her issues and feelings, but want space for yours as well.

My former friend hurled a lot of abuse at me at the end, including that I didn’t care about other people and some even more hurtful falsehoods. I do care, and always have. I’m just an idiot sometimes and need things spelled out. Spell them out for your friend if you possibly can. Even if it hurts her a bit in the short term, it is much much better for both of you and your friendship in the long run to double-down on communication right now. Good luck, and I’m sorry you’re going through this.
posted by bananacabana at 7:45 PM on April 6, 2020 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I've been your friend too. I had a friend who repeatedly would say she didn't want to focus on her personal issues and would often be irritated if I would ask. Since she talked freely about many other things, I assumed if she wanted to raise her personal issues, then she would. So she talked about her stuff and I talked sometimes about my issues and I thought everything was good until one day she exploded with three years of hurt feelings. Even if she didn't want to discuss her issues, in her view I should have been asking. She kept saying I didn't care about her feelings, which I absolutely did. I had been trying to respect her feelings and I always made sure we had equal "air time" in conversation.

Why don't you try talking it out in a way which explains what you need?
posted by frumiousb at 8:51 PM on April 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: i had a friend who was like this, constantly expecting neverending support and feedback from me on every aspect of her life, and utterly refusing to engage with anything i ever needed from her beyond (literally, fucking literally!) responding with shit like "omg" or "lol" or ">__>" while doing stuff like putting me down as her emergency contact for things despite us living in two different fucking cities! aaahhh!

anyway i tried the whole "can you please just be a supportive friend for one minute i am literally begging you" convo and it didn't do a fucking thing, and we're not friends anymore (bc when i finally said "i don't have the energy to give a shit about this right now," she flipped the fuck out) and my life is better for it. i have more room for supporting other friends who are emotionally reciprocal and i feel less terrible about wanting to talk about my own issues with people because i'm not constantly braced for a 100% dismissive and uninterested response.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:45 PM on April 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Set rules for yourself beforehand, and then stick to them like they are law. For example, notice after what amount of texting you start feeling bad, and then stop before you reach that point. So, say, you will do 5 minutes worth of texting her per day. When you reach that point, text her that you must go, and then don't check in again that day.

Doing it this way will protect your feelings somewhat, and not put you in the situation where you rationalize to yourself that just one more text is ok and if you don't you're a bad friend, and and and... You will also be teaching her that your undivided attention and caring is not an unlimited resource.

This is also a good situation to which to apply the time-honored Metafilter technique of "what advice would I give if this were a loved one?" Hopefully if your loved one described a situation like this to you, you wouldn't think they were a bad friend if they acted to protect their own feelings. You might even advise a loved one to detach from the friendship.

In my experience, people like this Do. Not. Change. So I wouldn't bother confronting her about the problems you're having with her behavior. I respect that you don't want to end the friendship, and maybe that's a good idea for you for now, but I'd also submit that the more you give yourself to shitty, unsupportive friends, the less mental room and time you have for connecting with non-shitty friends and making new ones.
posted by nirblegee at 3:19 AM on April 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to be a little more pushy, with an edge, I'm also feeling stress and having difficulties, and I need you to remember that a bit more often may be a useful message.

It's hard, we're all stressed, and I have been really surprised at how different people are reacting. One guy who seems really resourceful is utterly lost, lots of irritability, some outright fear, lots of friends who have common sense are doing lots of superstitious stuff. You have every reason to expect friends to be kind. If you can show extra kindness, good on you. You have been an amazingly good friend, take a couple days off.
posted by theora55 at 8:20 AM on April 7, 2020

Best answer: OP, I would also suggest that you work on your resentment against your friend in therapy before you say anything to your friend. There's a lot of anger in your post about stuff that sounds ... a bit peevish and unfair, honestly, to me as an outsider with no context. Rich people also have difficulties due to the pandemic, and rich people are allowed to lean on their friends for support. Even when she is supportive, you interpret it as she's keeping you hooked just to continue using you for her own needs! That resentment and anger needs to be processed BEFORE you speak to your friend about anything, if you really do want to preserve the friendship.
posted by MiraK at 12:41 PM on April 7, 2020

Best answer: Echoing those who are mentioning that it's very hard if not impossible to change a dynamic like this. Hard times often illuminate unpleasant realities of relationships that we have learned to work around. It's easy(ish) to give extra when you have extra to give, but when the going gets tough, that dynamic can become crushing for the giver. I went through a rough year last year, and when I had to pull back my giving, I realized to my own shock and sadness that I had a LOT of imbalances in my personal relationships. People I thought would rally around me and show me grace in a time of challenge were not willing or able to do that, despite knowing with every fiber of my being that I have the capacity to do that for them and, in many, many cases, already had many times for years. That said, I also realized I had a lot of fantastic and fulfilling relationships that were not receiving my full attention because I was being pulled away by the problematic ones.

For me, I took it as a wake up call that the problematic relationships needed to be be adjusted and I just...went ahead and started adjusting and let the chips fall as they may. What that looked like was doing what felt ethical and honest for me - being kind but direct about my availability or lack thereof, and giving them a window into what I was going through so they could hopefully understand and rethink their behavior. I wish I could tell you the end of this was that my loved ones adjusted and our relationships got better, but the honest truth is, they are all essentially different now, and ultimately more distant. I expect a few key ones will slowly fizzle with time even further and be memories, and I'm ok with that. Why? Because I learned that at the heart of it, those "friends" had different values than me, and my life was better when I focused on the people who align with my ethical framework without unreasonable effort on either side.

For you, I would recommend doing some adjusting - use your I statements, pull back your availability to something that feels comfortable for you and is inline with your ethics and values, and see if she can adjust. If she can't without it becoming a "thing," you'll probably have the info you need to assess the longevity of your friendship. Trust what you see.
posted by amycup at 12:57 PM on April 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who took the time to offer advice. Your responses made me feel more heard and understood than the friendship in question 😐 I marked every response best answer because each included a great tip or wisdom for me to reflect on.

For the time being, I’ll be utilizing mizu’s suggestion of just offering her back what she offers me — brief acknowledgements of what she said and some compassion/empathy that doesn’t open the door for long discussions. If that doesn’t lead to a reduction in the amount of time we spend on her and her issues, I’ll try some of the redirecting others suggested. I have already tried to set some boundaries around time and let her know that I’m struggling with my own energy levels and capacity, but the result has been that her venting is just longer to make up for what would normally be distributed through more conversations.

I also really took to heart the experiences of bananacabana and frumiousb who felt like they’ve been that friend in the past. I do genuinely believe in giving people a chance to do better, but I think if I were to make that explicit ask of her she would say that she’s too overwhelmed to show up for me in that way right now, which isn’t unreasonable given everything going on, except that she seems to expect me to show up for *her* that way. But her expectations are not my concern and I can respond in whatever way is within my own capacity right now.

Those who suggested that I should work on taking up space and asking for what I need are absolutely right. amycup’s comments spoke to an experience I’ve been having quite frequently since working to make my relationships more balanced, which is discovering that some of my relationships are not built on the foundation of mutual exchange and support that I had believed. I think there’s some more time and discussion that needs to pass between me and my friend (and more discussion for me in therapy) before I feel confident that that’s what’s happening here, but I think that’s a real possibility.

Re: rich people and pandemic suffering, it’s definitely true that everyone is feeling a lot of anxiety and uncertainty right now regardless of their wealth. My issue is not that she’s struggling despite being more comfortable than most, it’s that there’s a tone-deafness to the way she talks about her struggles that really turns me off. It’s hard to explain without giving specific examples, but you know those people who start talking about how hard it is to parent their fur babies when someone is talking about their challenges parenting human babies? Yes, taking care of a pet has its own challenges, but it’s not on the same level of difficulty at all. I also recognize that I’m not at my best either and I probably am more peevish and impatient than I would normally be.

Anyway, thank you again! This was really helpful.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 3:24 PM on April 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

« Older get/make transparent hard drive icons - why so...   |   Bread/baking recipes that require egg, but not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.