Friends' anxiety makes me angry/anxious
July 19, 2021 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm not sure how to phrase this without coming across as ungenerous. My friends and I often offload to each other about our anxieties and problems. But on occasion, it gets too much and sends my emotions out of whack. And then I feel guilty for being ungenerous. How can I manage these situations better?

Background: I have anxiety (OCD/generalised anxiety disorder) which I have been actively working to manage, with greater or lesser levels of success, since I was a lot younger. I do a lot of research around emotional management, I have a therapist now (yay!), and I also have close, supportive friends.

I am very used to the notion of friends as emotional support. I'm very invested in maintaining my friend network. They're a big part of my life. I take for granted that when you have friends you listen to them, advise, and validate when they're going through a rough time. I would say I spend as much time listening to/supporting my close friends as they need to listen to/support me.

I am paranoid about emotional dumping onto my support network (I've posted on AskMe about this before). I don't always succeed, but I try very hard not to just dump negativity on people. For me personally, ruminating about bad stuff never improves my anxiety, so I try very hard not to do this too. I avoid a lot of triggers, and try to be conscious about when my thoughts are going into anxiety spirals. I should say I don't succeed all the time, I'm just trying to give a sense of where I'm coming from when I explain my problem.

Particularly given the state of the world as it currently is, a lot of my friends are not in a great place emotionally. Lockdown, isolation, worries about health and families, it's taken a toll on all of us. I've definitely participated in hours of mutual stressing and anxiety with friends over the phone or text as we commiserate with each other about how tough things have been.

But sometimes it gets a bit too much. One thing that gets to me is when friends don't check in to say Hi or how's your day but they'll suddenly blast your phone with 10 messages all to do with the thing they're feeling anxious about. So there I am just minding my own business and suddenly my phone blows up with texts and it's because a friend of mine is freaking out about climate change. Another thing that gets to me, and I realise I'm totally projecting here, is when I can tell that my friends are ruminating or reassurance-seeking - behaviours I recognise from an entire lifetime of living with OCD. I have offered to share resources around managing anxiety, but this is never accepted because to my friends, their anxiety isn't the problem, it's that funny bump on their elbow or local crime or that guy on the train who wasn't wearing a mask today that is the problem.

This stuff ruins my day. I hate feeling like I've just had a bucketload of negativity dumped on me out of nowhere and now it's on me to go and deal with it. I feel resentful, like - I've worked so hard, for so many years, to manage my feelings, and look at you, not even trying at all. With one person (not a close friend) it's particularly upsetting because I don't confide in him anymore after him losing his temper at me and telling me that listening to my romantic problems triggered him; but it seems okay for him to offload to me at great length about his love life. And not that it's a competition, but he has much more of a love life than I do!

I come away from interactions like this feeling angry and drained. It messes with my ability to retain an even keel emotionally, and that's what I'm seeking help with.

I worry about posting such a question to AskMe because I know many of us suffer from anxiety and the last thing I want to do is come across like an insensitive dick to people who don't know me. I could do with some advice about feeling more generous to others, or about being able to give myself the emotional space from others I need at times in order not to let their issues get to me.
posted by unicorn chaser to Human Relations (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yell "timeout!" and go outside and get some air.

You don't have to read every message. And you don't have to receive every last bit of their negativity.

Remember, you need to save yourself first before you can save others.
posted by kschang at 1:25 PM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

As someone who has been on the other end of this, it has sometimes been helpful for someone to kindly say, "hey, I know what's going on with the climate is scary for the world, but I'm worried about how hard it's affecting you in the day-to-day." The idea that there are ways to handle intense, bad, scary things other than "obsessing about them" or "living in denial" was really important to start hearing.

You may also add something like, "It reminds me of my own struggles with anxiety. Have you considered talking with someone about anxiety management or ways to cope?"

It may make then less likely to want to talk you about this stuff, but that's ALSO a part of learning to find other coping mechanisms and is ok - that's not a betrayal to teach them to be more thoughtful.
posted by Lady Li at 1:30 PM on July 19, 2021 [6 favorites]

I feel resentful, like - I've worked so hard, for so many years, to manage my feelings, and look at you, not even trying at all.

Just speaking to this, because it seems like the core of "ungenerous" reaction: if I had to guess, this reaction is as much about you as it is about them. Are there ways in which you are having unresolved anger about your own mental health struggles, and how they've caused you difficulties? This would be something to unpack in your own work, but my sense is that when we are more at peace with ourselves we are more generous to others.

It may also feel like you can't allow yourself to get back into the headspace of uncontrolled anxiety, even just in a sympathetic context, because that would undo your hard work. And maybe it's true, especially if you are struggling that day or very tired, etc. But surely, as you were beginning your own mental health and emotional work, there were times when you were doing the work but nonetheless lost control of your anxiety spiral? So when your friends are putting you in these situations it may be helpful to recite to yourself, "just because it isn't working, doesn't mean they aren't trying."

With one person (not a close friend) it's particularly upsetting because I don't confide in him anymore after him losing his temper at me and telling me that listening to my romantic problems triggered him; but it seems okay for him to offload to me at great length about his love life.

That dude's just kind of an asshole though. Feel free to just leave that bullshit on Read.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 1:39 PM on July 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Well! It sounds like you have a really good grip on managing your own anxiety.

So maybe now you're ready for the next learning stage, which is "how to draw a boundary between your own emotions and other people's feelingsdumps". And luckily your friends are giving you so many opportunities to practice.

I'm only sort of facetious. Maybe taking this point of view will help you maintain a bit of distance in the moment, when the next bit of feelingsdump comes a long.

Personally, I would try to become less responsive. Don't answer in the moment. Answer three hours later. Give more short "yeah that sucks" answers. I know this goes against the ...shape of your friendship the way it's been so far: mutual copious support. But that shape isn't working well for you anymore, is it. It's not egoistic to give your friends space to learn how to self soothe, the way you have learnt. Particularly annoying non-reciprocal guy.

Also, read Captain Awkward, there's loads of posts about friends dumping on friends!
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2021 [14 favorites]

First, you don't come across as an insensitive dick for asking this. Learning to better deal with your own reflected anxiety does not in any way hurt your friends and is good for everyone. My own anxiety tries to make me feel that when I only help myself I'm somehow hurting the other person but it's a complete lie. I think there's roughly two ways to deal with this: politely deflect the anxiety (which others have good suggestions for), or find a way to distance yourself from it. I'm awful at deflecting and feel really guilty when I try to do it so that didn't work well for me.

My solution to this is to take on a perspective similar to what a therapist does. I didn't really learn how to do this until I'd been in therapy myself for a few years, and I'm not sure I can totally recommend it as I sometimes slip into "therapist mode" when I should be more engaged. But basically the idea is to consciously build a barrier between their anxieties/emotions, and your own anxieties/emotions. Anything you can think about to create metaphorical distance can help with this, but it's key to reinforce that their problems are not literally your problems.

For instance, when you say you feel that "now it's on me to go and deal with it", it can help to remind yourself that it really is not on you. Your "job" as a friend here is to help defuse the anxiety/emotion by listening to it, but you're not expected to actually deal with the emotion or the root causes. It's their anxiety, not yours and most people just want you to listen and give vague reassurance and not actually process it in any way. Your anxiety may be lying to you about what your friends actually expect out of you. Of course if they do actually have unreasonable expectations (like that one guy you mention) ignoring them is a good start. It sounds like you're on a good track to addressing this yourself, and hopefully something here will help out!
posted by JZig at 1:46 PM on July 19, 2021

Is the problem more likely to come up in text messages than full-conversations? If so, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask your friends, in the interest of your own mental health, to avoid unloading via text unless they happen to be in some time-sensitive type of crisis. I know I'm just generally less patient with texting as a form of communication, so you're definitely not alone here. If it's also a problem during conversations, what happens if you say "hey, can we change the subject - it's not that I don't care about climate change, but I can feel too much of your anxiety rubbing off on me and I think I need a break for a little bit - could we circle back another day?"
posted by coffeecat at 2:34 PM on July 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think you're 100% right that this isnt thoughtful or friendly behavior on your friends part and I also think that therefore it doesn't require a completely thoughtful or friendly response. When I was younger the only kind of "friend" I could attract was the kind that saw me as a 1 way garbage can for bad emotions & nothing more. I have since decided I'd rather not have friends at all than live like that. Thank god for me this was before texting or I don't know what I'd have done. Anyway these people are abusing your kindness & you don't have to allow it. Other people probably have better ideas for how to start cutting it off.
posted by bleep at 2:45 PM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

just set a boundary along the lines of "please check in with me to see if I have the capacity to talk about emotionally heavy stuff before you dive into it, especially over text"
posted by Gymnopedist at 3:20 PM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Wow, I hear you on this, and in fact I've been going through something very similar myself. I've always been the listener in my group of friends and, for the most part, enjoyed the role until Covid. But this past year, I just haven't had it in me and I know some of my friends have been disappointed and even hurt.

In my case, I've found honesty to be the best tactic. I've had to tell a couple of people some version of "look, I know I've always been able to be a sounding board on these issues but right now I have to manage my own anxiety, and so I need to limit this kind of conversation and focus lighter and less personal topics." Most of them have understood, although in a couple of cases I've had to repeat myself a couple of times. One friend got snarky and insistent and she now gets an answer to about every tenth communication, if that. In all cases, they've found some other way to deal with things.

One thing to remind yourself is that you are responsible for yourself, full stop. It sounds like you are a little farther along in your journey than your friends might be, but as others have pointed out, that doesn't mean they're trying. Learning to set boundaries is an important part of the process and you are helping them with that. Plus, if you get completely drained to the point that you end up losing it with them and/or ending the friendship, that would not be a good outcome for any of you.*

*except the dude who wouldn't listen to you and now wants to dump on you. He's just a jerk.
posted by rpfields at 3:30 PM on July 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Correction above: "doesn't mean they're NOT trying." (Sigh.)
posted by rpfields at 4:12 PM on July 19, 2021

I really relate to your question (fellow OCDer in treatment), so I just wanted to say first that you’re not alone in feeling like this.

Some things that I have found helpful:
1) I’ve told my very close friends about my own tendency to seek reassurance and gotten them on board with trying not to give it to me (of course, it’s my responsibility not to ask in the first place, but sometimes I slip up). One side effect of this is that some of my friends have recontextualized reassurance-giving as unhelpful and have told me this has made them less prone to seek it, in turn!
2) I don’t give people reassurance for something I don’t feel okay about. For example, there have been lots of moments in the past 1.5 years where friends have said things like “Do you think x activity will give me covid?”, and usually I say “I genuinely don’t know”, because I don’t, rather than “don’t worry, you’re probably fine because of x, y, and z”. (One important note here is that I don’t “play therapist” - it’s not up to me to decide what’s good for another person. I will still give them comfort and think through the problem with them, even if I have doubts about whether those might exacerbate their anxiety in the long run.) But I feel pretty good about saying things like “That sounds scary, sorry you feel this way, I don’t have a good answer for you but I’m here to listen”.
3) Echoing the suggestions above re: not replying right away and/or having some sort of check-in, eg “Do you have a minute to listen to me vent about something I’m anxious about?”. It’s not unkind or unsupportive to say “Sorry, I can’t, but I’m sending you a hug!” or something of that nature.
posted by chaiyai at 4:40 PM on July 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've worked so hard, for so many years, to manage my feelings, and look at you, not even trying at all.

I mean this sounds correct to me. It is exhausting giving and giving while the people around you take and take. People who do this are using you. It's normal to feel angry and drained, because these people are angering you and draining you. Don't you worry about trying to be more generous, you're not the problem here.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:02 PM on July 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

So maybe now you're ready for the next learning stage, which is "how to draw a boundary between your own emotions and other people's feelingsdumps". And luckily your friends are giving you so many opportunities to practice.

Yeah, I could have written your question myself. We all had a hard time during COVID. For me, I felt like I continued to work on myself and try to manage my own awful feelings and some of my friends had some pretty real challenges and struggles. But at the same time, some people are very overt/outward about their struggles and feelings and some are not. As someone who has worked really hard at not doing reassurance-seeking all the time (and truly only does it if I'm in a real mess or with a few very close friends) I do sometimes get crabby when I feel like I'm working to not dump on people and yet still I am being dumped on. A few things that have helped.

- Not dumping on people is a thing I do for me, not other people. Honestly I don't think most of my friends were as bothered as I was about my anxieties. Accordingly I try to understand that their feelings dumping is more about them and try to just be like "Awww sounds hard" and not get too roped in.
- Except in very real crisis situations, my friends' situations can wait. I have nearly everyone's text sounds set to something quiet and I keep my phone sounds off nearly all the time. I don't mean to be a jerk but people who are just text-dumping their agita will often get more delayed responses just because it's too easy to get caught up in an anxiety spiral WITH them otherwise. Sometimes that distance means they find other coping strategies.
- I have a therapist with whom it is 100% okay to just complain (occasionally) about these friends and sometimes she offers advice that is helpful.

Also it's worth giving a thought to what bleep describes above, making sure your friends aren't somehow gravitating towards behaving this way with you because you haven't given them a more arms-length treatment. I had to evaluate some of my friendships with that in mind. Like, I am a good listener but I started actively putting more distance between me and friends who were really only just feelings-dumping with me. I even had some well-meaning friends who would be like "This is how I am you just need to tell me when it's too much for you" (translation: they weren't going to stop on their own, also maybe I was too sensitive) and I just decided I didn't need to be that close to those friends. I have other friends who are good listeners, or some who feel more back and forth and I tried to not only nurture those relationships but also use that slightly bad-feeling that came out of other people's feelings dumping to try to make or maintain low level contact with friends who were less volatile. Felt like a good investment.

it seems okay for him to offload to me at great length about his love life.

Concurring with what everyone else said, this isn't okay and it's okay for you to not like this.
posted by jessamyn at 8:18 PM on July 19, 2021

I worry about posting such a question to AskMe because I know many of us suffer from anxiety and the last thing I want to do is come across like an insensitive dick to people who don't know me

As a matter of fact, I suffer from anxiety and I found your question extremely helpful. I often don't read mental health type asks because I worry they will be triggering to me, but I am glad I read this one. Your question helped me see some things about my own situation that weren't making sense before. And many of the answers showed me angles on my situation that I wouldn't have figured out by myself.
You don't seem insensitive at all, you seem like a person who is brave enough to look honestly at yourself so that you can find ease, and be a better person.
I think the person who mentioned looking more closely at how your feelings of frustration might be coming from unresolved frustration with yourself might be onto something.
I have found that sometimes I look back at the person I used to be, when my anxiety was a lot worse, as a weaker, messed up version of myself, and I have some resentment towards that past self. I have found some ease in remembering that my past self somehow had the strength to climb out of that hole I was in without all the tools and experience I have now, and that's pretty impressive.
This internet stranger is sending you all the love and respect.
posted by Zumbador at 9:53 PM on July 19, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'd nudge you to consider starting a practice with your friends of asking if they have capacity and space to listen about some problems. Tell them you are going to do this, and you want to do this with them (or just do it with the one or two people who have the problematic text dumping behavior). So you can model this along these lines, "Hey friend, I just had a really stressful work interaction and I'm wondering if you have some space to help me process it." And then they get to say yes or no, and then you get to ask the same of them.

So you are drawing a boundary and also modeling the behavior. Now, if a friend doesn't ask and just continues to dump on you, you can remind them a few times. But ultimately, they are showing you they don't respect your boundaries if they keep it up. And then you need to make a decision about how to enforce the boundary.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:25 PM on July 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

A related question of mine, in case any of the answers help.
posted by ferret branca at 9:16 PM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

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