Confused and guilty after helping a friend backfired.
July 24, 2021 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I finally caught up with the same friend from this Ask, the other day on FaceTime, to reconcile things. I found out I said something completely unintentionally offensive to this friend. Want thoughts and insights on how to avoid those kinds of gaffes.

After the previous Ask, referenced in the summary above, friend and I didn't talk for about a couple of weeks. They went on vacation during this time, but I still had an uneasy feeling about the whole situation, and wanted to make sure all sat right between us. Said friend was very quiet and non-responsive on text after returning from their vacation, so I asked to FaceTime the other day and talk things out.

During this FaceTime session, I emphasized that I wanted to check on the friend, make sure they were doing okay, hoping their phone was resolved/repaired, and that I cared about them and just wanted to do a general check in.

Good news: friend got their iPhone replaced, photos of passed away dog restored properly, and only paid $200. No blame was assigned to me at all, nothing at all mentioned about wanting me to pay up. We're all in the clear with that (an update to the previous question).

Bad news: Said friend was a bit offended on the night we went together, by what I said. When the friend was feeling sad and down, I reassured them and said positive things, such as "I'm sure it'll all be okay".

Friend told me that they were so pissed off at themselves. I emphasized with that and suggested they be gentle on themselves, not be pissed off at themselves. (My therapist and various self-help literature online/IG always suggests that — not to be mad at yourself, but be gentle with yourself, and recognize you're always doing the best you can.) My friend seemed mollified and quiet throughout on that night, after my advice/support. I did check in and ask if they were at all upset with me, just to make sure, and friend said no, and then came back to me and said not at all, why would I be upset with you? So I thought all was good, but deep down inside I felt uneasy for some reason.

Well, when we FaceTimed the other day, friend shared that they were upset by what I said, specifically "don't be pissed at yourself". Friend felt that I was saying/implying that they had no right to be pissed off at themselves, and felt upset/turned off by that comment.

I explained that I was trying to lift them up, to emphasize and support them while reminding them to go gentle on themselves. I did this because growing up, I had a family who always blamed me for stuff, who sometimes gaslit me, so I often (and admittedly still do) blame myself and am very hard on myself internally. I did not want to see my friend go down that path, which is why I said that. Of course, there's always two/three sides to a story, but I felt I was very kind and gentle when I said that on that night.

I clarified and explained my intentions to said friend, and they admitted they had very low self esteem and wanted me to say positive things (which I genuinely felt I did), and just be there. I felt I did all that, but friend said that one remark ("don't be pissed off at yourself") kind of "ruined" things for them. Spouse added that the friend had a tendency to easily cut people off who offended them/hurt their feelings. I explained my intentions again, acknowledging their feelings, and they seemed to understand, and we all agreed to move on and for next time, I would simply support them and say things like "it'll be okay".

The situation between us is resolved, but something deep down still bothers me. On that night (the day friend's phone was ruined), the friend said they weren't upset with me at all, but our recent FaceTime session painted a different story. And, on that night, the friend said they were pissed at themselves in a strong/sad way, which is why I gently tried to remind them not to be pissed off at themselves, that stuff happens and that it'll be okay. I really do feel I was supportive and helpful, but they seem to feel otherwise.

How can I avoid that kind of gaffe in the future? My friends say I'm sweet and a really good listener/very emphatic and helpful, and a lot of people confide in me or share stuff and after talking to me, they say they feel so much better. With this friend, I feel like I failed, even though I really did try my best.

Any thoughts or input would be very helpful!
posted by dubious_dude to Human Relations (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How can I avoid that kind of gaffe in the future?

By making an unshakeable principle out of never offering anything that could possibly be construed as any form of advice unless and until advice is what's explicitly asked for.

Also, by fully internalizing the principle that happiness is not mandatory. From which it follows that people have an absolute right to feel whatever we feel in response to whatever has happened in our lives, and that if those feelings happen to be negative, that is not a problem that requires being solved and especially doesn't require the administration of advice.
posted by flabdablet at 11:06 AM on July 24, 2021 [18 favorites]

For all you know, feeling pissed off at themselves for a while might well be a vital step in your friend's standard coping process. And if that's the case, and that process works for them, having somebody else joggle their elbow while they're in the middle of it would be infuriating.
posted by flabdablet at 11:11 AM on July 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Years back, a friend told me that he saw one of his nephews looking a bit down.
He sat next to the kid and said, "Ben, how's tricks?"
"Trix is dead. A truck hit him." And then he burst into tears.
The world is big and complicated. Language is complicated. People are complicated.
You can't avoid inadvertently saying something wrong. Life just isn't like that.
If you're not a clod and your intentions are good, people have to put up with that. You could just not speak, but people would be upset by that.
You're not a mind-reader, or omniscient. Things like this happen. People can't get mad at you for trying to be positive.
Don't make life impossible for yourself.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 11:35 AM on July 24, 2021 [83 favorites]

While I agree with flabdablet, friend's sensitivity paired with their not being able to straightforwardly tell you when something bothers them (no doubt both due to self esteem issues) have made your exchanges way more loaded and complicated than necesssary. If you're a little peeved at your friend I want to validate that feeling. Don't be pissed off at yourself!

Anyway, for the future, never ever tell them how to feel or question their feelings.
I personally would hate "it's going to be okay" (because how tf would you know that?!). But if they actually said they wantll that, I guess it's a good response for them?

Maybe ask them in the moment how you can best support them? And tell them you hear what they're saying and that it sounds really difficult and just generally mirror and validate what they say and don't try to change anything.

Anyway, your behaviour might have been totally fine with another friend. Don't sweat it. You talked it out, they told you what they need from you, you plan to respect it. It'll be okay (see how anmoying that is?).
posted by Omnomnom at 11:43 AM on July 24, 2021 [15 favorites]

This person is not acting maturely. They have a right to their messy emotions, and even to hash them out with you (in a respectful manner), but that’s not what they’re doing. You can choose to remain friends with them with the foreknowledge that they may lash out or cut you off if you fail to meet their unrealistic, potentially abusive standards. But don’t fall victim to the abuse (easier said than done) by internalizing their anger at you & getting angry at yourself.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:47 AM on July 24, 2021 [29 favorites]

I agree with everybody else that there does come a point where the best you can do with something like this is remind yourself that it's not actually worth bending yourself into pretzel shapes to avoid. You're just going to be the asshole every now and then, and that's OK. Just doing your best not to make a habit of it is all that can reasonably be asked of you, both by others and by yourself.
posted by flabdablet at 12:01 PM on July 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Some thoughts:

In general, it seems like this friend isn't comfortable talking about their feelings, or they don't have the feelings-discussion stamina that you do. It's pretty clear in your writings that based on the way things have turned out, you are able to out-feel them, in a way.

This is a lot of times a relevant circumstance that hides behind actions like cutting-off rather than discussion-continuance.

The friend may even be vaguely aware of a feeling inside themselves that the discussion of feelings itself is unfair to them in a way, because you seem to have more energy and motivation to devote to the discussion and resolution than they do. And perhaps the feelings-system in this case is so subjective and deep to them that communicating from such a depth of feeling is almost overwhelming. But also embarrassing when they "ought" to be able to "just" get over it for example.

So they may just lack the tools to get into this at a constructive level. They may even lack the understanding or experience with starting from feelings of chaotic deconstruction (their end) and ending up with an ordered, constructive result which is beneficial for the parties concerned (this is more your end).

When they do talk about their feelings, they also seem to get really subjective, to the point where reversing their entire psychology (tell me how much it sucks, don't comfort me) and misrepresenting themselves to you because of e.g. the inadequacy of conversation is totally on the table. And I would offer it's also possibly subjective to the point of being OK with otherwise terrible results like door-slams happening. They are, at some level, experiencing feelings-mode as basically chaos mode.

Their way of handling their feelings doesn't seem as easily metabolized or maybe as comfortable a mode for you, if I may offer the POV--it seems that you can work better in a more objective / open mode of feelings discussion and evaluation in which subjective chaos is more of a strange puzzle to ask other people about and maybe even a less appropriate mode for friendship from your POV. (I don't know this, just putting it out there as an idea) If so I can see why.

The kind of feeling you're experiencing and relating to us here also seems more standards-based in its objectivity, and external-referential. For example, referring to what a therapist thinks about feelings, or a self-help resource, or getting at what AskMe thinks. It's also more logical in a constructive way. This is all totally great and makes you a resilient operator in the world of relationship constructivism. If people approach relationships with the attitude that they are willing to support and serve the relationship as an object of their attention, they ought to be really happy with your approach.

What it says about your friend may just be that they can't yet look at feelings and relationships your way, for example. It may be that some sort of reset is required to preserve the friendship, and then feelings-discussions would need to be kept at a basic level for a while, like discussing objective (i.e. not involving us-issues) likes and dislikes.

You have some pretty awesome friendship-idealist tools too btw. I hope you won't blame yourself for what has happened. I don't see a gaffe here so much as an encounter with a heavily subjective method of processing feelings.
posted by circular at 12:01 PM on July 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is ridiculous behavior for an adult. We are all going to go through times in our lives where the people who are supporting us don't say the absolute right magical set of words we'd most love to hear, and what you do with that - even if the not-right words make you sad - is accept the support and know that the disappointment wasn't caused deliberately or with malice. We accept that most of our friends are not professional grief poets or professional psychics, and that being awkward is human and we do not hold our friends to a higher standard than human.

But if you'd like some neutral phrases to use with sad friends in the future, just say you're sorry. Sorry for their loss, sorry a bad thing happened, sorry for a terrible situation they are dealing with. If someone is dead, you can offer your condolences. If you had some part in it, apologize first for the part you were involved in, and then say you are sorry they're having the rest of the crappy situation. Maybe avoid telling people it'll be okay - that's the sort of thing you can offer for a likely-temporary situation like a job loss or breakup, but dogs stay dead and also sometimes people don't need to be informed of facts they know like that they'll feel better someday because they are dealing with right now.

But I do actually think it's appropriate - even if they don't like it - to encourage someone to be kinder to themselves. To get mad at you for disrupting their toxic shit with encouragement to not be so toxic is...not a gaffe. He can just be mad about it. This is his shit. And manufacturing this "I'm going to just be weird at you but tell you nothing's wrong so that I can make sure it is never possible for me to be happy or truly liked or trusted ever" is his shit. It's not yours, you don't have to own it or contort your life around avoiding it, because it lives in other people and there's no control in your court. Just know that a relationship with him will mean being used in this way. You tend to take things so painfully to heart that I don't think you're the right person to let him continue to do that - some people have thick enough skin to maintain a friendship and ignore the abuse, but not everybody can do that - because you will believe him instead of seeing it for what it is.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:21 PM on July 24, 2021 [47 favorites]

You did nothing wrong.

Friend could have easily said “wow! That’s just what I needed to hear!” Or, alternatively, if you list listened and didn’t offer advice friend could have said “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything!”

Because there isn’t winning when someone is relying inappropriately on you for emotional management and isn’t communicating their needs.

You are not their therapist. You are their friend. Yet they are expecting you to read their mind and say the perfect thing. And then are responding immaturely when you don’t do the impossible.

I don’t vent like that much to friends. And if I do share tough things I accept that people are trying to help unless they say something wildly offensive. (That would be something like “just get over it” or “who cares?”)

I think you should reflect on the types of friendships you want and what you have going on. This all seems a bit too fraught and I think you are blaming yourself for things that are not your responsibility to manage.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:35 PM on July 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

How can I avoid that kind of gaffe in the future?

It wasn't a gaffe and you probably can't avoid it. Sometimes people want reassurance and a pep talk and sometimes people want to vent and a sympathetic ear. The same person might want different things at different times. You're not a mind reader. You can ask, "is this a listen & commiserate talk or an advice & feedback talk?" Sometimes people just want to be mad and that's OK.

It's good to be aware that people aren't always going to want the kind of positive response you gave. My mom is 100% look on the bright side all the time and it can feel very dismissive. Negative emotions are valid and sometimes people don't want to be mollified.
posted by Mavri at 12:36 PM on July 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

How can I avoid that kind of gaffe in the future?

Sometimes the lesson to take from something isn't how not to do it in the future, but how to react when one day someone does the same thing to you. I think this situation is an object lesson in how to see people's good intentions, even when they're expressed imperfectly; how to communicate gently with people who make non-malicious mistakes towards you; how to react gracefully to not getting exactly the help that you need; and how to take responsibility for your own feelings.
posted by trig at 12:51 PM on July 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

Telling someone that "everything is going to be okay" is a lie. You *don't know* that. It is, in fact, belittling someone's emotions when they *don't* feel like everything is going to be okay. What an insensitive thing to expect a friend to tell them, as an adult! This person wanted to be comforted as if they were a child!? With no understanding that life is complex and there may be good, and there may be bad, that come as a consequence? It sounds like this friend expects you to parent them and protect them from emotional harm - the harm in which they themself put upon themself.

This is emotional blackmail upon YOU, and you do not need to feel guilty in any way, shape, or form, for being the best version of yourself and sharing what you've learned through your life experiences in a caring and compassionate manner. You may wish to set personal boundaries with this person, as they cannot be trusted to be welcoming to your worldview and general way of being. I *do* understand how hard this can be, but in order to be the best friend and person you can be to yourself and others, I highly recommend it.
posted by itsflyable at 12:52 PM on July 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

How can I avoid that kind of gaffe in the future?

Glib answer: You can't.

Longer: You can't entirely avoid that type of gaffe because... well, you'd need to be a mind-reader to know the right thing to say in all circumstances.

Your friend has given you some guidance on how to avoid doing this specific thing, so you know more or less what to do in these specific circumstances. But it sounds like you're being treated a bit unfairly here. You didn't say exactly what they wanted to hear, or didn't listen exactly as they wanted you to but... you were there. You were trying.

That should earn you a little more leeway. Not saying your friend couldn't tell you "that's not what I need right now," but instead they got offended at your attempt. There's no one-size-fits-all for comforting people.

If this has been a "problem" in the past and they've corrected you, I can see maybe being annoyed. If this is the first time they've given you this feedback, it seems a little ungenerous as described.

I have a friend like this and it's exhausting. We'll be talking and it feels like a minefield trying to react the way they want me to react when they're sharing things. I don't mind feedback or being told when I get something wrong, but they're snappish about it as if I've got a part in a play and haven't learned my lines correctly. (Yes, I've tried bringing this up, no it hasn't really worked.)

Anyway: You can follow their guidance. But it doesn't sound like you can avoid a "gaffe" in the future because I guarantee there will be another situation when you fail to react just right and they go distant again. The problem isn't with you.
posted by jzb at 12:58 PM on July 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Yeah, while I get that unsolicited advice is generally to be avoided, I also think that pointing out when someone is being too hard on themselves is what good friends are for. I wouldn't even call that advice really - you didn't instruct them to meditate or make a gratitude list, etc. If I had a friend like this, I'd probably pull back a bit, because I don't particularly want to have to worry about every single word I say around my friends.
posted by coffeecat at 12:59 PM on July 24, 2021 [14 favorites]

You friend was behaving like a five year old.

"I lost my phone and then you said the wrong thing and it didn't make it all better! Waaaaahhhh!!!".

Seriously? They should grow the f*** up. You can't avoid an event like this with an immature person like that. In the future say whatever you want to say. As long as your intentions are good it's on them if they have the emotial bandwidth of a tantrumy two year old. Not. Your. Problem. Walking on eggshells with this person won't solve anything. I'd just move on like nothing ever happened. Your feelings of guilt are what people like this feed on. Give them none of it. Move forward with confidence. You are a good and decent friend, they are lucky to have you.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:38 PM on July 24, 2021 [14 favorites]

you're both very sensitive to the feelings of others, and the only way you are arguably at fault is in trying to apply common self-help/therapeutic principles to interpersonal relationships where you are not the therapist. empathy is nice sometimes but it works best with neutrality - I like unsolicited advice a lot more than most people seem to, but even I do not like advice on how to feel.

there's always a fine line to walk between expressing empathy & making a situation about your own feelings - empathy is about your own feelings, so it's tricky. but it's common to tell an anxiously empathetic person that you aren't mad at them, even if you are, because you have your own problem to worry about and you don't want to refocus onto whether the other person did anything wrong, have you been cruel in saying so, and so on. In this situation you didn't do anything wrong, you were motivated by friendly concern and it showed. your friend was a little upset but -- as the stressful consequences of this follow-up conversation may illustrate for you -- it is ok to pretend not to be upset in situations where nobody has done anything really wrong and you don't want to make a Thing of it.

there's a difference between being upset with someone and thinking they actually did anything really wrong. so when somebody briefly annoys me but I know that my annoyance is not their intention and not their fault, I have no qualms about saying everything is fine between us. Long ago, I did sometimes tell uncensored truths at such times ("Yes, I am annoyed with you, I recognize that you meant no harm and it's not a big deal and I won't care in a few hours and the best way for me to stop being annoyed is to forget about it. no I don't want a fucking discussion session, I said it wasn't a big deal!") and then I had made the other person feel bad and I had to apologize, and then I was privately more annoyed than ever.

so: oversensitive people do frequently pretend not to be upset when they secretly are, because they don't want to be dramatic or have a fight, and the best way to deal with this is to pretend to believe them.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:19 PM on July 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

You didn't do anything wrong. You responded in a super empathetic sensitive way, and when you sensed something was wrong further in your friendship, you carefully and gently pursued the problem.

If I had been the friend and you had said what you said to ME, I'd have felt really comforted and probably thanked you for being a good friend. So. Take your own advice and go easy on yourself because as far as gaffes go, this is like, not even really a gaffe.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 3:02 PM on July 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a friend like this. She’s ultra sensitive and you have to say exactly the right magical set of phrases to stay on her good books and not hurt her feelings. If you do, she will tear strips off you and yell at you for being so insensitive. I’m always having to tiptoe around her. Meanwhile, she can say the most thoughtless things about others - though in the last few years, her social circle has shrunk dramatically - or so she told me a while back. I don’t reach out to her much any more. Strange, that.
posted by Jubey at 3:11 PM on July 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

I know they're your friend and all but this is so exhausting it would do my head in.

If you have come from an abusive home this cannot be good for you as you will likely be hypervigilent and hyper-aware of not saying the wrong thing. I'm from a similar background as is my mum (her parents) and it is so hard to not constantly be worried about hurting the other person by saying or doing the wrong thing. We are always concerned about not stepping on each other's toes.

Sometimes people can take advantage of that kind of character. Not saying your friend is but you are giving them more of your energy and time than I think is appropriate or healthy for someone who was raised in the environment you were raised in and I think they can "sense" that.

Two hyper aware hypersensitive people together can be hard work. I personally cannot deal with it and have chosen more "blunt" people as my friends. It's less stressful and I have more freedom to express myself.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 3:12 PM on July 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

PS I've been in friendships like this. There was an old phrase that kept popping up in my head and I'll pass it on to you as something to think about.

"Stop casting your pearls before swine."
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:28 PM on July 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

My initial reading of this is: perhaps your friend does think that their phone damage is your fault, but doesn’t blame you for making a mistake with the wet bag. They do, perhaps, feel a bit pissed off at you—but mostly they feel pissed off at themselves for not making sure you’d secured the wet bag correctly. They’ve taken responsibility for the error, and don’t want to hurt your feelings… and yet when you say ‘Don’t be pissed off at yourself,’ it rankles slightly because they do sort of think it’s partly your fault.

This just a guess, but i think it fits, and is the sort of thing that happens occasionally between friends.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 4:21 PM on July 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

I don’t think what you said was a big deal and this person sounds exhausting.

Can you afford to offer to pay $100 or $200 towards the phone? I know the phone getting wet was an accident but in your shoes, I would still try to make it up financially as much as you can afford.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:26 PM on July 24, 2021

IAMNYT. Tl,dr; You are a friend, not a psychic.

The concept that you are going to mold yourself to someone else’s negative world view is inappropriate. The concept that you are going to deliver a certain kind of verbal support that doesn’t include some very common ways of sympathizing is inappropriate. That doesn’t mean your friend has to accept all comers. Rather, an example might be that, if you sent a condolence card, you would not expect a call from friend that you sent the wrong kind of card.

Even if someone is invalidated by the suggestion that they lighten up on themselves, we don’t do any favors by going, “ah, okay,” and trying to change. Basically, this is one of those places where in calling your words invalidation or whathaveyou your friend is basically saying, “I’ve decided not to take responsibility for my feelings, so I’m going to make you feel bad for a highly specific way you tried to make me feel good.”

In the short run, I’d generally say the way to salvage things is to call that shit out if it keeps happening. Maybe there something there that warrants examination and change, but again changes need to reasonable and not force you into a social catch-22. In the long run, if this is a pattern of behavior rather than a one-off, it can easily become an emotionally abusive dynamic.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 6:20 PM on July 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

You know, everybody has ways they prefer to be comforted in stress, and ways that increase their anxiety or drive them up the wall. Personally, I get super-angry when somebody says to me, "Everything happens for a reason." (No. It. Doesn't.) But because I am a grown-ass adult, I realize in the moment that that is an unreasonable reaction to someone reaching out to offer me kindness and comfort (in kind of rote ways, sure, but other people's distress is distressing and it's hard to know what to say). And I choose to accept the kindness and comfort, and ignore the specific words.

Your friend is being super-unreasonable. Even my best friend of 30 years sometimes says to me "Everything happens for a reason!" And I'll say to her, "Dude, no it doesn't!" And she says, "Oh, right, I forgot. This happened for absolutely no reason, and it sucks, but you're going to be okay." I don't expect her to keep a catalog in her head of what expressions of sympathy I find acceptable and unacceptable!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:25 PM on July 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

I don't know that this works in this circumstance or universally, but you could try aiming for the positive.

One rephrasing is how this could have happened to anyone/shit happens and how well they dealt with it to get a positive outcome. It's purely a celebration that they successfully weathered the slings and arrows of misfortune.

This is not an easy trick to pull every time, but I try and make the attempt when I remember.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 11:13 PM on July 24, 2021

Yeah I'm going to Nth this is a that friend problem, not a you problem. Sure, there are things you could do to make it not happen again, but at what cost? It's similar to how to not have your heart broken - never love again. Not a good solution.

The friend is going to have to recognize when people are trying to be good friends and not get perceptably mad at them without saying why. Or else keep losing friends. You keep doing what you're doing, because that would make 90% of the rest of the world feel better or at least like you cared. It's not worth throwing that out for this one outlier.
posted by ctmf at 3:10 AM on July 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Everyone is different and part of getting to know friends is getting to know how they prefer to be comforted when they're down.

It sounds like this friend doesn't like to be told how to feel. You didn't know that before, and now you do.

Personally I think not telling people how to feel is a good skill to add to the friendship repertoire, but language like "don't feel that way" or "don't be sad" is really common and most of us understand that it's rarely meant to be offensive.
posted by bunderful at 6:42 AM on July 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the very helpful answers, it was a lot to process, but it helps me to align my feelings. Moving forward, I'll simply ask this friend next time how I can support them in the moment, and go from there. I'll also keep an eye out for any patterns as well.

To be fair, this friend admitted they were under a lot of pressure lately, both personal and career-wise, and did tell me that if I had any concerns, to ask or share with them. So, let's just see how things go moving forward.

Follow-up question: some of you mentioned abusive behavioral patterns. Can you define/clarify what that means a bit more, and what red flags I should be keeping an eye out for?

Thanks! :)
posted by dubious_dude at 8:36 AM on July 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am super skeptical of Internet strangers being able to identify abusive patterns of behavior based on your two related questions. I am sure people here will be willing to respond but it’s not like we can read your friend’s mind or your mind. Plus the green can be hellishly judgmental at times.

Also, I want to mention that anybody who tells me, “I’m sure it will all be OK” or “don’t be so hard on yourself” might discover me getting frosty. Because I think the first phrase is bullshit and it does not feel validating to hear if I’m upset about something. It feels like my anguish is getting the brush off and I’m being told to stop feeling bad. And the second phrase is something I’m OK hearing from a therapist but feels bossy from anybody else. So if friends tell me that stuff, I will let them know eventually that that’s not helpful for me to hear. Naturally, I want them to let me know if I say similarly unhelpful things to them. Kudos to you for pursuing a conversation with your friend to uncover what was going on.

Of course, you’re never going to be perfect because you’re human. And neither is your friend. It sounds like you can validate your friend next time if/when your friend finds themself in a sucky situation by saying your version of, yes, this is super sucky. And then just listening to your friend vent. Of course you can ask your friend if they need anything else from you but honestly, for many of us it’s just a delight to be able to vent uninterrupted and to feel shitty in exactly the way we feel shitty without having people remind us that we should be somehow better versions of ourselves by venting in a more approved, self-actualized fashion. (And for some of us, fuck that shit. Like, I am allowed to call myself crazy whether or not you believe that that is appropriate. Because I’m not calling you that, I’m calling me that, and that is my fucking call.)

One of my friends used to be unable to identify when he was angry. I could mildly say, you seem pretty angry, and he would deny it. It was only the next day that he could acknowledge that he had been angry. I am still friends with this person, who is one of my closest friends on the planet. Both of us are far from perfect. But we get a lot out of being friends despite our absolutely inevitable miscommunications, which we can laugh about after the fact. My question to you: Is this friend someone you enjoy spending time with and is a good friend to you?

I think some commenters are encouraging you to dump the motherfucker already and I don’t understand why. Some people are literally unable to identify their feelings in the moment. Some people can identify their feelings, but it feels dangerous for them to acknowledge it at the time. People are different. Does that mean they never get to have friends?

The discomfort over the phone incident has been resolved. Now you have better information about how to proceed. Your friend was willing to talk to you over zoom and to work it out with you and be honest, which was probably very challenging. If there is an abusive pattern of behavior to be found in this particular experience between you and your friend, I’m completely baffled by what it is. It just seems like normal friend stuff to me.

I am pretty much a useless sample of one but I do wish you all the best, and I hope you don’t take this experience overly seriously. You’re a good person, with a good heart, being a good friend. And everyone of us who shares those characteristics will still screw up sometimes. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:08 AM on July 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Follow-up question: some of you mentioned abusive behavioral patterns. Can you define/clarify what that means a bit more, and what red flags I should be keeping an eye out for?

So, I don't know that your friend's behavior is itself a pattern of abuse because I don't know how frequently he acts this way, but I agree with everyone upthread saying you didn't make a gaffe or do anything wrong, and that he's being immature here. I've also known a handful of people who did use the kind of sensitivity to language/intention you're talking about as a way to emotionally abuse and exert control over their friends and the people around them. That pattern of abuse looked like a lot of conversations like the FaceTime you just described, where a friend takes you to task for speaking to them in a way you had no idea was hurtful. Misunderstandings and communication problems, and honest discussions resolving those issues can and probably should happen in any relationship in a healthy way. But in the emotionally abusive friendship I'm thinking of, these heavy emotional processing sessions became the dominant form of interaction in the relationship-- every outing, conversation, or casual hangout time was something full of errors I (and everyone else in this person's life, from her wife to her co-workers) that had deeply hurt her feelings, which then had to be discussed, using intense therapy language, usually for hours on end.

I say this was a pattern of abusive rather than simply exhausting behavior because my former friend used these discussions to make the people around her feel constantly guilty and like terrible people when we were around her-- being told we were doing deeply hurtful things and being dragged into emotionally intense conversations put everyone in a state of walking on eggshells, feeling like we couldn't do anything right-- and so being eager to please her, to do what she told us to do, to contort ourselves into whatever kind of conversation she thought was acceptable. I ended the friendship when she admitted to having a public tantrum/meltdown like this on purpose, to manipulate another friend into taking less time to socialize at an event we were attending to support her. I should emphasize that the issues being brought up here as hurtful weren't criticism over, eg, racist, homophobic, ableist, transphobic, or sexist language, but the kind of trivial things in your post, like "You said 'OK" to me when we were planning a hangout and I asked if you wanted to see a certain movie, and that felt so dismissive, and reminded me of being dismissed when I was a child, and I'm really hurt, and need to talk with you about this, and you need to acknowledge how much that hurt me, and not speak to me like that again," where the person being dragged into this conversation had to apologize for saying "OK," apologize for whatever childhood wounds that allegedly brought up, try to scramble for some way to talk to her in the future to not cause that kind of offense. Again, sometimes mutual triggering language happens; a lot of the time, conversations like this are normal and healthy! But picture this happening for EVERY conversation you have with a friend, over EVERY social interaction the two of you have. This behavior escalated over the years-- her partners, her friends, her family, her co-workers and tenants all ended up in that place of constantly being interrogated and feeling like they'd committed some huge crime against her. The offenses were 99% manufactured crises that she was making up and using to control every aspect of the way people interacted with her, and make them feel guilty and beholden to her. The only reason I think she was able to get away with it was that she came from a wealthy family and could financially absorb being eg, let go from a job for trying to guilt trip her coworkers or managers like that; she never really had to face any social consequences for it.

I don't think this one interaction means your friend is an abuser; you said they're under a lot of stress right now and it sounds like they're kind of lashing out at you because they can't confront the actual sources of their stress. That's not like, gold star behavior, but it happens. The pattern of abuse people upthread are talking about is if this friend starts increasing the number of talks you two have to have, if they're always making you talk about how [objectively inoffensive thing] really hurt them and apologize, if they keep making you feel bad about yourself for doing things you don't really understand-- if talks like this, which are productive and good when they're about real problems, become the baseline for the friendship. I hope that's not the case! You sound like a good, kind friend and again, I don't think you did anything wrong in your original question.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 11:16 AM on July 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Small update:

I decided to let this go, for the time being, as friend and I have gotten along very well over the years so far, other than a few very minor conflicts and this larger conflict. I'll carefully monitor how things go, and if things become too exhausting, will nope out/slow fade. But I suspect this was an one-off, exacerbated by stress/painful memories of their deceased dog. Let's see what happens, and I will be sure to stand my ground if necessary or clarify/give feedback as needed.

Thanks for the advice/input!
posted by dubious_dude at 7:53 PM on July 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Mmm, I'm late to the party and you may not even see this, but my take is a bit different than others'. You ask how you can avoid this in the future. You can't. You can't avoid inadvertently hurting or offending people. And the vast majority of the time, they won't do you the favor of letting you know. How lucky to have a friend who'd actually tell you. What an amazing opportunity to tell her, sincerely "oh wow, I didn't know that was the impact I had on you. Thank you for letting me know, and I understand why you felt like you did. It wasn't at all what I intended, but going forward, I'll try to remember that those kinds of words aren't helpful for you." All of the above comments about how immature this person is, I don't know about that. We all get offended for stupid reasons all of the time. I don't think this was your fault or that you did anything wrong, but acknowledging people's feelings and trying to abide by their requests is 100% possible.
posted by namesarehard at 5:41 PM on July 29, 2021

« Older Early financial literacy   |   Wanted: A 100% rainproof jacket that's not clammy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.