My friends are struggling but I am also struggling. How to balance?
July 6, 2022 1:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been spending a lot of emotional energy concerned about a few friends who are having a much harder time than I am and who want/need things from me. But I am also having a hard time and I am a natural pleaser and trying to figure out where to draw boundaries and could use some additional perspective.

Even though the two situations are different, the thing they have in common is me feeling weird/bad about them, like I am both not doing enough but also that I am being asked to do too much. So I need to recalibrate my own feelings, is how I am feeling. I am a middle aged cis het white woman in the US, in a stable long distance relationship. My partner and I are both moving in the next two months. I've had some low-level sinus crud for a while now which occasionally results in pain that can be hard to manage which makes me crabby. I'm slowly working on that. I am also in long term therapy for anxiety management and it's been helpful.

Friend 1 and I have been friends for 15 years. Her husband and I grew up in the same area which is not where we live. She's a BIPOC woman with some mental health issues. She had a mental health crisis last year which resulted in her losing her job and her professional license and she's in probation now to get it back. Things have been really rough for her, she's in therapy, trying new meds etc. We used to get together nearly weekly, usually at her place, and hang out have food and watch TV. We stopped doing that during COVID but have started up again. Recently two older people in our immediate circle died. I let her know about the first one. She knew already and when we discussed it, intimated that since I found that person sometimes frustrating, that maybe my "I miss her" statements were insincere. The second person who died was someone I was much closer to and I just haven't been broadcasting it. There was a one-sentence line about it in the paper and my friend got mad at me for "not telling her" and said that she feels like no one wants to be around her because she's been depressed and "Not good company."

I said I was sorry, made plans to get together and we hung out and watched TV but she was just really angry the whole time, not at me but her situation, other people, people in town. She had lost her recent job. She bitterly complained non-stop while her husband sat there being mostly quiet (this is kind of his MO - he is very much sunny-disposition guy but kind of blanks when there's stress) and I made a lot of sympathetic statements and tried to empathize but I came home really wrecked at just the emotional overload of it, but also sad for my friend. My current status is I both want to reach out to her because I think she could use a friend, but also not feeling that I have the emotional capacity to just be a venting board but I'm not sure that's a choice she can actively make right now. I feel conflicted about this.

Friend 2 is a newer friend, local creative person, single. She lives in town, doesn't drive (it's a small town this is very limiting), has some serious mental health issues that she's managing. She lost the place she lived recently after not paying rent for months and I'm not sure why. I think she was aggravated at her landlord. She had been broken up with by the guy she'd been seeing for a year in secret and was sort of managing an obsession with him and the way he treated her. She had a job which she left for a better job but then lost that job after failing a drug test (which she knew she'd fail, and knew was a condition of the job) and is now unemployed. The place where she receives her mental health services has placed her in transitional housing which is a block away from where I live so if we didn't hang out ever I'd still run into her fairly frequently.

She was one of my walking partners during COVID and we'd talk about art stuff or personal mental health stuff which was nice, but also she could veer into "everything sucks" ranting territory and I've been okay at gently redirecting but it's tiring. She's now in sort of a dead end place with no job, no income, and no prospects. Her mother lives a few towns over and I think is helping her stay afloat/fed etc. I would occasionally take her out for coffee/snacks, on me, because I feel that sort of thing is good for morale but lately she's taken to bumming cigarettes from me (like not when we're smoking, but when she's near my place "Hey can I bum a few cigarettes?") and I feel that's going in a direction I'm less comfortable with. She says that she is often lonely but I don't want to invite her to social things I am going to because either her ex might be there or I'd worry she'd get too drunk/high and veer her conversation into ranting complaining stuff (which has happened in the past) and most of these events are small enough that that would be an issue. I've invited her to public events with me in the past and I feel I get some "You know all these people I don't know ANYONE" energy from her which is awkward for me. I'd just like to get to be happily me at these events and not manage someone else's negative emotions. My current status is she reaches out occasionally for us to hang out and I sometimes do and other times just feel that I don't want a might-be-negative set of interactions and avoid her. I feel conflicted about this.

I grew up in a family where my siblings and I were basically raised to always focus on my parents' emotions and not our own so I've only gradually gotten good at boundary setting and I feel other people's negative emotions towards me rather strongly. So when my friends are hurting I feel like I should quash my own emotions (because I am doing somewhat better, but not great) and help them. And yet, sometimes this is at personal cost to me and I'm not sure where to draw the line. I do have many other friends who I feel are much more give and take--sometimes they're doing better, sometimes I am--so this question is just about finding a balance with friends who just seem to be stuck and how to help them while taking care of yourself. I probably don't need specifics on these situations but more general "I had a friend like that and this is what worked well for me" type of answers. Thanks for advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
“My current status is I both want to reach out to her because I think she could use a friend, but also not feeling that I have the emotional capacity to just be a venting board but I'm not sure that's a choice she can actively make right now. I feel conflicted about this.”

“My current status is she reaches out occasionally for us to hang out and I sometimes do and other times just feel that I don't want a might-be-negative set of interactions and avoid her. I feel conflicted about this.”

It can be really challenging to know what it looks like to show up, to be there for a friend, with boundaries or in a limited capacity. And to communicate that consistently and effectively. It sounds like that's the core challenge for you right now. And the conflict arises because there's a value you hold that is being pushed against.

For example, if you value empathy, it can be a real struggle to empathise with others when the impact of doing so means you feel what they're feeling (eg, their negativity, despair, anger). The challenge here is to hold things more lightly, to take less responsibility for what they're thinking or feeling; it's not on you to fix, soak up, or sometimes even respond to others' responses to the world around them! This can be especially hard when you're taught patterns of focusing on others' emotions in order to receive the care and attention you need.

It's hard to say exactly HOW you meet these challenges—that's going to vary for everyone—but it can help to find a professional to support you in exploring and understanding this further. As well as all the activities that can raise awareness and help you continue to process and understand the patterns better. Journalling, talking, mapping your thoughts and feelings (and noticing patterns), etc.

The more you understand and process the dynamics, the easier it is to set boundaries consistently and feel good about yourself and how you are there for others.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:51 AM on July 6 [1 favorite]

These days I've really focused on friendships that feel more positive and mutual, and I'm really glad I did. I know you want to be a good friend to the people you mention here -- as do they to you -- but they're just not in a space where reciprocation or even self-awareness is really possible. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves: gently encouraging people to seek out support is good as is sometimes a serious intervention but it doesn't always work. They are responsible for themselves and it seems like your help, while appreciated, isn't helping much. It's OK to step back and tell them "I wish you well but I'm not doing so well myself and need some alone time to feel better." The sad thing about depression and the like is that it can make us very selfish in addition to being too scared to actually make changes. But it's not your job, it's theirs.

Also, I am single. I have created a good support network. It's not the job of people with partners to pick up the slack for single people who don't have good support networks. And the opposite is true, too. It's time to focus on you!

I wish you all luck, and I hope the move provides some welcome distance so that these friendships can eventually pick back up at a better time or fade if that's best.
posted by smorgasbord at 5:11 AM on July 6 [3 favorites]

I've been experiencing this too lately in several of my friendships-- COVID and **everything** have been hard on a lot of us. One problem I have-- that may or may not relevant to you-- is that I tend to overpromise (either explicitly with my words or implicitly through my actions )and then can't completely deliver without great personal cost to myself. This leaves me feeling guilty and the other person feeling hurt/confused. So lately, I've been trying to underpromise and then over deliver when I am feeling up to it.

That means no standing dates with friends who are emotionally taxing, instead I reach out when I know I am up to truly listening and being there for them. I also try to show my affection and regard through non-emotionally draining/asynchronous acts, for example, baking cookies and dropping them off as a surprise, sending kind texts when I'm thinking about them, and care packages with notes when things are really tough.

For me, when it's not in real time it's much easier to manage and, when I don't feel obligated by a previous standing commitment, I'm able to choose when I feel ready to offer true, compassionate support.

I think the change has been better for everyone and prevented me from distancing myself more completely from friendships in which people have needs that are hard for me to meet right now.

Wishing you the best. You sound like a good and thoughtful friend and you deserve to take care of yourself. Your needs also matter.
posted by jeszac at 6:09 AM on July 6 [6 favorites]

this question is just about finding a balance with friends who just seem to be stuck and how to help them while taking care of yourself

It has helped me to take this pressure to "help" off of myself. What would it be like if you could just be? Be with them, without feeling any responsibility other than that? Still feel your feelings, just not the extra added (and not super helpful) layer of responsibility for them.
posted by lapis at 7:39 AM on July 6 [3 favorites]

You're not their social worker. It's literally not your job to "help" them. Helping friends is great when it's a relationship of equals. What you're describing is not that.

My strong advice would be to put on your own oxygen mask first and keep it on. Your mental health is precious. Your social networks (I'm talking about your status as someone who gets invited places and can participate happily in the events) are precious. I wouldn't risk either of those out of a sense of guilt vis a vis these friends. If you genuinely enjoy hanging out with them, then figure out a way to jettison the "help them" self-mandate: it's not your job. If you don't actually enjoy hanging out with them, then there's no reason to continue these relationships. Ultimately they will drain you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:47 AM on July 6 [16 favorites]

I wish I could favourite fingersandtoes' comment 1000 times. I have no further advice for you beyond that. Good luck!
posted by purplesludge at 9:14 AM on July 6

I struggle with this dynamic in friendships too, for similar reasons, and my world changed when I learned about Karpman's Drama Triangle.

It sounds like you, like me, tend to easily slip into Rescuer mode - I must help, it is my duty to help this person. If you do this too much you can eventually become the Victim too (like with your friend having a go at you for not keeping her in the loop about things).

There are various flipped, positive versions of the drama triangle, but the one which resonates with me is where the Rescuer becomes the Responder - which means sure, listen, reflect back what you're hearing, but with absolutely no need to fix anything. Just to witness.

Anyway if this sounds useful, have a read about it - I've found it really great to think about when I feel myself going into Rescuer mode.
posted by greenish at 12:42 PM on July 6 [5 favorites]

As someone who has sometimes gone through periods of needing more from others than I can give back (who hasn’t?), I salute you for wanting to help these friends. There is a lot of wisdom here already.

Friend #1 will have been helped by you listening. Remember that, when you’re despairing over her problems - even if it didn’t always feel appreciated. It’s also ok to not always make yourself available for this, because if you get stuck in the mud too you’re no help to anyone. As soon as you get to the “I can’t do this” stage it’s already too late. Ration yourself out, give when you feel able to, and not forever. (Also, just because someone’s having a tough time, doesn’t mean they can’t be told when they’ve been insensitive!)

Friend #2, by your own description, seems to be causing many of her own problems. You can’t help steer to safety if she’s got a death grip on the wheel. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to run away; but if that reading rings even slightly true I suggest you try to disinvest yourself emotionally, so she isn’t capable of hurting both of you.
posted by breakfast burrito at 6:10 PM on July 6

« Older What exactly happened to my mother during/after my...   |   Emotional Vampires: Office Edition Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments