Can my female friend become less emotionally sensitive? Can I help?
May 27, 2006 2:07 PM   Subscribe

My best female friend is very emotionally sensitive-- to the point where we can't mention a specific ex-boyfriend from three years ago in her presence. I and her other close friends are starting to think she can't control her responses about this, and that it's starting to impact how honest we can be with her. What can we do?

My wonderful female friend freely admits that she is deeply emotional. This makes her a great, supportive friend, but this same quality sends her over the deep end when she gets hurt by guys. This isn't a daily occurrence by any means -- she isn't mentally ill, and she is very intelligent, attractive, and "normal" (whatever that means). But there is a specific situation that's been going on for a while now, and I am concerned that it's starting to impact our friendship.

Almost three years ago she dated a guy for about five months. He's very charismatic and attractive, but also profoundly self-centered. He didn't want to date her "publicly" so their relationship was pretty much just sex and "standing near each other" at parties. Such was their chemistry, though, that my friend recognized his selfishness and yet couldn't bring herself to protect herself from it. They broke up (his idea) and within two weeks he was dating another woman. (He didn't flaunt it-- my friend managed to find out.) My friend lost it and went through several weeks of crying, stalking, endless rehashing, all the things that people do when they're deeply hurt. (Let's leave alone for a moment the possibility that it's his right to date someone else once they've broken up-- that didn't enter into her thinking at all.)

The problem is that her level of hurt from this hasn't diminished. It's been three years, and I and all her other friends are afraid to talk about him to her because her reaction to hearing about him is extremely unpredictable. There are times when she seems OK with the situation-- she actually took the news of his marriage (to the same woman he started dating) fairly calmly, saying that she'd prepared herself for it. I thought this was a sign that she'd crossed over into acceptance. A few weeks after that I mentioned that it's possible that the guy will start working as a consultant for the company I work for. (I would have the ability to stop this if I chose.) When I told her this, she started crying.

I was stunned, and tried as gently as I could to find out why she was upset. Her explanation was twofold: first, she feels an uncontrollable physical response to hearing about him-- she flushes, her heart pounds, she feels lightheaded. She says she cannot control this response. Second, she believes that he is a bad person (untrustworthy being the core of it) and she expected all her friends to know this as well. She couldn't believe that I was even entertaining the idea of working with him at all, and she said that this indicated to her that I don't understand her. She didn't go so far as to say "If you were really my friend, you would have nothing to do with him ever", but I definitely felt that that was the message.

I and her other friends (we have talked about this a lot) are puzzled by this. My take is that she and this guy dated three years ago, for a few months, and he has done his best to stay away from her without being rude to her. (She got mad at him whether he ignored her or not.) He didn't cheat on her (even she doesn't think so), and I'm not sure that he's untrustworthy (despite the aforementioned self-absorption). Frankly, I and our other mutual friends kinda think he's an OK guy who did his best not to hurt her, and that there is nothing he can do that will ever be right or appropriate in our friend's eyes, ever.

But perhaps the scariest thing for me is the "if you were really my friend..." implications. My company needs this guy as a consultant-- it would help me professionally. I feel like if I do work with him, I will face the inevitable day when my friend will find out and tell me I have betrayed her. I think that would pretty much be it for our friendship.

For now, we all just lie to her, not talking about him when we run into him. This feels to me like we are all treating her as if she is less than human.

My question for you MeFites:

1) Is it possible for her to change herself to be less reactive to emotional distress like this? (Is there any kind of yardstick for when you're supposed to recover from emotional hurt?)
2) If it's possible, can we, her friends who love her, say or do anything to help her make those changes?
3) If she can't ever change, how do we talk about the things that distress her? Do we have to keep lying by omission? Isn't that wrong?
4) Do I have to make the choice between my professional welfare and my friendship with her? Should I tell her that I feel like I have to make that choice?

Thanks for any advice. This has been a tough one for me.
posted by woot to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. Maybe, but that's a change she'll make on her own and with some people that takes years and years.

2. I can't see you being able to do anything to shepherd her along.

3. It's one thing. Don't talk about it around her. It's not lying by omission, it's not talking about it. There's absolutely no reason for her to have to know that you ran into him or that he's working for you. So, no, it's not wrong.

4. No, you don't on either count. You said it was within your capabilities to have this guy not hired, but the hiring doesn't sound like it's your choice. Whether he's good for your company is wholly separate from whether he was good for her. Telling her that you feel that you have to make that choice is unfair drama she's put you in, so if you hire the guy and she finds out and has a problem with it, she'll either get over it or she won't.

This situation is no betrayal and if she cannot get over that and looks at you and your friends as turning your backs on her over a business hire (or not mentioning when you've seen him), then there's honestly something wrong with her. Some anger or uncomfortability is understandable, but if she can't be your friend over it, then she wasn't a very good friend to begin with.
posted by Captaintripps at 2:20 PM on May 27, 2006

This is going to sound overly Freudian, but I'm guessing that someone who played that minor a role in her life but causes that much of an emotional reaction is reminding her of something in her past -- a person, an event, a goal for her life -- though she may not be aware of the connection. Is there someone in your group of friends patient and compassionate enough to try to talk through that with her? Not in a way that diminishes her feelings, just a "You seem to have a huge reaction to this guy, and it's not something I really understand. Does he remind you of someone else who's disappointed you in the past? Or does that relationship maybe trigger memories of a past relationship?" Or maybe, from hearing her talk about her family or past relationships, you can find a parallel situation, in which case, "Man, it sounds like this guy is acting just like X" might be a good way to start a helpful conversation.

Because I know that I have had overblown reactions to break-ups or people simply because they manage to trigger memories of former bad relationships, and the whole things becomes an emotional chain reaction that often doesn't stop until you get close to the cause, and deal with that.

It sounds like y'all are open and sensitive to her feelings, so it might be helpful to try to figure out *why* this is hurting her so much. She may be using it as a way to work through a larger hurt, and prodding her a bit (nicely) might get her to cotton onto that, which might help her not get so caught up in this particular relationship.

In the meantime, as Captaintripps said, I don't think you're "lying by omission" as much as you're trying to be sensitive to her feelings, which I think is a good thing.
posted by occhiblu at 2:29 PM on May 27, 2006

Just don't bring this guy up if it bothers her. What's the problem? It's not like you have some responsibility to make sure she has certain emotional patterns.

As for the job, you need to make it clear that it has nothing to do with her. He's obviously moved on with his life. She has no claim on him. It would be unethical for you to prevent him from being hired because someone who isn't party to the situation would feel irrationally injured by his employment.
posted by clockzero at 2:31 PM on May 27, 2006

your friend needs counseling ... she needs to find a way to let go of him

in the meantime, you really shouldn't mention him to her

has she been involved with anyone since they broke up?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:36 PM on May 27, 2006

Her explanation was twofold: first, she feels an uncontrollable physical response to hearing about him-- she flushes, her heart pounds, she feels lightheaded. She says she cannot control this response.

This is such an extreme reaction that I think it indicates she needs some sort of professional help. You may or may not be in a position to encourage her to get it, but this level of persistent visceral trauma over the situation is not something you (or any of your other friends) can counsel or "reason" her through.

Second, she believes that he is a bad person (untrustworthy being the core of it) and she expected all her friends to know this as well. She couldn't believe that I was even entertaining the idea of working with him at all, and she said that this indicated to her that I don't understand her. She didn't go so far as to say "If you were really my friend, you would have nothing to do with him ever", but I definitely felt that that was the message.

This is a attempt to control the people around her, and to cast you as a player in a drama which you have no interest (literally or figuratively) in being part of. Regardless of the very real pain she's obviously in, she has no right to hold you, your friends, and now your workplace (!) hostage because of that pain, and I believe it would be unethical of you to acquiesce to her childish demands and prevent her ex from getting hired. Let him be hired (if he's indeed the best candidate), don't say any more to her, and if she brings it up tell her it is not her business and has nothing to do with her.
posted by scody at 3:10 PM on May 27, 2006

Like scody said.
posted by curtm at 3:54 PM on May 27, 2006

I aggree with occhiblu - there must be a reason that she still feels such strong emotion in connection with this guy. We all have break-ups, and we all know how utterly awful it can feel, but after 3 years I think it's very unusual for someone to still feel hurt, angry, resentful, etc.

Maybe it would be useful for her to talk through this, either with you or one of her other friends, or even with a counsellor. It sound like you and your other friends are being really sympathetic and helpful to your friend, but there is only so much you can do.

As everyone has said, there is no need for you to feel guilty about the job thing. If you really feel that she just won't accept that your needing his professional skills doesn't affect your friendship or your understanding of her issues, then could you white-lie and say you had no choice in whether he was hired or not? You said it would help you professionally to work with him, so go for it. You have been incredibly understanding to your friend; you've done enough, you shouldn't compromise your success/ professional life for somehting that you probably can't affect anyway.
posted by schmoo at 3:55 PM on May 27, 2006

Scody nailed it.
posted by frogan at 4:09 PM on May 27, 2006

The problem with "just don't talk about him around her" is that when this person comes aboard to work with him, and she eventually finds out, she is going to take it as a huge insult/betrayal/whatever. It's not going to be pretty, at all. So I feel like if you do decide to work with him you need to tell her. You don't really have to talk about it any further than that, but I think it's not the kind of thing you want to hide and then have her find out that it's been going on for months.

The alternative, of not working with him, is that you are letting somebody else's baggage negatively affect your career and happiness. It shouldn't be any of her business where he works, nor should her happiness be contingent on whether this fellow happens to work at the same place as another friend. I don't think it's fair to give in to this, especially if you feel that having this guy at your job would be a good thing.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:13 PM on May 27, 2006

Er, I assumed without checking her profile that woot was male... so there's a lot of pronoun confusion in my previous reply.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:16 PM on May 27, 2006

I'm with Rhomboid; whether or not you stop this guy from working with you is a complete no-brainer. Of course you don't stop him. That would be both unprofessional and detrimental to your own prospects.

The hard question is whether you tell your friend up front to prevent her from finding out further down the road, or not say anything at all as it really isn't any of her business, and risk a big emotional blowup later on. I'd probably go with the up-front talk. Better to get it out of the way.
posted by Justinian at 4:19 PM on May 27, 2006

1) Probably not. This reactivity may be partly physical and partly social. It amounts to a personality trait--it's kind of 'builtin'. It would take lots of work to change this, work most people don't want to do unless they truly dislike themselves. I am thinking about people with perosnality disorders, or addiction problems, etc.
2) Only in the sense of supporting her if SHE decides to work on this.
3) Live your life. If she wants to join you, hurray, if not, too bad. See if your library has the book Stop Walking on Eggshells
4) No, SHE has to make a choice.

I'm not telling you to dump her. Do what is best for you. She should care enough about you to overcome any discomfort she has thinking about this guy. Acknowledge her pain, then tell the truth about what you do. Let her take it from there.
posted by RussHy at 4:47 PM on May 27, 2006

Three years to get over a five month, not even very good relationship?

This may sound cold hearted, but it's really not fair of your friend to manipulate other people into not being able to talk about this guy in the normal course of their lives. I certainly don't know your friend, but it seems like a selfish attention grab. I think I'd tell her the truth- that you love her and value her friendship, but if this guy becomes your co-worker, there's a possiblity he's going to come up in the conversation. Let her know that you're telling her now so that she can "be prepared for it." I'd also recommend that she embark on some proactive means of getting over this situation. If she's not willing to do that, I'd tend to believe it's not so much about the ex as it is about the attention she gets by overreacting. Is there a way you can somehow pay more attention to her calm, thoughtful reactions (such as her reaction to the news of his marriage) , and less notice to her emotional responses?
posted by oneirodynia at 6:03 PM on May 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

if she really wants to sort it, then i'm saying hypnotherapy.
posted by chrissyboy at 6:55 PM on May 27, 2006

Is she not telling you something that happened between her and that guy? She sounds traumatized.
posted by bleary at 9:20 PM on May 27, 2006

Given your friends dramatic physical reaction it sounds like your friend has post traumatic stress disorder. Of course, I have no idea what caused it. But I've worked with several people who had it (most from war or other combat/accident experiences). Your friend definitely needs help. Tell her that her reaction is not normal, that its hurting her, don't tolerate her extreme reaction to mention of him, and emphasize that she needs help.
posted by zia at 10:36 PM on May 27, 2006

This sounds very like a friend of mine... She went out with a guy in 1998 for three months and was devastated when they broke up. A couple of years ago, she announced HER engagement to someone else, and, that very day, she saw her ex at a party, completely flipped out, was sobbing on my shoulder because the ex was daring to flirt with another girl, and her new fiance was storming off in a huff.

She obviously discussed it with her fiance, slightly, because the outcome of the talk was to move the wedding date forward several months. Logical.

1) Is it possible for her to change herself to be less reactive to emotional distress like this?

I don't know when you're supposed to recover from hurt, and I really hate it when people put timelines on recovering from big events like this, but for such a short relationship, so long ago, it would appear that the time line is up! (same as in my friends case)

2) If it's possible, can we, her friends who love her, say or do anything to help her make those changes?

In my experience, saying something won't do any good. Trying to suggest to my friend that she delay her marriage until she had sorted this stuff out provoked the opposite reaction, although that might just be the stubborness of my friend!

3) If she can't ever change, how do we talk about the things that distress her? Do we have to keep lying by omission? Isn't that wrong?

I say, talk about them with tact, ie: don't discuss loudly in her presence how happy he is with his new wife, but don't refuse to talk about him just for her - this is her problem, and she needs to learn how to deal with it.

4) Do I have to make the choice between my professional welfare and my friendship with her? Should I tell her that I feel like I have to make that choice?

Definitely don't. The man didn't do anything wrong for going out with her OR breaking up with her, and should not be punished for doing so. Definitely tell your friend that you are annoyed about the position you feel she is putting you in though.
posted by jonathanstrange at 10:44 PM on May 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have been through experiences that have planted similar traumatic reactions and associations, including the psychosomatic symptoms your friend experiences. I definitely think that bleary's supposition should be seriously considered. Her disgust for his moral fibre indicates to me that there is something she knows about him that you don't, which she expects you to take at her word because she doesn't feel comfortable expressing it. If this is the case, your doubting her knowledge feels like a betrayal because she is in fact right, yet you don't believe her.

The only other reasonable-seeming possibility I can think of is that she is blaming him for her own inability to deal with the loss of their relationship, but that is not usually what people who are heartbroken do for 3 years. There is something else involved here, something seriously traumatic to your friend. It could have been of her own creation, or it could have not. Either way, she needs support.

As far as talking herself out of it, she could. I did. It took a long time. I don't really know if I could tell you how, other than to meditate and spend serious time asking the following questions:

1) What am I feeling?
2) Why am I feeling it?
3) If the reason is unclear, why should I feel this way?
4) What would it feel like to not feel this way?
5) Why shouldn't I feel like this other way instead of the way I'm feeling now?

Using this kind of a thinking process, in two separate major occasions (after many painful episodes where i could not, in fact, deal with the issue other than by running from it) I have been able to change my thinking patterns, dealing with preferences which most people accept as engrained personality traits. The first had to do with an involuntary post-traumatic physical and emotional aversion to all use of alcohol (around me or by people I care about), and the second had to do with monogamy (relevant to your friends' experience maybe, not quite as traumatic but definitely a product of heartbreak.) These were both deeply engrained, psychosomatically-evoked anxieties that I more or less decided to understand and then opt out of.

From what I've heard about neuro-linguistic programming, I think this is sort of what that tries to make a science out of. I just have a knack, so you might wanna just call me a pastry baker and buy your friend a book about NLP.
posted by Embryo at 1:10 AM on May 28, 2006 [4 favorites]

Medicalizing problems is a slippery slope with broken bottles at the bottom, so I offer this comment with some diffidence.

I know someone well who has walked your friend's path several times already in her young life. My friend has OCD. When she managed to get her OCD under control with the help of medication, she also got control of her romantic obsessions.
posted by jamjam at 11:25 AM on May 28, 2006

Thank you all so much for your help. I've only very rarely (if ever) been in a situation like this, when my interests come into conflict with my friend's interests. Thank you for listening and for adding your suggestions.

clockzero: Yeah, it's not like I have the right to change her behavior. I know. It's just that after three years of this I've come to the decision that her behavior is not just hurting me, but hurting her, and maybe she needs to learn a new way to handle her emotional distress. It makes me a meddlesome friend, and it's been a tough decision to come to.

pyramid termite: Yes, she's dated some other guys, casually. She says she doesn't trust easily (no surprise) and hasn't opened herself up to anyone since the guy from the story above. It's probably part of the reason why this experience still impacts her so powerfully-- she's had nothing "real" since dating him. (I was going to add that it's weird that she felt so strongly for him when it seems to us that HE didn't feel strongly for her, or is even CAPABLE of feeling strongly... but then of course we weren't in the relationship. But for what it's worth, none of us could figure out how someone so self-absorbed and dare-I-say-shallow as he could engage deeply with our friend.)

And to the Freudian/past trauma comments: I know she's had previous traumatic relationships. She believes she's only had two or three "real" relationships (she's mid-30s) despite steady dating, and these real relationships all scarred her. And she also has a very distant father... yeah, I know, classic pursuit-of-love stuff here. It's not the problem that's necessarily inscrutable-- it's whether she can modify her response, and whether her friends can help.

Regarding medication/OCD: I've never considered this situation to be a chemical problem for her, but rather a cognitive-pattern problem-- a habitual response. She is incredibly accomplished and highly functional in the rest of her life-- only her close friends ever observe this particularly intense emotional stuff. I'd lean towards therapy (and a qualified professional's assessment, of course).

bleary: I don't know if she's held anything back from me, but the thing is, she has talked A LOT about this. A LOT. And not just to me but to other friends. Given the time spent going over minutiae of "what did he mean when he texted me this" and "he looked at me at this party and I don't know what to make of it", I have a hard time believing there's some darker element that she hasn't shared. She likes to vent about it and analyze it. If there were some horrible thing he'd done to her, she would have told us, so that we could share her disgust for him. I could be wrong, but after three years, I can't believe there's something he's done to her that we haven't heard about. That's why I have come to the conclusion that the trauma she experienced came down to "He didn't love me."

Embryo: Thank you in particular for your constructive and specific advice. I process distress differently from my friend and that's what's made it hard for me to understand her. Thank you for your insights.

For now, I'm going to wait until the next occasion that this issue arises and then... well, start trying to help. Thanks to you all for your suggestions and criticisms (and I welcome more).
posted by woot at 6:52 AM on May 29, 2006

woot: If there were some horrible thing he'd done to her, she would have told us, so that we could share her disgust for him.

I agree that your description of her sifting the minutia of his messages and glances with you makes it sound less likely that she was traumatized by something specific she isn't telling you, but I wouldn't be 100% sure. I knew something disturbing about a person, and I'm also terribly open about most things (including my opinion of that person), yet I didn't go around discussing that one detail back when I spent time with people who knew him.


Regardless of how unrealistic her reactions are to you, try to respect that they are legitimate to her when you try to encourage her to seek help. Try not to make it sound like you think she's crazy or that her feelings aren't real.
posted by bleary at 10:04 AM on May 29, 2006

woot: sure, it's a really intense thing to feel helpless to your emotions, especially when your emotional/physical response doesn't seem to match your consciously preferred reaction. I'm not sure my explanation will do the trick; I suspect that the words I use to describe the really abstract process of unhooking connected things in my mind may not make as much sense to her or anyone else. But mainly I want to lift up hope that it's possible, and that introspection probably is the key device neccessary. If your friend talks about this a lot with you and her other friends, that may be a sure sign that she is not doing the internal processing that she needs to be doing in order to heal and come to grips with her feelings. It might be productive to inquire about how much time she spends alone, if there's an appropriate occasion for such a question, or if you led the conversation somehow by musing about your own habits. That might be as good a start as any. Good luck to you both.
posted by Embryo at 11:10 PM on May 29, 2006

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