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Question #149: The Sad Cat Neighbor Feelings Situation

Hey Captain Awkward.

I love your column. I think I found it through a link at Feministe (???)in the comments. Anyhoo, here is my problem that I will try to explain as simply as possible:

I have had a couple of very rough years. My partner of 15+ years  had a horrible legal battle against his former business partners, which left him with what seems to be Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He became very emotionally abusive, depressed, and is now barely able to function in any aspect of his life. We have separated, but this cast a giant shadow over my life, as you can probably imagine. I was left doubly traumatised by the awfulness of his legal situation, and by his increasingly hostile aggression towards me, especially as I had been very supportive of him throughout the legal battles, and never doubted that he was being wronged. He is now on his third therapist, who does not seem to be helping him at all. I sought counseling and support through a clinic for domestic violence, which helped me. Throughout this time I had reached out to people that I thought were my friends. One by one I discovered that their underlying attitude towards me, after I had disclosed the abuse, was that somehow I was responsible for letting this abuse happen to me ! I was told by one friend that “I wouldn’t let someone talk to me this way”. I was told by another, after she talked to him and me separately that “she and B. both noticed that I seemed to have lost my confidence”(who wouldn’t after being yelled at for months about things that weren’t my fault that pertained to his case after it was settled out of court?). Another claimed that I was “enabling” his abuse towards me ! No one seemed to “get” the dynamics of emotional abuse, or how messed up he had become. It really shook me how unsupportive my so called friends were, which added to my anguish and isolation.

I had been friendly with my neighbor S. , who lives across the street from me, for six years. She is about 15 years older than me, but we had some similar backgrounds and attitudes. We would talk on the phone once in awhile, and did some social things together. I knew some very personal stuff about her, and she knew about me as well. We had been invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas at her house for the last five years, and were included in social invitations. I did not think she was my best friend, but I thought she was a good friend. She knew about my situation with B. and how bad it had become.

Our neighborhood has a huge issue with stray and abandoned cats. My neighbor cared for and adopted some, I have adopted, fostered and cared for others, and am working with a rescue to spay and neuter as many cats in the area as possible to reduce the number of strays. I don’t drive, so I asked my neighbor for very occasional assistance(ie once or twice in a year) like a ride to a far off clinic. I always helped her with her cat issues, and made things like access to free  spay and neuters possible for her, which she used a couple of times. I never wanted to give the impression that I was using her, or making excessive demands. I offered to pay for gas, which she always declined.

A stray that I had fostered was transferred to a different foster home as he was too aggressive with my cats. Several months after his transfer, he went missing from his new home, where he was happy. I helped to look for him, and kept in touch with his foster who was very upset. Three weeks later I received a call from Animal Services that he had been found alive(microchip from when I brought him in to be neutered). He was in very bad shape, with unknown injuries. He was at a local vet, where I could either use that vet’s services or transfer him to my own. I called the rescue first, but could not get anyone directly, and called his foster second, who was not answering her phone. The rescue called me back, and said that I could take him to one of the vets they use (the rescue does not have a shelter/building, and uses several vets across the city who they have accounts with). To further complicate things, most vets in this city close early on Saturdays, so that made the choices very slim. I had dealt with the vet clinic he was taken to previously,  but I disliked the vet who owned it, as I found him to be shady bordering on unethical. I was faced with picking up this cat, to transport him to a clinic that was a 25 minute DRIVE from my location(ie $60.00 cab ride each way), or to pay the shady vet out of my pocket to use his clinic. I was also extremely broke at this point, so this was not a reasonable possibility. In desperation I called my neighbor to help me, since I felt this was an emergency. S. was fussy about helping as she a)claimed she could not help with him financially, which was not a problem as the cat was being cared for through the rescue who would pay for his expenses b)she had other plans for that afternoon. I had to beg her to help me, so she did(grudgingly). We got lost on the way to the first vet clinic, in a far off suburb (my Google Map was wrong !), and the vet there was dismissive, recommended euthanasia and plainly wanted to close for the afternoon. The rescue then sent us to a different clinic, 25 minutes away in the opposite direction. The staff here were amazing, and stayed hours after closing to treat his injuries. To make his story short: against all odds he made an astonishing recovery from his injuries (wounds with live maggots in them, severe starvation and dehydration, and a fractured jaw) and is being adopted by his foster home.

It was a terrible, stressful afternoon, but I was very grateful that my neighbor had helped to save his life. I thanked her many times for helping.  As this afternoon unfolded, I remained as composed as possible. While I was stressed, I was not crying, yelling, swearing, demanding or freaking out at all. I expressed to S. how awful this was and that I didn’t know what to do. I was on the phone with several different people from the rescue about what decisions to make about this cat, as they were paying his bill, so none of the decisions were mine alone.This was an extraordinary situation for everyone !

Since this happened, my neighbor became very cool towards me, and completely stopped speaking to me ! We spoke a few times in the weeks afterwards, but she would not even cross the street to say hello to me. I made inquiries with mutual acquaintances/neighbors, and they gave me some vague answers about not knowing anything, or that she “needed her space”. To put this in context again — the cat troubles were not the only major thing happening for me then — it was a time with several intense and emotionally draining things that were happening within a two week period. It was a time that I desperately needed friendship. Weeks of her silence turned into months, and I still don’t know why she  behaved this way towards me !

(I also have to add that within days of the cat drama that S. sent an email to the woman from the rescue who had made it possible to save his life. S’s email was full of complaints about why the rescue sent us to such far off clinics, and her tone was very rude. I had explained to her multiple times that afternoon, and afterwards, that not every clinic will give reduced rates to the rescue, that they establish accounts with specific clinics, and that since it was Saturday afternoon that few of these clinics were even open, so the choices were very limited. Needless to say, the woman from the rescue, who had been very helpful to me with many cats, was extremely angry about this email !)

Three months later I received a puzzling email from my neighbor that was labeled “An apology and an explanation”. I have attached it so you can read it. It really did not make much sense to me. I forwarded it to a friend to see if she could understand what the problem was, and she could not make sense of this either. The email is full of vague generalities but without specific details. I replied to it explaining my confusion, requesting clarification, but of course received no reply.

THE EMAIL

> From: REDACTED
> Date: October 17, 2011 11:56:25 AM GMT-04:00
> To: REDACTED
> Subject: An apology and an explantion
>
> Hello REDACTED ,
> I apologize for the distance that has grown between us.
> For some time I have been trying to sort out how to approach this
> and now
> I will just explain my piece in the hopes it does not cause any
> further difficulties.
> You triggered my sensitivities around boundaries a few times, and
> now I have
> triggered your issues around people distancing themselves, for that
> I am sorry.
>
> Initially I was no more angry then those issues I had vented
> directly to you.
> When I expressed my frustration over the extreme cat situations and
> my need
> to establish boundaries around those activities you exclaimed “what
> about me !”
> This caused me to take some space.
>
> Then I was simply enjoying my summer of fun.
> You started avoiding me on the street and I heard from our mutual
> friends that I was angry with you when
> it was not so, this further distanced me causing me to remain removed.
> It is my view friends should respect one another and not enforce
> particular expectations,
> you had given me the impression by some of your comments that I was
> not fulfilling your definition of “friend” the way you had hoped.
> We all have our own lives to navigate. For me I prefer to offer help
> when I can.
> This has been a very demanding year for me as well !
> In my time, I have had an inordinate amount of expectations around
> helping others,
> and used to be how I would ingratiate myself to others.
> Now I am ultra sensitive and guarded on this front.
>
> My hope is that none of this insults but helps clarify my side for
> you.
> You are a very talented, bright and considerate woman in your way
> and I do respect you and regret the extent of the wedge that has
> formed between us.
>
> Wishing you well,
> REDACTED
>
>
>

So Captain, my problem is now that I feel so hurt and so angry at my neighbor that I literally HATE to see her house out my window. I am using my back door whenever possible, sewing opaque curtains for my front windows, and avoiding as much neighborhood interaction as possible. I am not in a position to sell my house right now so I can’t just move ! Can you understand what I did wrong, and can you explain it to me, and how I can stop riding this wave of hurt, anger and rejection when it comes to my friendships ?

Signed,
So Mad

Dear So Mad,

I am publishing and answering your letter, even though it breaks all of my personal rules about length, because you are falling into some mindtraps that are very, very common.

I’m confused as to why you told me the story about your emotionally abusive ex and the way your friends behaved as if it had something to do with your neighbor/cat conflict.

I realize that sounds mean, but bear with me.

To you, your neighbor’s rejection of you is part of a long, terrible battle you’ve had with your boyfriend and the way your other friends treated you – it’s just another brick in the wall, or row in the pattern – choose your own bad metaphor! Your neighbor’s rejection is one more piece of evidence that your friends reject you when the chips are down and you need them most, and also, she should have known better.

To your neighbor, it’s one very bad day, where she had other plans but her neighbor that she likes ok most of the time made an emergency about a stray foster cat into *her* emergency, and then sucked her in for a whole day of sad, expensive, annoying, emotionally wrenching tiddlywinks that she regretted signing up for as soon as the “eh, okay” came out of her mouth.

What I read in your email is “I’ve had a really hard year! My neighbor should have been nice to me and cut me all the slack!”  What I read in your neighbor’s email is “I’ve had a really hard year, too! One way I am taking care of myself is to not get sucked into doing favors for people that I don’t really want to be doing, and that day I broke my own rules and then regretted it, so I took it out on you a little. I’ve cooled off. Maybe if you understand where I’m coming from, we can be cool again?

I see this pattern a lot when people talk about past romantic relationships and carry worries from those relationships poisonously into new relationships.  “I know I seem super-jealous and controlling when I take your phone and scroll through your text messages to make sure you aren’t cheating, but don’t you realize that my exes cheated on me and I’m just hyper-sensitive to that?  If you loved me, you’d understand.”  Yeah, not necessarily. It’s not a friend or lover’s job to make up for the performance of the last people to inhabit that job. To take it even further, sometimes people tell their new friends or lovers about this sad past behavior, and then expect that the new person will magically connect the dots of “Oh, she’s really sensitive about that, I’d better be careful to take care of her around that lest I trigger her issues” instead of saying “That sucks, I’m sorry you dealt with that, would you like some hugs now?” and generally comforting/empathizing with you.

This simultaneously grossly overestimates and underestimates people:  They may not connect that your sad story requires them to do something (or avoid ever doing something), because hey, they’re not that guy, and when you told them the story they put themselves in your shoes and not in the shoes of the person who was mean to you that time. The underestimating people comes in because you’re in the process of creating your relationships all the time as you go along, and it’s probably a bad idea to retrofit them to the model of failed relationships and treat them like people who hurt you before you give them a chance to maybe not be that person.

I had a good, lovely friend who I had to part ways with because she did this to me all the time. She had grown up in an abusive situation, and was constantly scanning the world for signs that she was not loved enough by it, so would interpret innocuous things I did as proof that I didn’t “really” value her. She was constantly “triggered” by things I did and said because they reminded her of family stuff or exes, and she devised little tests that I didn’t know about that I then failed, and I was constantly apologizing to her for “triggering” her. Over time the apologies became more “I’m sorry that you interpreted it that way” and “WTF?” non-apologies and finally it came down to me feeling like I could not do anything right and breaking off the friendship. Maybe your neighbor didn’t give you what you needed.  Maybe she didn’t handle things well that day or explain herself well.  Maybe she can’t give you what you needed, and a friendship you saw as close was always kind of an arms-length thing to her. Maybe I was a dick all those times my friend felt hurt or “triggered.”

However, some things I know about relationships are:

  1. If the people in the relationship constantly feel like they are owed apologies, something is unbalanced.
  2. If you’re spending the majority of the relationship talking about and re-negotiating the dynamics of the relationship, and that feels exhausting to you (vs. for poly people, where it’s known as “foreplay”), something is unbalanced.
  3. If thinking about the person sends your shoulders up around your ears, and you feel constantly misunderstood and like you have to clarify things with long emails later, something is unbalanced.

It’s one big unfair subjective sad self-fulfilling prophecy – the more you treat a friend like they are going to let you down, the more they find interacting with you confusing and difficult and the the more they avoid you, and then they feel guilty for avoiding you, which leads me to my next unfair and subjective pronouncement: When someone has failed you in some way and they know it, they become more likely to avoid you (instead of wanting to hang out and make things up to you), because seeing you makes them feel guilty and you become someone who is causing them to have negative feelings about how they see themselves. People don’t like that. That’s your neighbor realizing she overreacted by sending the emails, and explaining why she took a time out, though the fact is she DID help you when you asked, even when it was inconvenient for her and grew more inconvenient as the day went on.

The best you can do (sometimes) when communication breaks down with a friend is to give them a lot of space and let some time pass and see where you end up. Hopefully you gain a little perspective. Maybe you readjust your expectations for what this friendship has to offer you, and you find some way to set the reset button back to “friendly nodding and hello” instead of walling yourself off in your house behind the blackout curtains.

Now I want to circle back to the stuff you went through with your ex and your other friends. After going through what you did, it’s not crazy that your inner compass will be set to North-by-It’s-Only-A-Matter-Of-Time-Before-They-Let-Me-Down. Abuse colors our worldview – How could it not?  It’s part of the toxic legacy of abuse is that it pays itself forward and cuts us off from developing healthy relationships until we put a lot of work in and figure out how to work around it. Part of recovering from abuse is healing and resetting that internal compass. You’ll always be a little bit wary, but you don’t have to carry those old relationships into all of your new ones. When you’re having a strong reaction to something that reminds you of your ex (or ex-friends), you can choose to take a step back and figure out – Is this person legitimately screwing it up? Am I reacting disproportionately  to this because of my own history?  Am I punishing this person for the way I’ve been treated in the past? Am I constructing a story where I am always the sad, abandoned one and using this one incident in an otherwise fine friendship to “prove” that narrative?  Are they doing something for their own reasons that have nothing to do with me? There’s no right answer, it could be a combination of factors, and it sucks beyond sucking to even have to ask the question. As unfair as it is that you should have to do that work, no one else can do it for you and you risk repeating history until you do.

I’ll leave you with three concrete suggestions:

  • If you haven’t already, seek out some therapy to help process everything that happend with your ex and your friends.
  • Send your neighbor a note that goes like this:  “Hey, could we both forgive and forget what happened with the cat and go back to the friendly nodding/occasionally chatting place?  I’d like that. I promise: No more emails about feelings. Happy holidays!” If this event has proved anything, it’s that your friendship cannot handle feelingsmail.
  • After you send that email, let the whole thing go. The ball is totally in her court, and she gets all of the time/space she needs to come back and talk to you again. If she does, NEVER ever EVER ever bring up the Day of the Sad Cat.  Also, never ask her for rides or assistance with cats again. Your friendship can handle neither feelingsmail nor cat rescue. If she doesn’t answer, write it off – it’s her subjective choice, not something you did. Grieve the passing of friendship, but don’t let it cut you off from the neighborhood.

I wish you some peace with this going forward.

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58 comments
  1. le_sigh said:

    “I had a good, lovely friend who I had to part ways with because she did this to me all the time. She had grown up in an abusive situation, and was constantly scanning the world for signs that she was not loved enough by it, so would interpret innocuous things I did as proof that I didn’t “really” value her. She was constantly “triggered” by things I did and said because they reminded her of family stuff or exes, and she devised little tests that I didn’t know about that I then failed, and I was constantly apologizing to her for “triggering” her. Over time the apologies became more “I’m sorry that you interpreted it that way” and “WTF?” non-apologies and finally it came down to me feeling like I could not do anything right and breaking off the friendship.”

    *headdesk* This. And it’s even more fun when sex is involved.

    • JenniferP said:

      The frustrating thing was that her feelings were very real! She was experiencing all of those feelings! The problem was, there was nothing I could do about it, because mostly they weren’t my fault.

      I do give her a lot of credit for helping me be less of a bull in the emotional china shop – a lot of the stuff in the “How not to derail” post is stuff I learned from her (because I was jumping in with advice instead of listening to feelings), and I probably was screwing it up a lot. But the friendship ended with me always feeling guilty and her always feeling like she needed things that I was withholding, so in the end we bailed.

      • Simone Lovelace said:

        Oh my stars. This reminds me so much about my ex girlfriend. It is indeed more fun when sex is involved!

        Also, this:

        “If you’re spending the majority of the relationship talking about and re-negotiating the dynamics of the relationship, and that feels exhausting to you (vs. for poly people, where it’s known as “foreplay”), something is unbalanced.”

        So bleeping right.

      • The frustrating thing was that her feelings were very real! She was experiencing all of those feelings! The problem was, there was nothing I could do about it, because mostly they weren’t my fault.

        Exactly. I too have an ex who was like this. She had also been through a lot of abuse in her past (even a little in her present), so she had developed this mindset of always, 100% of the time, being the victim. So if we had an argument, her view was always that it was my fault, and not just my fault, but a deliberate attempt on my part to hurt her.

        So yeah, that relationship didn’t last. ^_^

  2. SadSack said:

    Hey Captain, it’s me, the letter writer. I need to clarify one thing that you wrote. You mention that it was a ” whole day of sad, expensive, annoying…etc.” She did not contribute $0.01 to the vet bills — nor did I expect her to. I paid the bad vet out of pocket and the rescue was able to cover the rest of the emergency. Do I owe her the $ 15.00 or so for gas money ?

    • JenniferP said:

      Expensive in terms of time? Expensive in terms of emotional investment when she was already feeling stretched thin for her own reasons? Maybe she did need that $15?

      I’m sorry if I misunderstood anything you said, and I’m 100% sure this is not about money and more about her re-evaluating how close she wants to be to you. Not the most comforting answer, to be sure. Offering to pay now will not help. If you bury the hatchet, bury it DEEP.

  3. This is the key sentence from the questioner’s e-mail:

    “It was a time that I desperately needed friendship.”

    Manifest desperate emotional need makes emotionally healthy people run the other way.

    • JenniferP said:

      Yes and no – it’s such a horrible trap, right? “When I most need you, that’s when I scare you away.”

      A more emotionally healthy person in a stronger friendship might be able to ride out some temporary neediness from a friend. You can hopefully say to your close friends “I’m feeling really raw and needy today, can you just hang out and be nice to me?” without them bailing on the whole thing. Though it takes work to learn how to ask for what you need and how to make it as concrete as possible. “TAKE CARE OF ME” may feel like too big a request and activates automatic “BOUNDARIES! DEFLECTION! AVOID!” where “Do this one thing that will make me feel better for this fixed amount of time” will work. Unfortunately it’s hard to do that when you yourself are feeling crappy.

      The other problem is, who is all that emotionally healthy, really? The neighbor indicated in her email that she was dealing with her own crap and feeling stretched thin, and was trying to limit contact with the LW while she worked out her own stuff. She didn’t have any emotional resources to spare just then, and through a sad convergence of events (desperate need, sad emergency!) felt over-extended.

      People make mistakes, they screw up, they hurt each other, they run when they should comfort and help when they should hang back. We’re all trying to get better at this stuff in the best way we can. Some friendships will survive the mistakes because they are based in reciprocity and shared positive experiences, and some will break when tested, like this one did.

      • “Some friendships will survive the mistakes because they are based in reciprocity and shared positive experiences, and some will break when tested, like this one did.”

        Very true. The key here is “based in reciprocity and shared positive experiences”, as opposed to based in need, mutual or otherwise.

    • secretrebel said:

      “Manifest desperate emotional need makes emotionally healthy people run the other way.”

      Stick a ‘continual’ or a ‘one-sided’ at the front of that and I’d agree. But I’m an emotionally healthy person who’s right now I’m going through some really intense bad stuff in one aspect of my life and didn’t think I had anything to spare for anyone else. However, a friend really needed me for support with their own issue and it turned out I did have something to spare. I think that’s because friend has been there for me and this is the first time they have ever asked in nearly two decades of friendship.

      It’s not the desperate need on its own – it’s the neediness pattern, the exhausting wearing never-ending need fr support that drains the well dry.

  4. One thing that I get a little uneasy with on feminist blogs (mostly in the comment threads, not the bloggers so much) is that there seems to be a belief that what’s bad about a person who can’t hear “no” is that they may be an abuser.

    That’s true of some people, and it’s an important warning sign to be aware of, but many people who have trouble hearing “no” are just pushy. It’s actually OK to be pushy! It’s a normal way to be, there are a lot of positives that come with it, and it’s up to other people to set their own boundaries. However, this part of the letter is the crucial bit to me:

    “S. was fussy about helping as she a)claimed she could not help with him financially, which was not a problem as the cat was being cared for through the rescue who would pay for his expenses b)she had other plans for that afternoon. I had to beg her to help me, so she did(grudgingly).”

    Right here is what this story is about. The rest is color. It’s an important lesson for you. Here’s what happened:

    You asked someone for help. She said “no.” You decided that it was so important for you to have her help that you pushed through her “no” and got to “yes.” Then the errand didn’t go well and wound up being a much bigger hassle than either of you originally expected.

    Here’s the lesson. If this happens, and it involves someone other than your best friend whom you’ve known since you were two, your friendship is likely over.

    That may sound really harsh but it’s just something you may have to accept. Pushing through “no” to get to “yes” is a big deal. It has consequences, and YOU are responsible for them.

    You didn’t say so explicitly, but it sounds like you don’t actually regret anything you did that day. Saving the cat was important enough that it was worth jeopardizing your friendship with your neighbor.

    When you tell this story again, try to realize it’s a story about how you did something that was important to you, and the choices you made had consequences for you that were painful and expensive, and you did it anyway because you’re a responsible adult and that’s what responsible adults do!

    In real life even good deeds have a cost. Nothing is free. The price of that cat’s life was your friendship with your neighbor. What a bittersweet thing that is. You should write a story about it!

    • JenniferP said:

      I like a lot of things about this interpretation, mostly the part where it recasts the LW as a person who made some choices (and handled a very difficult situation the best way that she could) with a sad result (and a good result – the LW emailed me pics of the kitty, and he is a handsome gentleman).

    • Ensign Perception said:

      This is such a good point. I’ve had stories of me messing up in the past, that eventually turned out to be stories of me making a tough choice and paying the price of admission to get to something important.

      Here’s the key about this narrative, LW:

      – There is no way to convince the neighbor lady that this is true. Her story of that day is a whole other story. Maybe part of not being able to be friends with her anymore is the fact that your stories are way too opaque to one another? (Like your curtains?)

      – Make sure that you don’t overpay for that cat’s life. You don’t have to skulk around your own home as if the sight of you will offend this woman. In fact I am going to straight up call this out as a consequence of abuse – regular people don’t demand that those who displease them disappear altogether, but your ex might have. What are you doing now that might be an over the top reaction to the end of the friendship? (Like your curtains?)

      – Remember, it really IS a big deal to push through “no”. Sometimes it’s a sort of violation that is legit hurtful to other people. Having good boundaries is all about realizing when pushing through “no” is just completely unacceptable, and when others are pushing you too hard, as well. Just because the neighbor isn’t your friend anymore, doesn’t mean her point about boundaries is invalid – assess that on your own terms, ok? (Like your curtains?… Wait does that make sense…)

      Anyway, yeah, I agree that this friendship may be rebuildable on a casual level – but as ever, be aware that this wound between you needs time to scar over and may never fully heal.

      And, I think this whole story makes a great deal more sense in the context of recovering from abuse. Seriously LW, that sounds horrendous, care for yourself and get yourself some good care. <3

      • JenniferP said:

        Everyone persuades and I dare say manipulates to get what they want – ever seen a toddler try to get out of going to bed or wanting to hear “just one more story?” and those aren’t bad things by themselves. Those are human things. Where they get complicated (and talked about a lot on feminist and other social justice blogs) is abuse, rape, sexual coercion, etc., especially when one person’s privilege or absorbed cultural narratives make them think they get to totally disregard the “no” like it doesn’t exist.

        Being respectful of other people’s boundaries doesn’t mean lying down and taking everything that comes your way. There are so many situations where you *should* push through people’s needs to take care of yourself.

        Company: We would like to pay you this much.
        You: You should pay me more. Here is why.

        Company: We’re not accepting job applications at this time.
        You: Are you sure? Here’s mine.

        Bank: You will pay us this stupid fee.
        You: No, I will not be doing that.

        Boss: I will be sexually harassing you today.
        You: The fuck you will.

        In the Letter Writer’s case, she pushed through a “no” to get something she needed. It ended badly. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do, it was one of many possible right/wrong decisions that day. Putting the cat down might have been one possible “right” decision. But the neighbor felt put upon and like her boundaries were violated. They WERE.

        Doesn’t mean anyone’s evil.

        • Ensign Perception said:

          Right. I don’t see any mean assholes in this story, at all.

  5. ILW said:

    Amazing answer by the Captain, as per usual. My take: ’tis a tale about boundaries that has been spun above!

    I am learning about boundaries in friendship. Some people have a hard time saying “no” so they do things they don’t want. Some people don’t realize when they are transgressing boundaries because they just want their own needs met, or they have a goal that is more salient or urgent to them than the other person’s feelings.

    Person A needs to say “no” if they don’t want to do something. Person B needs to accept “no” as an answer. This is hard to communicate in female friendships. There is a lot of “I totally don’t mind!” “whatever you want!” “it’s not an imposition, I swear!” going on.

    The risk if we are not honest/sensitive: Person A avoids Person B. Person B resents Person A.

    • JenniferP said:

      You should have seen Commander Logic and me “Minnesota-ing” a brownie the other day at lunch, and we’re friends who totally have good boundaries! :)

      • commanderlogic said:

        And! We are friends who recognized that we were Minnesota-ing the crap out of that brownie and then laughed our fool asses off.

  6. SadSack said:

    I am mulling over the replies that the Captain and commenters have given so far, and I am left wondering what other people think I should have done that day ? Time was of the essence as the cat’s body temperature had started to drop when he was dropped off at the bad vet — he was dying. Should I have waited for someone from the rescue to get a volunteer driver ? Should I have withdrawn hundreds of dollars that I could not afford to take a cab ? Should I have waited for the foster (who had a car) to get back to me ? I felt that this was a real emergency that required immediate attention. The cat was registered to me so I felt that he was my responsibility, and I could not in good conscience do nothing. She was the third person I called.

    My neighbor had acted like she would be there for me when and if things went wrong (ie I had an electrical fire and had to call the fire department late one night, and she phoned me right away to see what was happening). I had felt that our friendship was mutual, reciprocal, respectful and was not under constant surveillance/inventory/probation. I had many intense emotional conversations with her, where she was often bursting into tears about things going on with her, in her life. Maybe I did not make this clear in my letter, but I thought that I had a pretty good friendship with her, that was more than a passing neighborly acquaintance that I said hi to once in awhile. Yes, I did have to press for her assistance that afternoon — it was an emergency — at least I believed it was. I don’t believe I am a drama queen, and I have always hated to ask for help, so I do so very reluctantly and rarely.

    I am asking these questions because I just don’t understand what I should have done, or what was right to do, or what was wrong about my actions. I feel very mixed up about the 180 degree turn my life suddenly took between the legal stuff, the emotional abuse, and friends who suddenly weren’t friends. I thought it was important to provide a context — that it was already an intense, sad, horrible time for me, where I struggled to make good healthy choices.

    • JenniferP said:

      You didn’t do anything wrong that day. The way you are still focused on the details of that day is telling and troubling. This question came in today. Your email exchange is from 2 months ago, which means the Bad Day was even more months ago. I feel crappy and like I am being abusive saying this – I mean, there’s no deadline on feeling good about something bad that happened – but this is a long time for this one event to be playing in your mind to this degree. I agree that you are reacting to it as part of a continuation of the breakup and abuse, but you wrote to me for perspective, and for me, it is NOT part of that (for your friend). Your brain is being a jerk and mashing them together, because maybe it’s safer to deal with the smaller (neighbor) problem than to unpick the larger boyfriend/close friends problem. I don’t know, I’m not a pro, I’m just a lady with a blog, but I know an anxiety/blame/shame spiral when I see one, and this is one of those.

      You could have done all the right things! You saved a cat! You probably did all the right things! You probably judged everything exactly correctly!

      You just bumped into another person’s unfair life stuff and subjective, unfair, internal, totally inside her head point of view. She resented saying yes to you, and then she resented feeling guilty about feeling resentful, so then she avoided you, and then she tried to explain it, and failed at that so you asked for more clarification, so she decided to be done with the topic (and the person who reminded her of the topic) for a good while. Not your fault! Totally unfair! Unfixable!

      Even if you royally misread and fucked up everything, you don’t have a time machine. (Do you have a time machine? If so, can I ride in it?) So analyzing that day (or your past friendships) to figure out what you did wrong is about internalizing victim blaming and second-guessing your own behavior that comes with abuse.

      Whatever happened that day, the way forward is some combination of:

      1) Get some help. Some serious help. Some recommendations here for US/Canada.

      2) Bury the hatchet with your friend, either by sending one casual email (and letting it drop) or deciding that things are unfixable (and letting it drop). I sense any more “talking about it” or “apologizing” or “explaining” will just keep you in the sad loop and further alienate and annoy your neighbor. Break the loop. It’s in the past. You can’t change it, so why dwell on it? I know that is exactly your problem, but I swear, I SWEAR it is not the key to figuring out your life or everything that went wrong. You’re not going to get an explanation that satisfies you, either because she can’t give one or you can’t hear one. No more feelingsmail.

      3) Give yourself credit for taking care of the cat. You did a good thing there.

      4) Stop calling yourself Sad Sack. That’s not how anyone sees you, ok?

      5) You can annoy people and they can need a break from you as part of a friendship without anyone doing anything wrong or bad. You can then re-evaluate that friendship and decide if it’s for you, but it doesn’t mean it’s your fault or that changing the past in any way would change it. Maybe even if the thing with the cat hadn’t happened you’d still have ended up here over something else, because that’s where your neighbor’s head is.

      • Jake said:

        This is all true. And also: sometimes you aren’t compatible with someone. And sometimes it can take a while to figure that out. I’ll give you two examples.

        1) There’s a guy in my lab. New guy. He’s told another postdoc that she shouldn’t go to OWS because protests aren’t for girls. When I got a flat on my bike, he told me that I should get my partner to fix it because girls can’t fix bikes and it’s the boyfriend’s job. So he and I? Not compatible. NOT FRIENDS. That one was easy.

        2) Several years ago I had a roommate. When we first met we really hit it off and became super close friends, which was why we decided to become roommates. As it turned out, we were crazy bad for each other. Each of us fed into the other’s bad emotional traps in ways that gave us a really bizarre and unhealthy relationship. We spent a year living together. During that year we went from “YAY LOVE LIVING WITH YOU!” to “love living with you but why do I always feel crappy?” to “WHY ARE YOU NOT MY FRIEND ANYMORE YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK” to not speaking to moving out. We had lots of feelings conversations and lots of leaving each other feelingsnotes throughout all of it, but we couldn’t get past the fact that our unique emotional traps and habits made us make each other crazy. We were not compatible. No more compatible than I am with the first guy. But it took a year and a lot of time together for that to become obvious. That one was not easy. And neither of us did anything objectively wrong. Sometimes two people just don’t work. Life goes on.

    • commanderlogic said:

      Just backing up what the Cap says above, and saying that NO ONE should tell you what you should have done better. You did the best you could at the time, so let that stand. You did the BEST.

      Dwelling on this incident is not helping anyone accomplish anything, and since no one can go back and change anything, it might help to let that incident go.

      The cat is well now and not your problem.

      You are still having a rough year, and need to lean on people a bit.

      Your friend is having a rough year of her own, and that is not a statement about you.

      You have boundaries, she has boundaries. Keeping other people – ALL other people – outside of those boundaries is a right that both of you have. Her boundaries are not about you.

    • Gretchen said:

      LW, you did what you needed to do and while we all could spend hours talking about what else you could have done, it ultimately serves no purpose. I feel like you want to be vindicated here, but just because ‘you are not in the wrong’, does not mean that your neighbour is either, which is what I think the commenters here are trying to express to you. Both of you simply had different expectations of the boundaries of the friendship. While you felt that you were close friends and had been there for each other in the past, this may have just been a step too far for her.

      You say that in the past she had offered to help you when “things went wrong”, maybe for her that only meant for you personally, and if it was you who was in need of urgent medical care that ended up taking up her day there would be no boundaries problem and she would not have distanced herself. The cat was in a critical condition, you cared about the cat, so you did the right thing by you and the cat. But maybe she cares about you and just doesn’t really give that much of a damn about cats. I have a cat, my husband hates cats, in fact he doesn’t like animals in the house at all, so the cat is very much *my problem*. If the cat is sick, I have to deal with it. If I am absolutely desperate and try to enlist the help of my husband he will begrudgingly do it, and it means I owe him some french fries and a big thank you because he has just spent his time doing something he really doesn’t want to do.

      Just because a spouse/friend/sibling/coworker is in the *people who will help me when I’m in a pickle* box, does not mean that offer of assistance implicitly applies to all the other things attached to you in your life, like pets, strays, hobbies or even other friends and relatives.

      So, stop replaying that day trying to find evidence of wrongdoing. Stop thinking about it all together. Do you want to try and rebuild the friendship? If yes, the Captain has given you a script for initial contact. Do not EVER mention the cat. I really feel for your situation and you need to think about how you are handling it now – not how you handled the situation during catgate – how you are handling it right now. Your decision to withdraw from your neighbourhood, thicken your curtains and only use your backdoor is not a healthy reaction to this situation, and I think you need to get some help to work through your feelings of rejection and work out how to better deal with rejection when it arises so it doesn’t consume you.

      • Eks said:

        This.
        I will come hell and high water for my friends, and even more so if it is a time sensitive emergency.
        I will take a deep breath and remind myself that my friend’s pet is important to them and that they will appreciate me getting them out of a bind and push through to help with their personal pets.
        I will grit my teeth and help out with something they view as an emergency and I do not once. If I don’t feel like that action was met with appropriate reciprocity, I won’t do it again. And if I ended up doing it again because I felt bullied into it (not that LW necessarily did this), I would probably put the fried on a break as emotionally exhausting and unappreciative.
        I don’t like feeling unappreciated (does anyone?) and putting out high amounts of effort on behalf of a friend for a cause that I don’t personally have investment in, and not having that properly acknowledged, is a big ticket to feeling unappreciated.
        And sometimes the feelings talk on what I need in order to feel appreciated just isn’t worth the emotional energy. Doesn’t make anyone wrong, just shows that expectations and assumptions didn’t line up and boundaries should be reevaluated.

    • I don’t have any personal experience with chronic abuse (growing up our House Specialties were primarily neglect-oriented) , so please take this with a grain of salt, but I can’t help noticing you seem to have a belief that if you make the right choices, good things happen, and if you make the wrong choices, bad things happen. Thus since something bad happened (your neighbor ditching you) you must have done something wrong.

      That may be just your temperament, but it also strikes me as the type of narrative that an abusive, controlling person might have pushed on you as a way of justifying abuse. It’s also a cultural message we hear a lot. “If you would just do X, Y, and Z properly, this wouldn’t happen.”

      Poker cured me of this type of thinking, which poker players call “playing results.” I won, so I must have played well! I lost, so I must suck! Nope. Winning and losing is mostly random. You do the best you can, and the only way to properly judge the result is to ask, honestly and regularly, “am I making better decisions now than I was this time last month/year/whatever?”

      It seems you’re looking very hard to find that voice that’s telling you “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG, DUMBASS.”

      No one here is telling you that. You sound like you’re doing a pretty good job in a tough time. Keep it up. We’re cheering you on! It’s a meager prize, but it’s all there really is.

    • Jake said:

      I have even more to say about this. I am someone who a) has a really hard time admitting when I’m wrong and b) thinks the world should be an orderly place where everything makes sense and works, and I think this is something that you and I have in common.

      I am well familiar with the feeling of going over and over an event in my head, becoming more and more convinced that I didn’t do anything wrong and I couldn’t/shouldn’t have done anything differently AND THEREFORE everyone should have just been cool with it. There are two flaws with this kind of thinking.

      Flaw 1 I bring you from my experience as a writer and as a programmer and it is this: You are not always qualified to judge your own work. You have been over this so many many times, and you are emotionally invested in it and you were so sure about it when you did it that the logic of it has worn a path in your brain and you can’t step off the path far enough to see where it takes a wrong turn. But maybe it does. Unlike a piece of writing or a computer program, unfortunately, you can’t get someone to bring fresh eyes to this, because you can only tell us your side of the story, which necessarily follows your path of understanding/rationalization. So we can’t really tell you if you took a wrong turn. Whether or not you did everything right in this situation is not knowable. And I know it sucks, certainly for me, to deal with the fact that something is not knowable. But maybe sit with that thought for a while and see if you can let it be okay.

      Flaw 2 I bring you from Hard Lessons Learned The Hard Way and it is this: Sometimes, even when you do everything right, not everyone will be cool with it. Sometimes they are not cool with it because they suck. Sometimes they are not cool with it because their context is different from yours and inside their story you _didn’t_ do everything right, even though, inside your story, you did. But the fact (even if it is an incontrovertible FACT) that you did everything right is not, by itself, a guarantee that everyone will be cool with it. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about that. That is another super-uncomfortable thing for those of us who like for the world to be orderly and make sense. Again, just sit with the thought for a while and see if you can let it be okay.

      This is why so many of us think that it’s time for you to let that day go. Because you can’t change what you did, you can’t prove you did everything right, and even if you did prove it, you can’t make your neighbour feel differently about it.

    • Doorslam said:

      I volunteer at a cat shelter with people who are pretty much saints, and I have to say…No. Just no. Even when a cat’s life is on the line, you have to make the decision for yourself what is and isn’t worth doing. If it wasn’t worth your money to get a cab or whatnot, you can’t make it your neighbor’s responsibility to ditch her plans and drive you. Yeah, it was a dire situation and it sucks but dire situations happen all the time and sometimes you just have to draw a line and say that you can’t win everything. You can’t save the cats life and expect your neighbor to just forgive you. It sounds heartless to say that it’s wrong to not do everything you possibly can, but it’s also heartless to emotionally manipulate (read: beg) someone into doing something they don’t want to do and deny them any resentment for it.

      You can’t change what you did then, even if you decide what you did wasn’t the right thing. You have no time machine, the decisions you made can’t be undone. What you can do is decide what you’re going to do right now. Focusing on the past won’t help you at all.

      And what you can do now? Swallow those feelings of rage and invite your neighbor to something fun! Take her to a movie, show her a picture of the cat she helped save, ask her how her personal stuff is going and be a willing listener if she wants to talk. Apologize even if you don’t feel sorry at all, and make yourself act like you’ve forgiven and forgotten until you actually do. She did something she didn’t want to do, and now it’s your turn!

    • rachel said:

      To be honest, the LW sounds like she believes she is entitled to her neighbours time and energy because ‘it was an emergency’. You’re not.

      Your neighbour is still allowed to say no to you even if you really, really want her to say yes. You didn’t respect that, and now your neighbour wants to avoid you because you don’t respect her enough to listen when she says no.

      Not to mention that we clearly have different definitions of ‘emergency’.

  7. Marie said:

    “I had a good, lovely friend who I had to part ways with because she did this to me all the time. She had grown up in an abusive situation, and was constantly scanning the world for signs that she was not loved enough by it, so would interpret innocuous things I did as proof that I didn’t “really” value her.”

    This, for a million years. I, too, had this friend. When she felt like she was being, I don’t know, victimized, pushed too hard, abused, whatever it was, she would just shut down. She would either stop talking entirely, or stop talking entirely with little tears in the corner of her eyes, or would launch into some other topic of conversation with this over-the-top nervous energy such that her voice would get excruciatingly loud and high-pitched as she tried to sell me on whatever it was we were SO excited to be talking about now.

    I’ve been abused, too, so I get not always having your reactions straight, I get suddenly feeling emotional for something you think is maybe not a normal thing to freak out about, I get the way you can stumble into hurt way easier than you used to. So I tried to give her leeway about it, like, okay, this is just her coping thing, I’m not going to tell her how to cope. And I’d ask her, too, did I just say something to upset you? Did I hurt your feelings? I care about you and don’t want to do that, so if you could tell me what I did, I’ll make sure not to do it again. But she’d always say no, she was just fine *sniffle sniffle* I was the best friend ever *quiet sob*.

    It got so constant, and so random (to me). Like, she might be telling me about a guy she just met who called her fat, and I would say, “God, he sounds like an asshole,” and she’d shut down with the little tears in her eyes, because in her mind, I was about to tell her who she could and could not speak to and that she was incapable of making decisions about social interaction properly. In my mind, I was being a supportive friend, but suddenly I’m in a coffeeshop with somebody who is eyeing me like she thinks I might hit her or something, and I feel like a terrible person who can’t say anything right.

    I finally wrote her an email telling her that she made me feel like I was abusing her, and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I told her I needed her to tell me when I’d upset her, so I could know to back off or apologize, and that I didn’t need her to go into details if she couldn’t, but I couldn’t deal with knowing she was upset, asking her if she was, and having her tell me no. Her response was to ignore this email, then try to find out when I was hanging out with our mutual friends so she could tag along, hoping I wouldn’t bring it all up in front of other people. I would have brought it up, but I thought that wasn’t going to help anybody or anything, so I just told our mutual friends, “She and I are having a problem right now, if I hang out with her, it needs to be one-on-one, please don’t invite her.”

    And, turns out, that was the end of that friendship — she never responded to my email or tried to talk to me again. I feel bad sometimes, and I know she’s a good person and I wish her the best, but man, it was just such a drain to always feel like an accidental monster. As soon as she disappeared from my life, I felt so much lighter, and so much more like a decent human being. I bet she did, too. We’re both good people, but we are freakin’ bad for each other.

  8. xenu01 said:

    I don’t think, Sadsack, that it is as simple as “I did the right/wrong thing,” and I think that is what the Captain (and her crew) are aiming to say. Did you do the right thing by that cat? Absolutely. Did you do the right thing by your neighbor? Maybe not, since she said no and you made her change her answer. Was it worth it? It sounds like it.

    Nevertheless, you have to understand that just like you are coming from your own (totally legit!!) personal story about people who let you down and/or abused you, you neighbor has her own (totally legit!!) personal story, maybe about people who totally ignored her boundaries and maybe wouldn’t let her say no to things?

    So maybe you should think about what you want from her now. Do you want to go back to head-nodding acquaintances? Then you should stop looking for validation about whether or not you did the right thing. DROP IT, is what I mean. Let the past be the past. If you did in fact do this for the cat’s sake, and not just to satisfy your own sense of Being a Good Person And Needing People To Know About It, then it will be enough for you to let water under the bridge be just that.

    • JenniferP said:

      “Nevertheless, you have to understand that just like you are coming from your own (totally legit!!) personal story about people who let you down and/or abused you, you neighbor has her own (totally legit!!) personal story, maybe about people who totally ignored her boundaries and maybe wouldn’t let her say no to things?
      So maybe you should think about what you want from her now. Do you want to go back to head-nodding acquaintances? Then you should stop looking for validation about whether or not you did the right thing. DROP IT, is what I mean.”

      Thanks for saying this so much more concisely than me. This, exactly, times 1000.

      • kate said:

        You needed more than she had to give that day, which is why she said no at first. But she likes you (and cats), so when you pressed she tried overriding her own needs to help anyway. Which might have worked out all right, if things had gone smoothly. Instead, it spun into a long and very stressful afternoon, which took her way, way beyond what she would have agreed to if she had known what she was getting into.

        Not really your fault. You were focused on the dying cat, you didn’t know what a nightmare afternoon it was going to be, either, and you didn’t know S had her own issues she was dealing with — not because you are an insensitive boob, but because we often don’t see the emotional messes that other people are dealing with, because they put their “I’m doing fine” faces on just like we do.

        But not her fault, either. She tried. It just took more out of her than she could really spare, and afterwards she had to regroup and conserve emotional resources, which you perceived as resentment/withdrawal.

        And now you feel like you’re not friends anymore, because you believe she resented helping you.

        It’s worth saying (perhaps by e-mail so no one is one the spot), “About that day with the cat: I have come to realize that I asked more of you than you felt you had to give that day, for your own totally legitimate reasons — which is why you said no at first. And while I would be lying if I said I wish I hadn’t pushed ’til you said ‘yes’ anyway — because you helped me save that cat’s life, and I have a hard time regretting it! — I do regret the imposition on you and wish I had been better about respecting your needs. I also regret the loss of our casual, easy relationship as neighbors and fellow cat-lovers. If it works for you, I’d like to go back to that. If you are willing, I will try very, very hard not to lean on you too hard — and in fact, if there is anything I can do for you please let me know. If you don’t feel like you can handle that right now, I understand (please do whatever you have to do to take care of yourself), and please know I wish you only the best.”

        • Jake said:

          I wouldn’t. I think, like the Cap’n says, it’s time to let the Day of the Sad Cat go.

          • kate said:

            Maybe. I’m just afraid that if they have never expressly addressed that day, the one on which what was all fine and friendly abruptly went awry, it will continue to feel like the elephant-in-the-neighborhood until they do. It also seemed kind of like they were on the rocks because each of them thought the other was mad and pulled back to protect themselves, more than that either of them was irrevocably angry.

            I hate to think of her feeling so oppressed by this dynamic that she can’t bear to look out that window and has seriously considered whether she can afford to move. Plus, I think saying the words could help her feel the feelings that go with them, and help her move on. Saying “I’m sorry for my part of this mess, and I’d like to be friends again, but even if you don’t accept this overture no hard feelings” could make the situation less painful.

            Just the once, mind. I am definitely not encouraging rehashing.

          • Jake said:

            I agree about her feeling oppressed but I think that that doesn’t really have much to do with the events of the Sad Cat Day. Frankly, making opaque curtains and using the back door and thinking about moving away is not a healthy emotional reaction to this situation. It sounds like the LW has a lot of anxiety that is impeding her ability to live her life fully, and I think the suggestion to get therapy to help with that is a really good one. But I also think the anxiety is what is driving the constant mental reliving of the Sad Cat Day and she needs to not feed the beast. When you give your anxiety what it wants, all it gives you back is more anxiety.

            Also, like the Captain said, it doesn’t sound like the neighbour wants to get any more feelingsmail.

        • wondering said:

          For what it’s worth – as someone who has been in the neighbour’s position, I would not want to receive that email. I agree with the folks who say “drop it and restart”.

        • JenniferP said:

          I don’t think you’re out of line to suggest it – it would be nice to address that day and get closure/validation!

          But I think that the neighbor maybe needs to never think about the Sad Cat Day again? The LW saying “Hey, I miss our friendly chats, can we go back to that” and proving that she can let the subject drop will do more to heal this than more big talks where things are ‘put to rest’ (but not really).

          • Ethyl said:

            ::nods:: I am kind of getting to be of the opinion that “closure” is… I dunno, kind of a scam. After an unpleasant breakup last winter*, I had all KINDS of things I wanted to know, explanations I needed to get, and rants I had to deliver. Or so I thought. I took the advice of my primary partner and some friends and just let the whole thing drop, and focused my attentions on other things. Over time, I stopped wanting those things. I stopped being hurt, and angry, and confused. Then, when the seasonal job started up again that we both worked at, I could be if not friendly, at least civil, and it got easier every day. What I’m saying is, I thought many times in my life as relationships ended that I wanted “closure” with/from/to/at the other person, but what I really feel like helped wasn’t to keep picking at that scab, but to let it crust over and let it be. I hope the LW finds some peace about this. Goodness knows I know what it’s like to have the repeating tape loop of doom running in your head all the time :(

            *And I do mean unpleasant — from waiting till I was out of town to text message breakup with me to not mentioning the minor yet totally contagious STD I could have gotten until the breakup, this was EPIC.

    • Emily H. said:

      One have to be quite cold-blooded to stand there and let a cat die, just to avoid asking one’s friend for a favor in a pushy manner. If the letter-writer had let her neighbor’s “no” stand, the cat might have been past saving by the time it (he?) got to the vet. Or the letter writer might have spent hundreds of dollars in cab fare on the excursion. Either way, she probably would have felt awfully resentful of her neighbor’s “I don’t really feel like it right now” attitude. The friendship would have suffered anyway.

      Maybe that’s something for you to consider, letter-writer, rather than obsessing over “did I do the right thing?”. If the neighbor truly wasn’t willing to help with the cat emergency — and can’t get over her resentment at being talked into helping anyway — maybe this just isn’t the friendship for you. You did what needed to be done, your friend reacted badly, it’s not fair, but most of what happened was beyond your control.

      • eyelet said:

        I don’t think it’s wrong for someone to say no to a request to help save this cat, especially if they didn’t sign up to be responsible for it.

        Like it or not, we are people with limited time and resources, which will mean not all cats will be saved that can be. I don’t think it’s unfair to have a resource limit when it comes to saving pets, it’s not cold blooded to enforce those limits. The letter writer happened to have extremely limited resources, despite having signed up for this responsibility to care for the cat, and under the circumstances shouldn’t be blamed if she decided to euthanize.

        • Ensign Perception said:

          This. LW made a choice that helped save a cat and that’s pretty damn awesome, but that doesn’t mean the neighbor lady is automatically the bad guy for not immediately stepping up to cheerfully give 100% effort on this. Nor would she have been the bad guy if she had said, “no sorry, I really seriously CANNOT drive you”. “Heartless” is way overstating it.

  9. Hope said:

    What a brilliant answer to a complex problem Captain. First time I’ve read the blog- definitely not the last.

    Just to chuck my own tuppence worth into the mix, I think perhaps the letter writer made light of the S’s own issues a little. The letter writer may have to consider that she triggered S as well as the other way round (something S seems to get in the email.) Issues with saying no are seldom of the just ‘I’m an easy going sort and say yes too often.’

    To put that into context, I once had to deal with a very disturbed friend. For a long time at the behest of our friendship and at the bidding of the university we both attended, I acted as their support etc. Through suicide attempts and late night chats, I kept going with it, hoping that if I couldn’t help at least I could listen. Then eventually on the night before my exam, they turned up with another crisis. Would I have been a better friend, if I’d chucked in the revision for my exam? Undoubtedly. But I couldn’t throw away my future to spend yet another four hours analysing what exactly ‘I don’t find you attractive, please stop asking me out’ means.

    Sometimes you have to protect yourself first. Sometimes you have to look to the care of your own mental and emotional health. Sounds to me like S knew that she was being triggered and did the prudent and sensible thing of taking both a physical and emotional step backwards away from the situation. It doesn’t mean she wanted the cat to die or didn’t care about it. But to her, driving around all day saving that cat, was my equivalent of the four hour chat. Simply not something we were deeply enough invested in emotionally to want to do off our own bat. She chose to help in the end (albeit unwillingly) which already makes her a decent person- or perhaps someone who has just broken their own rules for how they allow other people to manipulate them.

    The key for the letter writer here is empathy. Her friends showed a lack of empathy in understanding her situation, and her husband showed a hideous lack of it. But casual friends can’t pick up the slack that we expect our friends and family to take. And even in our worst moments it is important to display empathy for others. Not too much- or you end up like S unable to separate their own emotional response to a situation, to their need to acknowledge someone elses, but enough that we can truly understand that other people aren’t just players in our own drama, but the central characters in theirs.

    • Dorothy said:

      You’re absolutely right. Put on your own oxygen mask first and breathe deeply so that you come from a position of strength and energy instead of feeling suffocated emotionally, and if you don’t feel entirely committed to the task, it’s time to reassess the amount of energy expended on something that keeps repeating over and over again. You did the exact right thing.

      Maybe the neighbor, living right across the street, was burdening herself as well with thoughts of when the next crisis might hit and couldn’t handle the open-endedness of the situation, in which she would be the go-to person for emergencies (not what she signed up for, so to speak), so she shut down entirely, completely out of emotional gas and angry that her boundaries had been leveled. She wanted to help, but in her mind she might have been thinking, “How long is this going to keep carrying on? I can’t relax because I never know when she’s going to suddenly show up at my door and need something.” There had to be a separation of some sort in order for the neighbor to step back and relax a bit, but it was unfortunate that it caused a rift. And if it were me, I would worry as well because LW doesn’t drive, and I might be called upon to drive her places. A tricky situation, and I’m glad that Captain has given her an excellent response. Perhaps LW could have a more objective person from the local pound, and not a neighbor/friend, help her in the future with rides and cat emergencies.

  10. turtle said:

    LW, I don’t know if this applies to you, but I suspect it might, given your own recent history with close friends who’ve let you down:

    I had a somewhat similar situation to yours with a close friend of mine, and I feel like I could’ve written the captain a very similar letter a year or two ago. Part of the reason I fixated on the details of what was went wrong was this sense that I didn’t have many true friends, so if I didn’t cling to the few friendships I did have and do everything in my power to analyze what had made them go sour, either to try to repair them, or to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, I was just going to be left alone in the world.

    Having that feeling makes it hard to hear the (unfortunately totally correct) advice that your friendship with your neighbor is unfixable, and neither one of you necessarily did anything objectively wrong to bring it to that point. Because it fits too neatly into the story that now you’re one friend closer to being alone, and there’s not even anything you could have done to stop it. It sucks.

    If this is part of what is going on with you, all I can say is, that insidious thought pattern that says there’s something intrinsic about you that dooms you to being alone is a lie. It’s a shitty, damaging mind trap that’s far too easy to get sucked into. It will take some combination of professional help, a ton of self-care, and developing of new relationships to get out of that thought spiral, and it’s a hard process that will have false starts and backsliding and will take years. I am in the middle of getting out of it now, and I am definitely not all the way better, but I am better than I was a year ago, and I have hope for the future.

    The first step, just like the captain said, is to stop fixating. No more dwelling on this failed friendship. Either try to resume a superficial friendly acquaintance with her or don’t, but try as hard as you can to push all the thoughts/analysis on your friendship with her out of your mind, and focus your energies elsewhere. My heart goes out to you.

    • Dorothy said:

      Well said!!!

  11. Marie said:

    I don’t know if this is where your neighbor is at, but I can tell you how I experience this conflict in my own life.

    I have a friend with an animal farm. I know that for her, it’s “love me, love my ferrets.” But for me, it’s “love you, love hanging out with you, love going to the movies with you, love to talk to you about boys, couldn’t give a shit about your ferrets.” I have occasionally helped her out, and I do not mind that. But she has also occasionally pushed and cajoled and wheedled and browbeat me, and I mind the fuck out of that. Telling her to wait to call me until it’s a big emergency doesn’t really help — it’s all a big emergency to her, and it’s almost never an emergency to me, and we’ll never have the same definition of emergency until I start loving ferrets or she starts hating them.

    So I’ll sometimes distance myself from her, because I don’t want her to see me as somebody to count on for something i don’t want to be counted on for. Every time I give into her steamrolling me to help her with a crisis that I don’t care about, don’t want to deal with, and disrupts my life considerably, my reward is that she comes to me more and more often. And then her reward is that I start to resent her more and more. Though I understand where she’s coming from, these crises have consequences for our relationship. The more she pushes me to do something I don’t want to do, the less I want to hang out with her. I know for her, it comes across as “the more I need you, the less you’re there.” We both have to figure out if we can accept that the other person cannot always do the things we want them to do and still be friends. So far, we can. Maybe someday, we can’t, but I have learned to respect that I have the right to have boundaries. When I didn’t respect that, I was a pretty awful person, full of resentment at others for ever having needs or wants. So, I have to learn how to say no to her, even when I know it hurts her, because the alternative is an angry, resentful, shitty relationship that hurts us both. No friendship at all is better than a friendship where I think her needs are stupid, and she thinks my boundaries are selfish, and neither of us really like each other at all anymore.

  12. Esti said:

    LW, I think it’s really important to recognize, as the Captain said, that it’s time to focus your energies on right now rather than on the day of the cat. It just doesn’t matter whether you did something wrong that day, or whether your neighbor was being a jerk. Things happened, they can’t be changed, and I think there’s near-unanimity that any more discussion of the cat-incident is not going to be good for anyone involved.

    But right now? Right now, you are isolating yourself in your home and hiding from your neighbor and fixating on how she feels about you. Even if you were the biggest jerk in the world on the day of the cat, it wouldn’t mean that you should sneak out your back door to avoid your neighbor for the rest of time. Your reaction to the situation is so much more important than whatever actually happened that day — because it indicates that you have some issues going on that have nothing to do with your neighbor and probably everything to do with the things you described at the beginning of your letter.

    I would really, really recommend that you take the Captain’s suggestion and look into therapy. And I’d recommend that you entirely forget about your neighbor — not because the friendship can’t be repaired, but because focusing on repairing the friendship is going to distract you from focusing on healing yourself. Pretend, even in your thoughts, that your neighbor is someone you don’t know. If she smiles or waves, do the same. Otherwise, she’s a pleasant-looking stranger you may sometimes encounter when entering and exiting via your front door.

    • Copcher said:

      I think treating your neighbour like someone you don’t know really is the best thing you can do in this situation. You don’t have to ignore her completely, but you probably need a fair bit of distance so you can restart this relationship. Maybe, years from now, the two of you will be able to talk about the sad cat day and each understand where the other was coming from. Maybe you’ll be great friends without ever mentioning that day again. Maybe you’ll stay strangers and never have a conversation about anything other than the weather again. Any of those scenarios is fine, and there’s no way to choose which outcome you end up having. The only thing you can do at the moment is take care of yourself.

  13. Ethyl said:

    How have I never read this blog before? Marvelous, and I really maybe kind of needed this whole “let go and walk away and for the love of everything stop bringing up or even thinking about The Thing That Happened.” I can’t even remember what links I followed to get here, but I’m so glad I did. Thanks, Captain!

  14. nuctesseract said:

    I don’t think that this situation is really about one cat that one time. If you read the email again it refers to “extreme cat situations” as in multiple times. It also refers to her crossing the neighbors boundaries more than once. Reading the email it seems to me that the neighbor has laid out her boundaries very clearly and set her limits. Does that make her heartless or cold-blooded? No. She was probably at the end of her rope too and having to drive all over town for some stray* cat was quite possibly the last straw, so she stepped back. I feel like this could almost be two posts. One about how to deal with someone setting clear boundaries and another one about how to deal when someone reacts quite badly to setting clear boundaries.

    *disclaimer: I love cats, but I work super hard during the week and you would have to pry my Saturday “me time” out of my cold dead hands even if all I am doing is playing video games and doing laundry.

    • SadSack said:

      Re:”Extreme cat situations”. At this point my neighbor was now feeding 4 new strays in her backyard, and was very vocal about how the stray situation seemed the worst it had ever been in the area. It is my perception that the intact cats are coming from several rough rooming houses in the vicinity, as well as a large social housing complex, right behind her property.I should also state that there is no low cost spay and neuter program in the area, period.

      I was able to access a program where I could get some of these intact cats fixed for free. I had appointments for several rooming house cats. I did not feel safe going to these houses alone, as it is generally only men living there, often with substance abuse and/or mental health issues and/or criminal records. I had asked a male friend(who I assisted many times with his recuse efforts) to come with me to pick up the cats. He agreed, but then broke the appointment at the last minute. I then went down the list, calling people for help, and S.was the third or fourth person on the list.

      One rooming house is one block away, the other is 1/2 a block away.We walked there,with my clean cat carriers. Rooming house #1 guy was completely ready.It was a 10 minute round trip on foot to get this cat. Rooming house #2 guy was a disaster. S.would not set foot in the house because it smelt bad. S. stood outside his ground floor room looking through the window as I struggled to capture one of the two wiley cats. The guy was horrible and would not help. His place was filthy, there were at least 7 cats living with him in less than 2 rooms. I did not want to leave without the cats as I believed that I would not get a second chance to get these cats spayed.

      The entire effort took less than an hour, and S. did not have to even touch a cat or enter a rooming house. S.had fostered a couple of cats from the area that turned up in her yard, and had been complaining how bad it now was. I assumed that this meant that she was willing to participate to reduce the number of breeding cats, as it was directly affecting her.

      I should also add that S. was collecting unemployment benefits, after completing re-training education. I had assisted her several times with her cat situations, whenever she asked me to. Going to the rooming houses to pick up cats was horrible, in one instance, but I would not call it “extreme”.The sad cat emergency happened one week after this — bad timing,I know. I do not have a cat emergency once a week or once a month, for example, it is very,very rare.

      Obviously twice in 8 days was too much for her to deal with,and it was super stressful for
      me, too. I am still unclear about what boundaries she was unhappy about, as she had never communicated any issues with this before, ever. I had ASKED her if she could come with me to the rooming houses — not pressured, guilted or manipulated her.

      • JenniferP said:

        Do you understand that you could be absolutely correct about about how you read every single situation, and absolutely correct about how you handled every situation, and your neighbor could still be telling you (with words when she said “No, I have other plans,” in her emails, and by keeping her distance) that she’s not as down with the cat stuff as she previously was (or that you thought she was, or that she initially thought she was)?

        That she could have quietly helped you when you asked, and that it wasn’t a big deal until it was?

        And that her decision and actions might be unfair or inscrutable to you, and that they did not give you what you needed from her (even though you have evidence that you’ve met each other’s needs in the past), but that they are still her decisions?

        And that you are fixated on this and hurting yourself over and over again by trying to look for the teachable moment here, when the teachable moment is “The neighbor really, really wants to let it go?” and that you may not get the validation or understanding you seek, and that by seeking it you may worsen the situation?

        You’ve had a shitty, rough year, lady. Give yourself a giant break from analyzing this situation. Move on from the Day of the Cat, and let your neighbor move on, too.

  15. SadSack said:

    I would like to thank everyone, especially Captain Awkward for addressing my sorry situation. It has helped me to understand how communication at the best of times is imperfect. It sure gets harder when a conflict begins, particularly when one person is assuming incorrectly that there is no conflict.

    I don’t think that I can be friends with my neighbor again. I see that there is just too much water under that bridge, now. I am really grateful that she did help me that day, and I will never regret saving hat cat’s life. I don’t feel like I am constantly obsessing about the situation, more that I just have felt so hurt and confused. I have a hard time letting go of things, until I feel like I have understood them. It is more clear to me now that there are things in this situation that I will never know, and just to let go of that.

    Psychological abuse is really insidious as it rewrites our scripts from the inside out. I can’t describe how much effort I used attempting placate and accommodate someone else’s unreasonable demands, as though this person could finally be happy with me, and stop hurting me if I could just stop doing the wrong thing. This experience really colored my perceptions and interactions with everyone and everything, and I see that.

    Even though my letter was very long, there a bunch of details about what was going on in my life at that point in time that I left out. It was just a very,very,very stressful time, so I also see that I may have been radiating more stress, desperation and anger than I was aware of, which also colored my interactions, and people’s response to me.

    Anyhow — thanks everyone. This helped — a lot !

    p.s. Call me Bad Sack from now on.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m glad to read this, Bad Sack. Take some really good care of yourself, ok?

  16. The thing I always find amazing about Captain Awkward is that I always find something to take away from the articles even when I’ve never been in *nearly* as knotty a situation as Bad Sack describes.

    This evening I was walking home after an interaction with someone that left me feeling confused and a little hurt. But “I was feeling desperately in need of praise and didn’t feel like I was getting any” and “she needed to unwind after dealing with a stressful situation I didn’t really understand until we were ready to leave” makes more sense than trying to figure out what one of us did “wrong”. Sometimes no one can be at their best.

  17. AmyJ said:

    Feelings aren’t facts. That simple truism has changed my life.

    • xenu01 said:

      If there is any lesson I have learned from this blog, it would be that. Well said.

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