Dear Captain Awkward,
I want to be a good friend and a good listener, I really do. I have a lovely, kind friend who I have known for a long time. She has some mental health issues. She is going through a very rough time and I totally want to be there for her. The career has been a nonstarter for many years; she has not worked consistently since she graduated college. Her family is not that helpful. Now her relationship is falling apart, too, and she is financially dependent on her partner.
I have listened for hours on end. So have several other mutual friends. Listening is becoming very hard:
A) There is a lot of blaming going on. She does not take full responsibility for her situation. She spends hours complaining about her boyfriend, talking about his every perceived flaw and how he is wronging her in every way. The career does not work because her field changed, because of where she lives, because it’s sexist, etc. She does not own her decisions. She talks little about how she may be able to change her own behavior in the future.
B) She sometimes takes little jabs at me, saying that my relationship could turn out like hers. It happens rarely, but I sometimes feel she is trying to instigate negative things in my relationship.
C) She does not take her friends’ advice. The most important advice has been: Become financially stable and independent. She has turned down a job that seemed really good (and in her field) because it was not perfect and not all the tasks were to her liking.
D) The stories repeat each time we talk. The same facts are given again and again. Maybe she forgets she already told me X, Y, and Z?
I like this friend very much. She is fun, creative, and soulful. When she is not in this state, we enjoy each other’s company. I feel badly for her and don’t want to drop her when she’s at her lowest point. But last time I spoke to her, I felt at the end of my rope. I can no longer listen for hours like I used to because it seems quite unproductive and I don’t have much to say anymore.
What do I do when she gets in this mode and wants to vent for hours? I need strategies or lines to use here! Please help!
I Lent an Ear and I Want it Back
Dear Generous Ear,
This person sounds exhausting, and her relentless negativity is going to destroy her friendships if left unchecked. You can be a cool person who is going through a shitty time and who is not handling it so well. You can be super, super sad. You can ask your friends to listen and help take care of you. But you cannot endlessly use them as a source of free therapy, or expect them to stick around if you act like a toxic jerk.
What I can offer is 1) a script for a frank talk, 2) some strategies for setting boundaries with her, and 3) permission to give yourself a big old break. Throughout this, it’s important to remember that you can’t control her reactions or her emotions, but you DO need her to find some other resources for comforting herself and taking care of herself, so focus on that. Welcome to Captain Awkward’s Benign Selfishness Boot Camp.
1) Frank Talk-Talking Points:
- “Friend, I know times are very hard for you, and I am very worried about you. I think it is time for you to talk to a mental health professional (or get a change-up, if she’s already seeing someone) and get some real help in navigating your way out of this crisis.“
- “I feel like we’ve talked these problems over at length, and you already know everything I’m going to say. I am becoming exhausted, and your situation is not getting better. You should talk to someone with some training to help you.”
- Do some research on places your friend could call – a referral from your doctor, local clinic, sometimes calling The United Way (for people in the US) can yield a suggestion. Try to have two possible resources on hand before you talk to her.
- Offer to help her out by calling and setting up initial appointments or driving her there if you are willing and she thinks that might be hard for her.
I don’t know how she’ll react to this suggestion. I’m pessimistic given what you’ve described, and I don’t want you to get sucked into a self-pity cycle where she’s all “I see. You’re trying to get rid of me because I suck so much,” and you have to defend yourself or reassure her that it’s not that bad. It is that bad. Keep delivering a consistent message of “I care about you, your problems are big and real, in fact they are so big and so real that it’s time to call in the cavalry, there is no shame in asking for help, and it’s so important to me that you do that that I found these phone numbers for you.”
First, let’s take some steps to reduce the chances that you’ll have an hours-long conversation about her problems by making it difficult to have an hours-long conversation about anything.
- This friend is not invited to your house right now. Why? Because you need to only meet her in places that you can leave. Consider the friendly lunch. Lunch is inexpensive and has a pretty defined window. Movies are nice distractions and you don’t talk during them, and then afterwards you can talk about the movie. Schedule stuff that is fun, out of the house, has a well-defined structure and a definite end-time.
- On IM/gchat or whatever? She is blocked for the time being. Or you are “invisible” so you can choose when and if to chat her.
- Your phone calls now have a 20 minute time limit. Find a graceful way to get off the phone with her (having to pee is pretty irrefutable) when she calls. Periodically call her to check in, and limit it to 20 minutes so that you feel more proactive and in control and it doesn’t feel like you’re dodging her.
- If your friend group carries the “Friends do everything together!” Geek Social Fallacy, cure it. You can have brunch sometimes without inviting Debbie Downer.
Second, let’s talk about some conversational redirects.
- If she says crappy things to you about your relationship, shut her down. “Wow.” “Could you explain that?” “That’s really out of line.” Being sad doesn’t give you a jerk license, and you don’t need to defend your relationship or pussyfoot around calling out truly toxic behavior.
- When she’s bitching about her partner, ask her directly: “Have you told (partner) what you’ve told me? Do you think (partner) would stop if you just asked?” Everyone needs to vent sometimes, but if the partner is not abusive, constantly denigrating them to people outside the relationship is hugely disrespectful and not productive.
- If she starts rehashing something from the beginning, cut her off. “Sorry to cut you off, but you told me this story 3 days ago – what’s really on your mind?” If she gets a little huffy and says “Never mind, you probably don’t want to hear it anyway,” as a ploy to get you to settle in while she tells you the story again because now you feel guilty, do not be sucked in. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but yeah, I don’t have the patience to hear the whole thing from the beginning again. Could we talk about something else?“
- Activate the three-sentence rule. This is a golden communication technique that I learned from an ex, that helps people deal with each other’s long rambly stories that have no immediate point. We had a rule that you could cut the other person off and say “I’m sorry, I’m getting lost here – can you sum that up for me in 3 sentences?” (Note: Extremely useful with panicked students). Suggest the rule and that you guys can both use it with each other so it’s not just a way to police her.
- When she complains, and it’s your turn to talk (eventually), redirect her toward solutions by asking questions. “So what are you going to do?” “What do you want to do now?” “Do you want my advice, or are you just venting?” “How are you going to handle that?” “Do you have a plan?“
- Bluntly tell her what’s up: “You’ve told me this story 3 times and I’ve told you what I think. I want to be supportive, but this sounds like one for the therapist.”
- Bluntly tell her what’s up (again): “I want to hang out with you, but I feel like we’re in a pattern where all we do is talk about (problems). Can we take a break from that today and just enjoy ourselves?“
- Change the subject, often. If the subject won’t stay changed, cut the day short.
I realize that all of this sounds really cold. She’s your friend, not some problem to be managed! But she’s in a very bad cycle where she can’t set good boundaries for herself. I can’t imagine she likes herself too much right now. Complaining is a self-perpetuating habit. Mental illnesses like depression can result in cycling thoughts that you can’t always control, and it’s possible that she has difficulty stopping herself once she gets going, even though somewhere inside her last shred of self-awareness is going “No, shut up, SHUT UP!” Some people use complaining as a way to bond. Your friend may feel like her problems are all she has, and talking about them is her only way to get comfort and attention and feel close to you.
By setting boundaries for how much you can handle and want to hear about, you placing a virtual Cone of Shame on your friend for everyone’s protection. You are removing that attention jolt she gets by complaining. By scheduling your time with her to do fun stuff out of the house you’re redirecting that attention and closeness into more positive channels. By recommending that she gets the help she needs to really deal with things, you are being caring and supportive in a way that is likely to produce results. If you don’t set boundaries, your friendship will end in tears and disaster when you can’t take it anymore and cut her off. If you do speak up and set some ground rules, you may have a chance at saving this thing.
Which leads me to 3) Give yourself a break. You are not a bad friend for getting sick of the complaining. You are not a bad friend for wanting a break from the negativity. You would not be a bad friend if you let the anger you have out in an honest way. That frank talk could be “I love you, but the constant complaining is killing our friendship, and I’ve run out of patience to be your sounding board. Please get some help NOW, because I cannot hear about this even one more time,” and you would not be a bad friend.
One final note – you say that your mutual friends all feel the same way. You may be tempted to circle the wagons and back up your difficult conversations with with stuff like “We all talked about it, and we all feel this way, I’m not the only one!” I understand the temptation to appeal to the authority of the group, but trust me – if you do that, you’re going to make your friend feel attacked and defensive, and the issue will quickly be “You all talk about me behind my back and secretly hate me?” rather than her urgent need for help. Be a mensch, have courage, and rely on your own opinions and experiences with her as you begin your frank talks. “I’ve noticed…I’m worried….I need….,” etc. Own it.
Edited to Add: Give it a little time and more than one try before you expect magic results. You may have to set and enforce the boundaries more than once before it sinks in. You’re changing the ground rules for the relationship in the middle of relationship, so let her off the hook for the past and stay focused on the present – It doesn’t matter that you were sick of this story 6 months ago, could you change the subject right now? Expect her to not quite get it or take umbrage at first. If you’re consistent and kind, she’ll either get it or escalate things to African Violet-levels.