#215: How do I help my friend realize she is lovely?

Dear Captain Awkward

I have two friends, let’s call them Jane and John, who have been in a long distance relationship for the last few months. She’s 18, he’s 25 and they met online – same way I met both of them. They decided to meet face to face but at the last minute Jane freaked out about it and called it off. The reason she freaked out is because she has decided that if he meets her “in real life”, he will find her disgusting (her exact words) and dislike her, and even if he doesn’t break up with her that’s only because he’s too nice a guy.

Now, for context, they Skype often and have seen each other in photos and through webcam, he’s perfectly aware of what she looks like and there’s no reasonable reason to suppose he’d feel any differently if he met her face to face. I’ve tried telling her that she’s being silly (which I’m aware may not be the best approach…) and that she’s lovely and even if she weren’t, he’s in love with her, not with what she looks like. She is very self-conscious about the way she looks and feels that her “real life” friends only are friends with her because they grew up together and so are used to her appearance, and if people who know her online (we’re all gamers) were to know what she looks like, they would stop being friends with her and stop being interested in having her around.

I feel that in my attempt to make her see what I find obvious (that she’s in no way ugly or repulsive and that even if she were, people wouldn’t stop being friends with her over it, and that John loves her for who she is and not by how closely she resembles a vogue cover girl) I am simply pressuring her into a situation she doesn’t feel comfortable with, and I’m not actually making her feel any better about herself.

Now I realise this is none of my business and I shouldn’t meddle, but she’s my friend and I feel very protective of her, and it breaks my heart to see her so uncomfortable in her own skin and being unable to fix it – even if it’s not my place to fix it! I guess what I’m looking for is some advice on how to be supportive without being pushy, and on how to help her deal with this whole mess of a situation.

Thank you!
Meddlesome friend in desperate need of advice

Hey Meddlesome:

This is a two-step process.

Step 1: You said it best: It’s none of your business, so disengage totally from this long distance love-affair. For whatever reason, she decided not to meet up with this guy in person. Could be jitters. Could be a FEELINGSBOMB of some kind. Could be she decided she likes the whole thing better in theory. Could be what she told you: worries he won’t *really* like her. You can’t fix any of that, so disengage. If Jane tells you something, say “Huh, sounds like you should talk to John about that.” If John says something, say, “Huh, sounds like you should talk to Jane about that.” Say stuff like “That sucks, are you ok?” and “I like you both and want you to be happy – together or separately.” This thing isn’t happening until both the people involved tell you it’s happening.

Step 2: Be more like Commander Logic, who is the friend that says “Whatever, you’re great.

But I don’t think I’m great! Whatever, you’re great.

But I’m not great at this one thing? Sure. But overall? You’re great.

But I’m not pretty! Whatever. You’re pretty. And great.

Would I be friends with someone who isn’t great? No, I thought not.

You can’t make anyone do or feel anything, but you can refuse to indulge the cycling of their Jerkbrains. It’s possible to overdo it, as in this short film (which is pretty awesome until, like all romantic comedies, it turns into stalking and “getting” the girl). But tell your friends you like them, and remove yourself from the urge to meddle in their affairs.


20 thoughts on “#215: How do I help my friend realize she is lovely?

  1. The reason she freaked out is because she has decided that if he meets her “in real life”, he will find her disgusting (her exact words) and dislike her, and even if he doesn’t break up with her that’s only because he’s too nice a guy.

    So her reasoning is that if he’s dislikes her, she’s ugly, but if he likes her, she’s… ugly?

    In situations like this, I try to emulate Morpheus’ reaction shot at the end of this scene.


    When your friend makes these “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of statements, all you can do is repeat the statement, rephrasing as appropriate to illustrate the distorted thinking. Your friend’s thinking is distorted, and unfortunately, they’re unable to recognize that. Until they’re ready to examine their own perceptions and beliefs (either on their own, or with the help of a trained counseller/therapist/whatever) there really isn’t anything you can do about those distortions.

    I’m serious. There is nothing you can do that will break through their distorted thinking. Any positive reinforcement you try will be distorted as effectively as “if he likes me, I’m ugly and if he doesn’t like me, I’m ugly”. I’m not saying “don’t be positive”, but realize that this person has all kinds of distorted thinking established that minimizes the impact of those good gestures. You’ll have to continually and consistently be fighting those distortions, and even then, you may not have an effect.

    I know you’re hurting for your friend LW, but know that it is not your job to redefine how this person sees themselves. If you try to make it your job, you will fail, I guarantee it. You will feel tired from trying, and feel bad for failing.

    1. I agree with some of this, but have a problem with the Morpheus-look suggestion. I have experienced deep body insecurities most of my life — to the point where I actually canceled a second date with a guy I liked because I was afraid he’d find out I was hideous. Like, we had already gone out once, in person, and he had asked me out again, and I was like, Whoa, I can’t meet him again because what if he realizes he was wrong to like me last time because I’m secretly gross and he somehow just overlooked that?

      I have had friends do the Morpheus-look on me. A few have tried to explain it, saying that they know I won’t believe it if they compliment me (which is true), or that they know that I’m just fishing for compliments, and they’re certainly not going to feed my ego like that (which is not true — the fishing part, I mean). At best, the Morpheus-look results in me thinking: OK, I’m ugly and I hate myself and my friends don’t care. At worst: I’m ugly, I hate myself, my friends don’t care, and I’m incredibly fucking stupid because my friend is giving me this look and not talking to me about what the look means and what the fuck is that about, friend?

      Not saying that I am the very model of all people who hate themselves and think they are ugly, but fwiw, I 100% endorse the “Whatever, you’re great” response over the “Hmmm *looks at you*” response in this case.

      1. The Morpheus look also told me I can’t talk to my friends about this Thing That Bothers Me So Much. Because it bored them or annoyed them or they didn’t get it, so I shouldn’t bring up this thing I was wrestling with all the time or I’d lose those few friends I had.

      2. ARGH to the “you’re just fishing for compliments so I won’t compliment you” thing. You know why you go fishing? Because you’re hungry. For fish. Do the fish give the Morpheus-eye and say, “You are hungry for me, and therefore don’t deserve me”? They do not. Of course, if the only thing you ever do is fish, and you just leave the fish in a great big useless rotting heap beside you, okay, yeah, you’ve got a problem. But that’s a different deal.

        1. THIS, THIS SO MUCH.

          I admit, I dislike the all-too-common “I’m going to say mean things about myself in the hope that you will correct me” thing as much as the next person. It’s not fun to listen to.

          But, “I feel insecure about X. Say something nice to me.” is just stating a need and making a reasonable request for it to be met. The only guys I’ve ever dated who’ve refused to respond to this (Mr. “it’s not a compliment if you have to ask for it” or Mr. “I’ll compliment you when I feel like complimenting you”) have been the kind of assholes who refuse to meet other needs too.

      3. I agree, the Morpheus look sucks to get as a response. I pretty much have the same reaction, in that I think that people who give the Morpheus look are just trying to get out of the situation without committing or they’re tired of hearing about it. I’ve since resorted to telling my friends to just let me know when they need their egos flattered or if they need to talk. I’m fine with doing either one, but it bothers me to hear my friends insult themselves and I would appreciate if they not lay the entire unspoken burden of what comes with self-debasement on me.

  2. “I like you both and want you to be happy – together or separately.” THIS FOREVER.

    It’s so easy to talk yourself into a relationship you don’t want because you feel like you’d be letting down your friends who you presume are super invested in you having a relationship. And they may be super invested! But that is really not the norm. As the Cap says (more or less) in the previous letter, love lives are not at the command of a social group, not even a social group of one.

    It’s not anyone’s job to make Jane and John LIKElike each other, so lay that burden down.

    It’s not anyone’s job but Jane’s to make her like herself either, so lay *that* burden down.

    Just keep reflecting back at her what you see, feel, and hear. “Your hair looks FABULOUS today.” “Are you okay? You seem a little down.” “I’m only friends with amazing people, ipso facto, you are amazing. Let’s get some corn dogs. And look up ‘ipso facto’ so I can be sure I used it correctly.”

    And LW, you’re good people! You just want to FIX things so that your friends feel as happy and amazing as you know they deserve! I am a recovering fixer, myself, so know that your impulse comes from a place of kindness. Just back waaaaay off on this one and let it work out. Okay? Good talk. HUGS AND FINGERGUNS ALL AROUND.

  3. Agree so hard with this advice. There are two distinct issues your friend Jane is dealing with: she thinks she’s ugly, and she doesn’t want to meet up with John. The former may be influencing the latter, but they are not the same thing.

    You can’t — and shouldn’t — try to “help” with the John issue. You don’t know what’s really going on there; it’s totally possible that “I’m worried he’ll think I’m ugly” is what Jane is telling you when what she really means is “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this” or “something just doesn’t feel right” or “I’m way more nervous than excited about meeting him.” And even if she really is just worried he’ll think she’s ugly, pushing the meet-up issue is not a good way of addressing that underlying issue.

    You also shouldn’t really try to help with the self-perception issue, because as someone who’s been in Jane’s shoes, trust me: there is nothing you can tell her that will make her stop thinking that way before she’s ready to. What you can do, as the Captain suggested, is refuse to participate in the thought cycle she’s in.

    But the one thing I would add to the Captain’s advice is this: if you think that these thoughts have really taken over Jane’s life — that because of them she’s refusing to do other things or to go out with other people she’s expressed interest in or is spending a ton of time thinking and talking about how ugly she is — one thing you could do that might really help her is suggest that she talk to a counsellor that specializes in body dysmorphia.

    (Trigger warning)

    At least in my experience, it’s really, really hard to help someone who has a skewed view of how they look/how much looks matter in life. Talking about it at all — in any way — tends to just feed the cycle. If I was telling a friend how I thought I looked terrible, that would cause me to focus on those thoughts. If I was trying to explain the extent to which I disliked my body, that was almost an excuse to indulge in cataloging all of the flaws I saw with it. If they tried to reassure me, that only fed my negative thoughts — because when you don’t have positive feelings about your body, getting a little rush from external affirmation only makes you feel more insecure (Sure, they think that, but only because they haven’t noticed X. Now I need to do Y and Z whenever I see them so they keep believing the lie of me as not-hideous and don’t discover the truth that I am in fact a swamp monster. Etc.). And it made me feel even more self-conscious about my looks, because the fact that I’d raised the issue with a friend meant — at least in my head — that they now had reason to be evaluating my looks on a regular basis as they compared them to what I’d told them I thought I looked like.

    Someone who’s trained in dealing with these issues will be able to help break the obsessive thought patterns instead of (unintentionally) feeding them. And it should cause less anxiety for Jane to discuss how she might be ugly with an uninterested third-party who is paid to help her than with people she sees every day who could choose to stop being her friends if the ugly got too obvious. But sometimes it takes a (non-pressuring) nudge from someone to get you there, because it can be really difficult for someone in the middle of body dysmorphia to figure out when they’ve gone from “ugh, I hate my nose/skin/body/whatever” in the way that everyone feels sometimes to “I am fixated on my looks in a way that is not healthy and that also isn’t accurate.”

    At the risk of an overshare, I didn’t realize how much these feelings had taken over my life until I started talking to a close friend about them and he gently pointed out that spending upwards of an hour a day staring into a mirror criticizing my appearance was not normal or healthy. Then I started to think about it and realized that it wasn’t okay for me to be able to list something I hated about every. single. part. of my body, or to sometimes not go do things with people because I thought _________ looked too bad that day, or to frequently make lists in my head of what my priority list would be if a genie offered to change three things about my appearance, or to sometimes cry in disappointment and frustration at what I saw in the mirror. Those types of thought patterns indicate that something has gone way off the tracks and they aren’t the kind of thing that “But you look great! Seriously!” can fix, no matter how good the intentions behind it. But they can be fixed, and supportive friends — ones who listen when you want to talk, and who encourage you to talk to professionals if things get too bad — can help. I have (mostly) silenced those thoughts, and although I only saw a counsellor once or twice, even that was enough to recognize how big an issue this was and to start disrupting the thought patterns. I think that more intensive therapy probably would have made that recovery faster and less prone to regression. So if you think Jane’s worries about being ugly are impacting her life outside of this one situation, and particularly if she is repeatedly raising the subject with you, I think the very best help you can give her is to suggest she seek help from someone who knows how to deal with the issue.

    1. Thanks for this perspective. Friends are there to say “Hey, feel what you feel, but what you’re describing seems disproportionate to how you are? You should go talk to someone maybe, if only to rule out a bigger issue.”

  4. Is the LW is interested in Jane? Are there any feelings there for either of them?
    To me, it sounds like there could be a situation where Jane is using LW as a “backup love interest” to express her anxieties/receive validation from, and LW is being the ever-concerned doormat. This is bad. I agree completely with CA’s answer – that relationship needs to be between Jane and John. If there is a psuedo-relationship between LW and Jane, it needs to end.
    There just seems to be a lot of subtext here about why LW is so involved in hir friend’s self-image and her relationship with another person. I apologize if I am completely off-base in my concerns; I’ve seen it happen with a few friends and it’s very difficult on everyone involved.

    1. That’s an awful lot to assume, I have to admit! I have friends I’m close to, but not romantically involved with, and I’m very invested in their self-image issues because I’m their friend and care about them. Romantic interest isn’t a foregone conclusion in this situation.

  5. This is excellent advice! I’d like to add one little thing: I’d back off the “in love” language. For one thing, that means different things to different people, and unless you have a mind-reading cap on, you don’t really know if or why anyone is in love here. For another, if Jane is really feeling unsure about meeting John, implying that they have A Love! That Is True! is just going to mix things up worse. Even if that’s what John is saying. I’m trying to avoid imposing my own idea about what being “in love” means (e.g., in my definition you have to have spent at least in-person time), but the fact that I have to try so hard is just another indication that “in love” is a very idiosyncratic idea!

    1. Word. No need to be an advocate for John or for Love! (True or otherwise). Take 9 steps back from this “relationship,” tell your friend she’s awesome, ask if there’s anything you can do, and go your own way with your own life.

  6. I would just add: encourage your friend to listen to her intuition. Maybe she is getting very caught up in Jerkbrain or rationalization or other Evil Brain Cycles, but somewhere in her gut I bet she knows what is best for her. Maybe there are red flags with John she is not letting herself listen to! Or maybe her gut is head over heels – you don’t know, but her intuition might.

    1. Seconded. Any time we can encourage people–especially women–to hone their intuition rather than getting bogged down in societal expectations and the “should”s of gender roles, we should. (Ohh see what I did there.)

  7. Something I would also recommend is to be aware of your own self-critical language as well! It’s very odd to have friends go ‘Oh, you’re gorgeous and amazing, don’t even worry,’ and then launch into a detailed criticism of their own looks/hair/complexion/weight/abilities. I know they mean it as “YOU are excellent, not like ME” but all that’s really doing is enforcing the “I am allowed to be mean to myself” mindset. “You are excellent, and I am excellent, and it is amazing we ever get anything done without being knee-deep in swooning men” is a much better message!

  8. Even if Jane is really thinking “I can’t bring a 25-year-old guy home to meet my parents, so I may as well not start anything,” she’s entitled to that decision. Or any other reason, some less likely than that. If she keeps putting herself down, maybe that’s something to help with–and other people have made good suggestions here. Not wanting to meet John? That’s entirely her decision.

  9. Hey LW,

    Been where Jane is. OH GOD have I been where Jane is, and my John (oh god that sounds terrible) was all the way across the world. So…nothing you say is going to help, not really. Particularly if they’ve already Skyped and webcammed and she’s still freaking out. That’s anxiety, it’s a lifetime of building up a fear and it’s not going to just go away.

    What you can do is keep the conversation centred on her. “Jane, would YOU be with someone you found incredibly sexually unattractive?” “Jane, would YOU lie to someone about how you feel about them?” and so on. I’ve been in the “well, sure, lots of fat people are gorgeous and lots of skinny people are fugly, but recognising that Good Looks are not an objective thing doesn’t extend to me because I’m a fatty fat fat fatty! Who’s fat! …but of course I don’t mean YOU’RE fat in a problematic way, baby, even though you weigh more than I do. You’re gorgeous. I’m the only objectively ugly fat person in the WORLD!!!!!!!!” place. It’s not fun, but…the only way to get over a terror of meeting people is to, well, meet people. Recognising that you have very little power to manage or remove her fears. All you can do is stick to the “would YOU? No? Then why do you think HE’S that kind of asshole?” script. And give her hugs. Virtual ones totally count.

    YMMV, but it worked for me.

  10. LW, you already know that telling her how silly she is is not going to work with this, even though from your perspective, she’s being irrational and that’s frustrating. Maybe you can find a bit of sympathy for her fears by understanding what’s at the root of them–if she doesn’t badmouth her looks or restrict what she does because of her appearance, someone else will do it for her. She is staring down the barrel of the threat of being judged and rejected by everyone she loves.

    Something you can point out to her is, are you and the people she knows likely to do that? What she is implicitly saying about you, John, and all your friends is: you are so shallow and so mean that you would all dump her if she were ugly. This has nothing to do with what she looks like–this would still be an issue even if she were hideous. Because I’m guessing even then, you would still like and enjoy her, and still want to be friends with her. But here she is, saying she is acutely aware that you are all assholes.

    “I’m afraid people will judge me on my looks” also implicitly means “I am afraid people are all judgmental and mean.” But she may not be aware of that, and some of her logic may crumble if she looks at that fact that she in turn is thinking something pretty damn awful about all her friends.

  11. Hey LW, so heaps of commenters have given advice on your letter, mostly re: don’t try to fix ’cause you can’t & it’s none of your business.
    My advice is slightly different & comes a bit more from the point of view of the “fixee”.

    When ppl try & fix my problems, I get frustrated. Often. The reason why I tell me friends my problems is not because I need fixing – I can sort that shit out for myself thanks – but because I want someone to say to recognize that I feel horrible/angry/guilty/sad etc. So I can understand why you want to help, you love your friend & want to help.
    I also subscribe a fair bit to the strengths- focused school of psychology which puts forward that it all people have the strength & skills to “fix” themselves, they just need to be reminded of them & validated. So from this point of view, what your friend needs from you is empathy for her feelings & to listen to her & to back of the fixing & trust that she can & will work it out herself. This is also HEAPS easier for you. A possible script here is [deep look of understanding & empathy for her difficulties] & a “it must be really hard for you to feel so badly about yourself. I know you’ll work it out, & meet him when you feel like you can. In the meantime, loves you & I’m here if you need help to get help for this.” [hugs]
    Mind you, backing off the fixing & turning up the listening & empathy will probably fracture the wall she’s built to protect herself from the scary business of “working through it”, so be prepared for tears & remember to keep up the listening & validation.

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