Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a 20-something who’s had a hell of a year. I was in an accident earlier this year and am still recuperating: I’ve had three major surgeries and have one more coming up. I just restarted therapy for childhood trauma, and I have moved several times this year due to bad roommate situations. I also have a full-time job as a social worker, specializing in personality disorders and trauma care for homeless adults. I feel like I am handling my life well, but my plate is very full!
One of the things that’s helped me get through this year is my amazing group of friends. I’m very social, and I really lucked out when I found this group of folks. They make me soup after surgery, they help me move, and they are generally really supportive. We frequently go out to bars for board games or casual drinking, host barbecues at our houses, and cook giant brunches.
Often, at these large gatherings, somebody will quietly say to me that they’re having a very hard time, or drop a hint that they’re struggling, or pull me aside in the bathroom and tell me about current problems they’re having. I clearly like being a support to people and have no problem having intense conversations one-on-one, but these occasions seem really inappropriately timed.
I’ve tried the obvious line of “Hey, I really do want to hear about Problem X, but I’m not able to give you my best advice right now. Can we talk about this on Friday over dinner?” While some folks have responded well, a few people have taken this to mean that I never want to talk about anything serious. Some have voiced that, as they have supported me after my accident, the “give and take” of our friendship is out of balance. Also, sometimes somebody will just corner me in the kitchen and start crying, and it seems inappropriate to defer talking to them then.
This problem has been going on for years. My friends sometimes joke that instead of sexy-time pheromones, I emit “TELL ME YOUR FEELINGS” pheromones. I really appreciate that I’m a person that people trust in crisis situations, but I need some time off! How can I better explain to my friends that, while I’m happy to have serious conversations at times, parties should be parties?
Girl, Overworked, Avoids Weird, Awkward Yakking
Do you even realize how awesome you are? You have indeed had a hell of a year! You are recovering from childhood trauma, a major accident, and ensuing surgeries; you are working full time in a job that (while I’m sure it’s rewarding, too) has to be emotionally exhausting; home has not been a sanctuary for you for much of that time, yet you are fully prepared to lend a compassionate ear to your friends’ troubles (without playing the one-upmanship, my-troubles-are-bigger-than-your-troubles game)… All you ask is to be able to relax and enjoy yourself at social gatherings, and to save your counseling sessions for other times. You rock! And to answer your unasked question: no, that should not be too much to ask.
The problem isn’t that you aren’t expressing yourself effectively, either. Not only are you setting a very reasonable boundary, you are articulating it pretty much perfectly: “I’d love to help, but I’m not really in the right frame of mind right now, so how about [specified time in the very near future], when I can give you the quality of attention you deserve?” That cannot reasonably be interpreted as a brush off – which is why your more reasonable friends are not giving you guff about it, they’re pulling out their calendars to set up that date and counting themselves lucky to have such a great friend.
No, the problem is that some of your friends’ brains are infected with Entitlement, so that when you say anything other than “Oh dear, you are feeling down? Nevermind how badly I needed to recharge my batteries, let’s find somewhere quiet so you can coopt my social occasion and turn it into a free therapy session!” what they hear is “I am a selfish jerk!”
It’s like the Nice Guy phenomenon: the way a Nice Guy tells the story, there you are, exuding sexy hotness, making him want you. He does nice stuff for you. He brings you soup when you’re recovering from surgery! He helps you move! He has earned some serious Tokens! Yet when he tries to cash them in for some of that sexy hotness, you tell him “Sorry, Tokens aren’t redeemable for sex!” which is totally unfair, means you are a selfish bitch, a user, blah blah blah.
The only difference is that in this case what you’re exuding is kindness, compassion, and professionally trained listening skills, rather than (or perhaps in addition to!) sexy hotness, and that’s what your friends are demanding a piece of. But you are not a Compassion vending machine any more than you are a sex vending machine. You need to be in the mood for that kind of thing, and to feel the connection. And you have a right to say “not right now” for no better reason than that you aren’t feeling it, or that you came to have fun. Going out in public while Kind is no more an invitation to be cornered in the hall for free therapy than going out in public while Female is an invitation to be groped.
(Note: I say “for free therapy” instead of just “to listen to their troubles” because I think part of what’s happening here is something doctors, nurses, lawyers, computer-professionals (and probably others) get all the time: people wanting them to provide professional services for free on personal time. Which is ok if it’s a VERY brief description of a problem requiring only an off-the-top-of-the-head answer, not so ok if it goes on and on.)
Which means the real question is not “what do I say?’ but “How can I enforce this boundary better against the ones who are giving me guff without them getting hurt or mad?” and as always, since that’s about trying to manage their emotions, trying to make them be satisfied with what you are willing to offer when it’s less than what they want, the answer may be that you can’t. You have to know that.
Then again, because there’s at least a chance your friends are not doing the Nice Guy thing on purpose (though yeah, some friends do “kindnesses” to create indebtedness, too), here are a few things worth trying:
(1) Go with the repetition thing. Perfect your preferred wording for the “this is not a good time” mantra, and repeat it pretty much verbatim. It will highlight your willingness to help, and that they are being boorish by insisting you do it this very instant. Feel ok with being increasingly curt about it; people don’t deserve the same level of courtesy when they make you say the same thing over and over.
(2) Try toning down your awesome (especially with the friends who burst into tears and fling themselves at you, or who drop hints about how they’re struggling). Just because you are capable of being the World’s Best Listener doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. It’s all right to “not notice” every plea for attention, or to listen a little, say some “wow, that sucks,” offer to go to the bathroom with them while they splash water on their face, then offer to find their ride (or public-transit buddy)/call a cab, or fob them off on someone who’s closer to them than you are. You are not the only nice person in your circle of friends; someone else can carry the ball sometimes.
(3) With those who explicitly invoke the “I have been there for you, you oooooowe me!” try a little consciousness-raising. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I want to be as good a friend to you as you’ve been to me, but I don’t think you realize what you’re asking of me. My job is about listening compassionately to people in very difficult situations, trying to help them find solutions; that’s what I do all day. As rewarding as that is, it is also really emotionally draining. One of the reasons I socialize as much as I do is that I need to recharge my batteries doing stuff that’s just plain fun! That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to listen to your problems – but it does mean that I need that not to be at the expense of the social occasions. That’s like unplugging my phone when it’s at 2% and plugging yours in, when this is my only time to charge it!”
(4) If they keep pushing, hold up a mirror: “Are you saying that if I’m not willing to stop in the middle of a party to give you my undivided attention it makes you wish you had not brought me soup?” “Are you saying that if I won’t give you what you want the second you want it I’m a jerk? Because I’ve been pretty clear I’m willing to listen, just not this instant!”
(5) Work on not feeling guilty. If you try all this stuff and they’re still disgruntled, the problem really is 100% theirs. Don’t let them try to shove it off on you, like the bill for stuff you didn’t order. Their bad feelings are not your responsibility.
Good luck with that,