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#399: “But you oooowe me!” — entitlement rears its head again

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?

Thank you!
Girl, Overworked, Avoids Weird, Awkward Yakking

Dear GOAWAY,

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,

Alphakitty.

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157 comments
  1. Rachel Attk said:

    I feel like we may be the same person. Having good listening skills can be a double-edged sword! For me, it’s been helpful to tone down my automatic internal “must help or will be a terrible person” response, and let go of some of the responsibility, that way people don’t read you as someone who must help. These are brilliant scripts, I am folding them away in my mind for future use. Good luck!

    • k3ilyn said:

      I actually feel so much better just knowing I’m not the only one. I’m not even a professional (though it was my original intended career path). Being a college student while dealing with my mother who was recently diagnosed with dementia, and dealing with family on my back about finances and them worrying if I’m mature enough to handle her affairs, (and of course any of another dozen stressors at any given time) I’ve developed a bit of a hunched back from tom much stress + too little sleep.
      Then my friends come to me. And it’s great! I originally wanted to be a therapist for a reason!
      But good lord, I only have time to go out for a couple hours once a month. I don’t really want to spend that time fixing someone when I’m seeing them to help regain my own sanity.
      I’ve become the parrot who says, “talk to a professional, that’s what they are there for.”
      Luckily most of my friends understand. Not all, but enough that I can stay focussed on my classes again.

  2. J said:

    Great advice! If your friends are real, good, solid friends like the LW says then they will recognise when they are asking too much and tone it down.

  3. Sheelzebub said:

    I want to second alphakitty that you are awesome. Frankly, you don’t have to act as your friends’ therapist at all if you don’t want to, and I think it is really awesome that you’re making time for them.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen if you have the spoons to do so. If a friend who’s been through some shit was willing to listen to me cry about my problems but asked me to wait until say, that Friday where we could chat over dinner, I’d kiss his/her fucking feet.

    People bringing you soup and helping you does not obligate you to drop everything and listening to their problems at their command. You did not demand that they drop everything and bring you soup on your schedule, did you? You didn’t freak out and insist that they bring you meals THAT VERY MINUTE because after all, you listened to their problems in the past, correct? You appreciated the help they were able to give.

    What this means is if they’re incapacitated/need to move/have a fumigation/whatever, you will be there with meals, labor, cleaning help, etc. You will listen to someone when/if you have the spoons to do so. You will not be someone’s regular therapist, and you are not on the clock. Sometimes you really do need to get away from work-related things. (When I worked as a receptionist 22 years ago, I never answered the phone when I was home. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.)

    • I second this!

  4. Great answer! I would just add that those who are doing the You Owe Me-spiel probably won’t listen to reason. Anything less than what they want to hear will be overlooked. It’s like their brain shuts off when they get that you’re not playing along. They’ve had a script in mind that they want you to act out.

    Be prepared for some pushing and extinction bursts until it goes away. Just continue to give the same answer and stick to your script.

    I’m not saying that they’re the Worst, just that it’s not about you. Their first priority isn’t the advice you’re uniquely qualified of giving. And anyway, bringing soup doesn’t equal first priority in your life.

    • heathenbee said:

      “They’ve had a script in mind that they want you to act out.”

      This ^

      Personally I’ve never thought people who do nice things unasked and then expect return for it actually nice people, but manipulative and emotionally dishonest. I like doing things for people when they don’t ask because *I* enjoy it, not because I have a score card. For that matter, if they *do* ask, I tend to have a “pay it forward” attitude, figuring people have gone out of their way for me in the past, and I assume the person I’m asking will be there for me or any number of other people sometime in the future. What goes around comes around, etc, and that’s how a healthy community works, not everyone keeping a little list of who owes what.

      • Precisely! Up with paying it forward! Down with tallies and spreadsheets! I don’t even like tit-for-tat when people are obsessive about making sure they have “repaid” an equal quantum of kindness to what they have received. It takes all the joy out of the thing, as if having given a kindness was some sort of power play and they’re not going to let you get one up on them! Though yeah, I know it is probably actually that a) they have been conditioned by a scorekeeper and/or b) that they have trouble feeling they deserve kindness/trusting the sincerity of friendship, so instead it feels like obligation. Which is tragic.

        • Obligation, like a gift economy, can be a very complex and sometimes valuable cultural thing. It’s not necessarily about There Was A Scorekeeper or They Don’t Think They Deserve It, it can be all about how one person’s family/community kept things together in ways yours doesn’t.

          I guess I’m trying to say that having social obligation is not always bad and you might be stepping into some Western or Individualism Is Awesome! poo that you didn’t know was there.

          • A valid point, though I wouldn’t have said all social obligation is bad, only that I, personally, think it’s a shame when wariness of obligation keeps someone from accepting a kindness that is freely given, no strings attached.

            Said as someone who once had a lot of trouble just saying “thank you, that’s wonderful” when someone did/gave me something really nice that I genuinely appreciated, instead of feeling a need to decline lest I seem less independent or come across as some kind of user because I allowed someone to give me what I could not have said I had a right to Expect.

          • Ooooo, yeah, that’s something totally different.

            I hear you, though. It can be terribly hard sometimes to accept help, much less ask for it.

          • Reminds me of how a lot of things found their way into white hands when Westerners first came here. They would get gifted to these new people, with the expectation that at some point in the future something of equal value would be gifted back, which… never happened, of course. Sad. And in the Māori circles I run in there is still a lot of that kind of gift-giving, full value money payment is rarely expected at the time but people would probably notice if you never gave anything yourself. Even when you’re learning a craft, the first thing you make you should give away to someone preferably with more mana than you, usually your teacher. (Though in some tribes it’s buried instead to be given, I assume, to Papatuanuku.) Honestly I prefer it that way than keeping tally – if you’re trying to remember all the back and forth, it seems like there’d be the stress of wondering if you’d forgotten something, and what about things that aren’t quantifiable? Or something that is almost meaningless for the giver but very important for the receiver?

          • Manatee said:

            I’m not making any presumptions about your background, but speaking from the experience of my own Asian family where there are more cultural expectations (eg about looking after family members) than there are in the white British part of it, there is still a distinction between the appropriate fulfilment of gift economy/family obligations etc, and being an entitled jerk about it.

        • Marwen said:

          Or sometimes c) have actually been the one taken advantage of a LOT in the past and end up tit-for-tat tallying out of an equal fear of turning into the people who vampired off them and of being vampired off again.

    • Ugh, I hate the pay-it-forward thing. It feels the same as tallies and spreadsheets. If you’re paying it forward, isn’t that the same as pre-ordering, and wouldn’t you get pissed if the thing you pre-ordered never came out? You’re not paying anything when you’re nice to someone, you’re just being nice. Even if you went out of your way. Being able to depend on your friends is important, but it’s not about payment, it’s about being reliable and caring about each other, regardless of how many instances of Niceness you’ve paid out so far.

      Or maybe I’m misunderstanding the phrase. Am I?

      (Also, Kellis Amberlee? :DDDD Best zombie premise I’ve seen so far. The first one’s called Feed and they’re by Mira Grant if anyone wants to look them up, which, if you like journalists, zombies, political intrigue, eccentric rich kids, tiny bulldogs*, or all of the above, you do.)

      *second book

      • popesuburban said:

        “Pay it forward,” as I understand it, is doing something nice for someone who may or may not have done something for you, and who may or may not be in a position to ever return the favor. Like, let’s say the person in line in front of you at Starbucks forgot her wallet, so you decide to buy her drink for her. She then “pays it forward” by spotting someone else for lunch, or putting change in a parking meter that’s about to expire, or some such. Basically it’s just putting good into the world. I think that’s the premise behind the Kevin Spacey movie, “Pay It Forward,” but I haven’t seen it, so don’t quot me on that.

        • That’s my understanding, as well.

        • And I think most people don’t bother to keep count of how many times they pay it forward vs having it done to them, esp since sometimes people do kindnesses that the receiver doesn’t actually know about or know were deliberate.

          Also I really hate that movie lol.

        • Courtney said:

          The way that “paying it forward” was done in the movie was a lot more structured than the way I have seen it done in real life. There have been times when people have given me money in a pinch that I didn’t have a way to pay back at the time, and I have since done that for other people. The “pay it forward” conversation has usually amounted to, “Help someone else out someday when you are able to.”

      • Brightwanderer said:

        I think you’re misunderstanding it, at least the way it’s supposed to be used! The point of pay it forward is actually to specifically AVOID an expectation of repayment. The idea is that if someone does you a favour, instead of paying them “back”, you “pay it forward” by doing someone else a favour. You give some change to the guy in line at Starbucks and hope that it will inspire him to help someone else out later in the day – not that you expect him to return it in future. It’s not like an investment – it’s not doing favours to people on the understanding that it will come back to you specifically – it’s helping people out in the hope that it will inspire them to help out other people in turn, improving society as a whole. So the person doing the “paying” is not pre-ordering – they’re passing on goodwill/good fortune/happiness, sometimes in response to someone doing the same for them, sometimes just to try and make the world a better place.

        • heathenbee said:

          Yes, that’s how I meant it. Although I think for me, there *is* an element of investment, one in a kinder, friendlier, more secure community overall, rather than one in which I’d expect personal return.

          In my youth, I had a number of older friends who helped me out a *lot*, and who never expected me to pay them back in kind. They just wished me well, and wanted to see me get on as I went through life. As I got older, I had younger or less well-off friends who were occasionally in need of help, even if it was just a meal or a night out. They worried they’d owe me, but I just said, “Someday you’ll be in a position to treat someone or give them a night on your couch or whatever, and you can ‘pay me’ by doing that for them.”

          I see it as win-win, and no resentful feelings on either side.

      • Bittybird said:

        Yes, like others have said, paying it forward is doing unnecessary good deeds/acts of kindness, simply to put those good deeds out into the world, often in the spirit of having received some other good deed before, from someone else. As an example, I didn’t learn to drive until my early twenties, due to extreme anxiety. I relied on the goodwill of friends/coworkers/family if I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t on public transport (which I rarely did, because I hated imposing, but when I needed to, it was dearly appreciated). Fast forward to today (anxiety is gone, I can drive with the best of them, and I’ve got a car) and suddenly *I’m* the one with lots of carless friends, going out of my way to get them where they’re going. I don’t expect anything back–certainly not future car rides from them. But it’s a favor I am glad to do, it doesn’t hurt me to do it, and I feel like I’m paying it forward a little, from all those favors people did for me when I needed it.

        Bringing soup to a friend in need ought to be a paying it forward moment–not a transaction for future soup/soup-equivalent services to be rendered to the original soup deliverer.

  5. General Expression said:

    I’m reminded of an NPR story I heard yesterday about the Rule of Reciprocity and how it can be used to manipulate people.

    • I am reminded of my asshole ex who used to tell me repeatedly how much he Believed In Reciprocity. And then do things “for” me that I didn’t actually want him to do instead of using his words and just asking me for what he wanted from me.

      Unfortunately for him, I learned at a very early age to not Believe In Reciprocity at all, when my school’s third-grade teacher scolded me for attempting to refuse a gift from a boy I did not like who had been following me around pretty relentlessly for months. So I believe very firmly that if people are inexplicably driven to give me stuff whether I want it or not, that is their problem.

      • General Expression said:

        Yeah, I also had problems with an ex and gift-giving; they were frequent and just a little too expensive (but not so much as to blow plausible deniability) and made me very uncomfortable. Small surprise he was also manipulative and abusive.

        • My mom’s cheating ex-boyfriend once, after I was already skeeved out by all the jewelry and flowers he was giving her “just because”, asked if I thought he still had a chance with my mom. “Just because,” indeed. I said he didn’t, even though he probably did, because HELL NO, and have thus learned to gracefully decline over-the-top gifts.

          At least in theory. It’s surprisingly difficult in reality. I know the scripts, I just can’t bring myself to say them. *grumble*

          • emmych said:

            Oh, yeah, it’s impossible to recite the scripts sometimes. It’s like how I’d promised myself to NEVER EVER FAKE AN ORGASM — because hey, how will you get the orgasm you want if you fake it? — but maaaan when you’re actually there, in the moment, there is so much pressure to do what is expected of you, and it’d so much easier to just fold and take the easy route rather than Using Your Words.

            I’ve learned to forgive myself for folding sometimes, since I’ve been trained from birth TO constantly fold and do what is expected of me! It can be really hard to ignore that niggling voice at the back of your head when you’d rather a situation just be over in the most painless possible way, and that’s actually okay. A person can’t always handle being the no-nonsense, boundary enforcing, word using superhero, after all.

          • manybellsdown said:

            Haha @ the orgasm thing. I never understood it either, but now some nights it’s just like “okay it’s not working and I want to go to sleep but you’re gonna keep trying until I get there, aren’t you?”

          • Rana said:

            Hah. Been there, been tempted to do that. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that if I tell my partner that, he’s perfectly fine with stopping, and the reverse is true too. I mean, it’s supposed to be fun, right? not a chore?

          • @Manybellsdown: Yeah, that’s called “sexual assault” and it is definitely one of the things my aforementioned ex used to do “for” me instead of just asking for me to do stuff to him, which I suspect is what he wanted.

            As ashamed of myself as I am for putting up with such behavior, I can at least say that if his goal in assaulting me was indeed to get more blowjobs, it did not work.

    • Elizabeth said:

      That was a really interesting article – thanks for linking it.

  6. Kai said:

    People who have a “nice-things-I’ve-done-for-you” scorecard and trying to cash it in kill relationships. You will never be comfortable with them being nice to you, because you’ll always be aware you’re in a barter-friendship and will be expected to pay later.

    It makes me cringe to think, “please don’t do anything nice for me, I can’t afford it” when a friend is going out of their way to be kind.

    • RedSonja said:

      My ex used to try to impose this on my friends, oddly enough. When I lived in Seattle, we paid for my best friend from high school to come out and visit. Later on, he made some bizarro comment about “What has she done for you since?” Like she was supposed to then perform some arbitrary number of favors for me to compensate for it. It was my first hint that everything revolved around what *he* got from people.

      • MeamI said:

        That is a bizarre comment. For some reason, I’m now picturing him having an Excel SPREADSHEET OF FAVOURS that he wanted to make sure was always balanced.

        • I know someone who did this. If he wanted to go to the movies with his GF and she couldn’t afford it, he’d pay for her but make a note of it in his spreadsheet and make her pay him back when she got money. That went for several things. Needless to say, that wasn’t the only power imbalance in their relationship and they’re not together anymore.

          • Kai said:

            Wow, how romantic!

          • MeamI said:

            …Yikes.

          • bearcatbanana said:

            I lost a friend over a literal spreadsheet she kept. For example, we would go out to lunch on Monday and it would cost $20 and I would pay. Then on Tuesday, we would go to lunch and it would cost $22 and she would pay. She would write down on her ledger that $2 imbalance.

            Three years down the road, I “owed” her $109 because of those nickel and dime transactions. She wants me to pay in to her in cash. I was so broke I didn’t even have it, plus is this the definition of “owe?” I know it’s my fault a little for letting it get so imbalanced, but if she knew it was getting imbalanced, why didn’t she just say something? I borrowed the money to pay her and told her to GTFO of my life.

          • Bearcatbanana, that is ridiculous! When you pay for lunch with someone, they’re paying you back by being there and making that lunch enjoyable or productive or whatever. You’re paying for lunch because you want to have lunch with them and otherwise wouldn’t! If it stops being enjoyable, you stop paying for it, like a magazine subscription. If that makes any sense. I’m sorry you had to actually pay her back. It probably helped get her to GTFO your life instead of loan-sharking you forever, though.

          • aliaras said:

            Huh. Me and my boyfriend have a spreadsheet we use to make sure that house upkeep costs (bills, rent, groceries) are equal between us/roommate, but dates pretty explicitly don’t go on that, or if they do, it’s only because we agreed we wanted to go dutch. And he’s not like OMGPAYNAO.

          • Miss_chevious said:

            @bearcatbanan um….WOW. What. A. Horrible friend. I want to say that in no way does the accumulation of $109 imbalance over the course of THREE YEARS of friendship mean that anything is your fault, whatsoever. That’s ridiculous, and I am glad that person is out of your life.

          • emmych said:

            …I was going to make a comment about how hilarious the visual of a Spreadsheet of Favours was, but then you gave an example of one actually existing and it wasn’t so funny anymore.

            Excuse me, I need to go vomit on everything.

          • manybellsdown said:

            *mops up Emmy’s vomit with some spreadsheets*

          • bearcatbanana said:

            She said her mom taught her this behavior. Keeping a ledger helps her keep friendships “balanced.” I was only 19 then and completely pissed off, but nowadays, I feel sorry for her.

          • Spreadsheets Galore said:

            @aliaras

            My boyfriend and I keep a spreadsheet, too. But for the same reasons as you. We like to keep rent, bills, groceries, etc even. And sometimes we will put in dates if we decide to go dutch but more often than not we don’t. I end up buying the take-out and he gets the dinners so it evens out anyway. And besides, we have have huge debts to each other and not mention it until we are in a tight spot money-wise.

          • Bunny said:

            bearcatbanana… I can’t help but see that as more than a “balance” issue. I mean, if lunch cost £20 one day and £22 the next, that could easily just be because SHE chose something more expensive. If every time you pay she chooses a cheap option, and when she pays she chooses a pricier one and then logs that as MONEY YOU OWE HER, it seems like a fairly nasty little way of keeping a nest egg of involuntary debt waiting that you can call on, especially given she waited for the amount to get so high before asking for it.

            Unless you respond by taking the cheapest option you possibly can so it always costs her less, but then would she log that as money owed you? Doubtful.

        • heathenbee said:

          I’m pretty sure my ex has exactly that.

          • coruskate said:

            So did mine. Not a physical one, mind — but yes, he ALWAYS knew exactly what he had done for anyone, and what, in his mind, that was “worth” when he called it in.

          • manybellsdown said:

            Do we have the same ex?

            Actually that’s entirely plausible. He slept with anything that moved.

        • Mris said:

          My great-grandmother kept a little notebook. I am not kidding. An actual notebook that was a few nice things people had done but mostly ways they had screwed up. If you showed up at 12:02 to take her out for a noon lunch, she would say, “You’re late! And you were three minutes late the last time,” and show you the page in the book. It was a lovely example of How Not To Be. (On the other hand, her daughter–my great-aunt–also keeps a notebook. It lists her niece’ and nephews’ preferences and favorites so that she can be sure to always have something they love when she feeds them dinner, not select a restaurant they will hate, etc. How To Do Meticulous Well, right there.)

          • WeeBoy said:

            I have a friend whos parents do the same thing. I was quite shocked to realise they were charging him for printer paper and ink when he was printing from the only computer in their home. He had to mark it down. His dad also kept more receipts than anyone ever needs in a lifetime.

          • The story of your great aunt warms my heart so much. I’ll have to remember to work on something like that as my nephew grows up! Such a lovely counterpoint to your great-grandmother’s story, and I’m so glad you shared!

        • xtinas said:

          My ex not only had that, he charged me interest on it. Hand to gord. My current partner bought the debt off of him, as it were, and now I’m paying my partner back because I want to, not because my partner is holding it over me. Infinitely preferable.

          • You have upgraded!

          • SadieBlake said:

            What. The. F.

            My knee-jerk, probably-would-never-actually-say-this response would’ve been along the lines of “Gee, I don’t feel like paying that off. Why don’t you try sending it to a collections agency?”

            I agree with alphakitty – your current partner is definitely an upgrade.

          • Rose Fox said:

            Current!partner thanks you both for the kind words! Though I really don’t feel like I deserve cookies just for being an improvement over Admiral Douchecanoe and his accounting fetish.

        • goldenpeanut said:

          I dated somebody who was almost at spreadsheet-making levels of expected reciprocity. Fortunately, we broke up before he got there.

        • anonymous said:

          I once dated a guy who kept a mental Spreadsheet of Orgasms and actually got upset if got “too out of balance”. Because it totally matters which of us had the most orgasms. Yeah, really important factor of a relationship right there.

          • Indigo said:

            …do we have an ex in common? Seriously, big tall guy with lots of curly hair? Because he actually brought that up on a couple of occasions and was generally only shut down by the WTF Look O’ Incredulity.

          • JenniferP said:

            That is an unsexy spreadsheet. Talk about doing it wrong.

          • As someone who (TMI but relevant) has lots of little-ish orgasms and a high libido, being stuck at a 1:1 ratio with a guy who could maaaaaybe have a couple a day….

            Wow that would be the worst thing. That would be nightmarishly unhappytimes, augh.

      • But… what if she’d done all the nice things for you BEFORE that, like by being your best friend? That doesn’t even make sense unless he was noting down every exchange of favours in your entire history of friendship, and that would be creepy.

    • Ace said:

      I had a boss like that. If he ever deigned to lift a finger to help you out in a pinch, you knew you’d be paying for it in some way in the future. I’d almost rather be behind in my work.

    • Yes! I was going to write the same thing after I read that comment in GOAWAY’s letter. I currently have a coworker like this. He has zero interest in helping anyone until the boss says, “Hey, if you help Coworker, you’ll get Reward.” Then he’ll badger Coworker (usually me) about helping even when the problem has been solved for weeks already. Though he still hasn’t topped the time he offered me a ride to the airport…mind you I wasn’t going anywhere, but HE needed a ride to the airport, and apparently being all shady about it was easier than just asking. It’s trained me to avoid asking him for help on anything ever because he’s just not worth the hassle (and he’s really not that helpful when he’s “helping”). You help coworkers because collaboration is part of the job. Likewise, you help friends because you like them and want to do nice things. We’re not dogs. You don’t always get a treat for good behavior.

  7. sam said:

    With regard to friends who have clearly crossed a line and are looking for what amounts to free therapy from you, is it possible to take a step back and perhaps recommend to said person that they consider actually going to therapy (not to diagnose or anything, but more of a “this is an issue that I’m not equipped to handle, but here are some excellent recommendations”). I’m sure, you, as a clearly thoughtful person, can say this better than I’m saying in my email, but I’ve found this approach to be somewhat helpful when people are insistent on getting me to give them free (legal) advice that I’m not willing to give.

    Just yesterday, I had to have a conversation with my dad (my dad!) about the fact that I couldn’t actually draft a contract for him, because (a) not my area of expertise, despite his belief that as a “corporate lawyer” I could do anything business-related (I’m actually a securities lawyer and know nothing about M&A work) (b) I don’t work for a law firm anymore and don’t have access to even the most basic precedent to even BEGIN putting something adequate together, assuming I was willing to do this in the first place, and (c) the person he was contracting with is kind of a jerk and wouldn’t think twice about suing me for malpractice when contract proved inadequate (as it inevitably would – see (a) and (b)).

    But, you know – he didn’t feel like he needed to hire (and pay) a lawyer because….daughter. Of course, being my dad, once I explained the above to him, he was completely understanding, and I was perfectly happy to look at the proposal his (soon to be ex-) business partner put together to give him a general sense of whether it was reasonable or completely out-of-bounds, but beyond that…just, no.

    I also get this from friends all the time – OF COURSE, I will listen to their issues and have conversations, as part of all normal friendly conversations where people discuss what’s going on in their lives (including problems), but once it tips over into asking for actual legal advice or help, I find having a few good references to small firm or solo practitioners who I know and trust to be the best course.

    That being said, the nature of your profession (and your obvious skill at it) makes your conversations have the potential to be a bigger emotional minefield than my friends asking me whether they can sue their landlord for their security deposit back, but perhaps this approach might be an appropriate addition to the ones the Captain provided, in circumstances where actual therapy is in order.

    • Oh, do I hear you on this one! When my dad died, he was co-owner of some property in Florida with my aunt and uncle. They wanted to sell, but there were Complications. Being an attorney, I was less daunted by the figuring out that needed doing, though I (a) was not a Florida attorney, (b) was a litigator not a RE attorney, and (c) was not practicing at the time so as you say had no malpractice safety net. I spent many hours straightening things out, over the course of months. But when my uncle referred to me in an email as “our attorney” I felt the need to clarify that I could not be that for them on this because of a, b, and c, so if they felt a need for one of those they should get one. He took offense, interpreting that as “fuck off and die you mooch,”I guess. It has been 14 years, and the man has not communicated with me in any way since. Oh, well! My aunt and I get along well, and she agrees her brother has issues. His wife hasn’t acknowledged her in a decade!

      • sam said:

        Yeah- there’s always a lot of the vague “sam will deal with all the complicated stuff because she’s the lawyer in the family” (i.e., all of grand-dad’s probate crap down in…Florida!), but that in part meant I was in charge of hiring the local lawyer to actually do stuff. Plus, my very stern lawyer-voice came in handy when closing out various of grandpa’s accounts and overdue bills.

        But more to the point, there’s a good reason why lawyers shouldn’t represent their friends/family, doctors shouldn’t treat their friends/family, etc. – in many of these situations, you really need someone who is not personally, emotionally, invested in the outcome.

        • Miss_chevious said:

          We should start a club. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard some variation of “well, you’re a lawyer, so shouldn’t you be able to handle my divorce/will/real estate transaction, even though you specialize in technology and privacy regulation?”

          • sam said:

            For free. don’t forget the “for free” part. I find that it usually helps to go into a long, drawn-out explanation of what it is I actually do (i.e., “[your issue] is not my area of practice, but if you wanted to register a bunch of debt securities with the SEC and then list them on the NYSE, I may be able to help [plus a whole bunch of other minutia]”), people will stop asking. and maybe even run in the other direction.

          • miss_chevious said:

            How could I forget “for free”? It’s the most important part!

          • Elin I. said:

            Can I join that club, the “What is this ‘area of expertise’ thing of which you are talking?” club? I’m a translator, but I translate *books*. I care way too much about my friends and family to translate their grades, their will or what have you.

    • mintylime said:

      My mother, after years of harassing me to be her Windows Support Monkey (and me refusing because I knew basically nothing about Windows), finally actually said “but I paid for those Computer Science classes you took at uni!”. I’m still confused as to how my mother, who had taken some CS classes at the same uni I did, thought my CS classes somehow taught me about Windows configuration and virus cleaning, but she was able to grasp this distinction once I realized I needed to make it.

      In the end, I told her that I’d happily help with computer stuff that wasn’t like that … like helping her with her LJ profile configuration and stuff. She was content with that.

      (And I Just Realized: My dad paid for the first couple years of my uni career, not her, and my CS classes were *after* that, when I was paying for myself. Totally bogus!)

    • thesurfmonkey said:

      I rather wish I knew someone in every profession who could give me trustworthy recommendations for someone in their field. That would cut down on a lot of blind google searches.

      • I know, right! That’s exactly the sort of thing I’d be asking – who can you recommend? or, if I look by myself, what are warning signs to not hire someone?

    • Beth said:

      It’s funny how many professions this happens too. I’m a copy editor and you wouldn’t think there would be much call for that outside of my job, but I’m young and have a lot of friends in grad school, so I get asked for proof reading a lot. I generally do it if I have time, because I want to be helpful, but I sometimes wonder how useful I am. I generally have to have the conversation that goes “I don’t mind doing this, but you do realize that I work for a newspaper and have very little experience with academic writing, right? I mean, unless you want your term paper converted to AP style I don’t know how helpful this will be.”

      • People think there isn’t anything to copyediting beyond correcting basic errors in spelling and grammar. Style guide? What’s that?

      • BayTree said:

        Yes! Obscure creative jobs definitely get leeched on also. I do illustration, and can’t count the number of times people have asked me to design their [wedding card, business, charity, mom’s birthday present, etc]. For free. I usually just tell people exactly how much time it would take to do what they’re asking, and once they realize it’ll take fifty hours of labor they back off.

      • Manatee said:

        Having felt burned out from doing the same thing, now, unless it’s a really close friend who I am happy to do it for out of love, then I say ‘sure, here are my preferential rates for friends, let me know if that suits’, and if it doesn’t I link them to other editors who charge less than I do. And for the editing of my own work, which I can’t afford to pay for right now, I have set up an exchange system with another PhD student so we read/edit each other’s stuff for free.

      • Rana said:

        Oh, gosh yes. (Fellow editor high-five) I *do* do academic editing, which means I sometimes have friends who want me to work on their stuff for them. The good friends understand that I need to be paid for my work and are great clients and recommend me a lot; the mooches are both cheap and terrible clients and they never recommend me to other people either.

      • Leela said:

        Oh, man, I hear you. I’m a librarian and people have asked me to do their research for them- not “Here’s a list of sources” which I am fine doing if they ask me during work hours or even out of them if it’s a five-minute search for someone who’s not a pill, but, “Get the sources, check them out, read them and tell me what I need to know.”

        “Not happening,” is a complete sentence.

      • Bunny said:

        Even hobbies in creative fields have this! I recently finished knitting a cardigan for myself and posted the pictures on facebook, only to have a friend-of-a-friend I’ve not seen since I was a teenager comment asking me to make one for them. They were very keen when we discussed their sizing, yarn preferences and preferred colours, and totally okay when I explained that it’d taken me about 120 hours to make it. Then I asked for their email address so I could send them a list of options and prices and… never heard from them again.

        • Sarah in Tokyo said:

          I’ve had that happen, too! I was in the break room at a previous job, knitting a scarf to make a dent in my stash. Coworker rolls up and asks for it. I say sure, no problem, we can work out a price when it’s done.

          “You mean I have to /pay/ for it???”

          “For skilled labour and materials? Yes. Yes, you do.”

          And the subject never came up again.

          • Bunny said:

            “I have to PAY for it?!”

            No, no of course not. How silly of me. Of course [entitled person] can have this £25 worth of yarn plus 50 hours of labour for nothing. It’s not like I started making it planning to use it myself or anything. Would [entitled person] like to help themselves to my packed lunch, too?

    • Freya said:

      My parents and I have had that conversation, and now, if they are getting me to do something I could get someone to pay me for or in time I could be using to get paid, that they are paying me is the first thing they bring up. Along with how much and an estimate of how long they would like it to take.

      If I volunteer, that is a different thing; they do not pay me if I volunteer and I do not want them to – that’s why it’s volunteering.

      I HAD to get tough on them about this, and now I don’t resent them monopolising my time with trivial stuff, because they value my time and don’t do it.

  8. popesuburban said:

    When you tell someone, “Let me give you more of my time, and better-quality advice,” and they hear, “Ha, sucker, I rooked you for some delicious soup!” the problem is not with you. Alphakitty knocked this one out of the park. If using these excellent scripts to supplement your already-excellent skills and boundaries causes some people to withdraw a bit, I don’t think it’s so awful. You’ll still have a pretty big core group of good folks, and some acquaintances you’re no longer unwillingly playing the give-backsies game with. That sounds fairly rosy, really.

  9. Manatee said:

    In terms of moving forward, would being more wary of accepting help from the entitled members of the group again be an option for you? I know that, depending on the circumstances, there may be times when you really do need to rely on them, but reducing that as much as possible in favour of calling on your more chill, respectful friends for help might save you some stressful guilt tripping in the long run. I know that for me, someone using their act of kindness as an emotional bludgeon or bartering chip makes me stop trusting them to the point that I don’t want to ask them for help again unless it’s an absolute emergency.

  10. Copcher said:

    Wow, LW, some of your pals seem kind of unpleasant. I generally think of giving and taking as a way of describing friendships, not something that friends owe each other. I’m friends with people because I find them some combination of fun, interesting, and helpful, and I assume they find me to be a similar combination of those traits. But me being any of those things does not then mean I should expect the same things in return, or the other way around. So if I do something particularly interesting or tell a friend a really interesting thing, I don’t then expect them to be extra-interesting in return. Similarly, if I help a friend out, I don’t expect them to automatically be helpful in return. I like my friends enough that helping them out and seeing them get out of a crappy situation is sort of its own payback.

    If a friend started not being there for me, I would probably feel disappointed and I might talk to them about it, but not in the context of “I have helped you out and now you owe me,” just like if I started to have less fun than I used to with a particular friend, I wouldn’t say “I’m really awesome and you have become boring. Please be as awesome as I am from now on.”

    If any of your friends really feel like the “give and take” of your friendship is off balance, maybe they should take some time to re-think whether they want to be friends with you. If they do want to, they need to stop complaining because you don’t owe them anything. If they don’t want to, then, again, they need to stop complaining because you don’t owe them anything.

    • Miss_chevious said:

      So if I do something particularly interesting or tell a friend a really interesting thing, I don’t then expect them to be extra-interesting in return.

      I do. I demand a total parity of interesting comments, judged by me, and if you fall more than 100 comments out of balance, i will demand that you pay me 100 interesting comments instantly, just like bearcatbanana’s awful friend did. (I really cannot get over that.)

      • fir3dragon said:

        Oooh, I wanna see your Spreadsheet of Interestingness! Please share!

  11. I’m picturing your friends dropping off the soup along with their best Don Corleone impression: “One day perhaps you will be in a position to make soup for me.
    And Don Corleone gets his favors when he wants his favors! In the middle of a party or a concert or a friend’s baby shower, you will make him some goddamn soup!

    Since your relationship with your friends is presumably not Supplicant/Crime Lord, I heartily endorse Alphakitty’s scripts and advice, especially the part about not feeling guilty.

    • AnthroK8 said:

      Hahahahahah!!! I just typed out a disappeared comment where I said “hey this reminds me of an Anthropology thing.” I love so very much how this is getting a film studies treatment from the film person, too. And yeah… I always felt so bad for people on the end of the Don’s “generosity.” You knew they would return… and return… and return the favor forever and ever.

  12. Suzy said:

    You help friends because they’re your friends, not because you’re accumulating coupons to cash in on the LISTEN TO MY FEEEEEEEEEELINGS time. Doesn’t fucking work that way. Fuck that noise, that’s basic friendship 101. Makes me question how nice these people are?

    I hate ulterior motives. Why can’t people just do nice things for the sake of it?

  13. MeamI said:

    Commenting mostly to offer Jedi Hugs to you, OP, should you want them. You are awesome to an intimidating level!

    I agree entirely with Alphakitty’s advice, especially (as many above have already noted) the not feeling guilty part. Could you imagine this turned around? Someone isn’t free to help you move/bring you soup and you bully them by saying “well, I DID speak to you at [x party] when you were upset about [x]!!” That would be utterly ridiculous, and so is the entitlement pity party going on now.

    You aren’t being dismissive of their problems; you are, in fact, being kind to give them a definite time and private place to discuss their concerns.

  14. Basically, I think you’re doing everything right: you are setting your boundaries in a way that leaves you most able to care for yourself and people you love, and you are communicating those boundaries in a clear, respectful way. You do you, and feel free to forgive yourself for not being everything other people want you to be for them. The playing of triumphant music is also encouraged.

  15. Medusa in the Mirror said:

    THose times when I am needy and ask for help, I try to be very aware that if I can’t take “no” for an answer then my request isn’t really a request, and I’d better say nothing. I may be in physical or emotional pain and not thinking straight, and frantic in my need, but it’s my need, not their responsibility.

    I remember one time when I was in serious back pain at a camping event and asked a close friend with whom I often exchanged massage if she could work on me. She said she could give me 15 minutes, and I was so very grateful. Later she told me that it was very hard for her to set that boundary and she was amazed at my willingness and thankfulness, not because of any interaction she and I ever had, but because of how others in her life had reacted to boundaries being stated. It ended up being a great experience for both of us. More recently I found myself asking another friend if I could stay at her place on short notice, and she was waffling and clearly having a hard time, and I found myself saying, “It sounds like you want to say no. It’s OK to say no.” (And the sooner you say no, the sooner I can find a place to stay for the night.) It was sort of awkward, and I had just about resolved to never ask her again to avoid that awkwardness, when we talked and agreed that I was a safe person for her to set boundaries with, so I can ask, and she can respond how she needs to.

    That said, we’re all human (I think), and we get to set out limits and they can change without notice. We all get ot be needy sometimes, too. The basic social contract is to recognize that human-ness and act accordingly.

    tl:dr If someone can’t take no for an answer, it’s not a request. Friends don’t order friends around.

    • I don’t agree that it’s only ok to ask for wants, not needs. You just need to not lay your desperation on the line until they feel trapped, especially if what you’re asking is arguably disproportionate to your relationship. If someone I knew was going to be on the street, I’d rather they asked for a month in my spare room than that they said “I need it too badly! I mustn’t ask!”

      The flip side is that you shouldn’t offer (or agree to give) assistance as if it were an open-hearted gift if you’re going to resent the person for taking you up on the offer unless you get something back. That’s basically changing the terms of a bargain after it has been struck.

      • Medusa in the Mirror said:

        I’m pretty clear that what I’m asking for I need, but I also need to know my friends can say no if they need to. Partly to avoid that resentment, not due to reciprocity, but because they really can’t openly offer what I need, and will say yes only because they don’t know how to say no. Then, I have an almost pathological fear of being tolerated rather than welcomed. As a result, I try to only ask things of people I trust to know their boundaries.

        I was once in pretty much the situation you referenced, where my housing fell through in the winter and a friend offered my, unasked, a spare room in her house. She quickly turned resentful. Turns out she felt guilty for having a big house to herself and felt she had to offer. But, really, she needed her space all to herself. It wasn’t fun. Our friendship would have fared better had she been clearer about her needs and motivations.

        Those friends cornering LW at parties may be frantically in need (bursting into tears can be a sign of someone at their breaking point.) but if LW isn’t in a position to help in the way they feel they need, she’s just not. I liked the suggestion of offering to go into the bathroom with them so they can splash water on their face and regroup, then pass them off to someone more able to help.

  16. clodia said:

    The one thing I’d add to the excellent advice already left here is to ask if these friends of yours who are hurt by your refusal to hear them out continue to feel hurt after the crisis has passed? It can be easy to be so caught up in the emotions of the moment such that you do not take other people’s perspective into account. While that is not optimal behavior, I find myself a little more forgiving of people who have suboptimal expressions of emotions but then, at a calmer moment, will take the time to reflect and listen to what they couldn’t at that time.

    From your letter, it sounds like you’ve expressed your needs not just in the moment, but in calm discussions where there is no urgent matter consuming anyone else’s attention. It further sounds like those couple of friends still do not appreciate your position, even when they’re past their crisis. If this is true, then I do not see what else you can do but reinforce your boundaries.

  17. AnthroK8 said:

    It seems like there is a sort of friendship reciprocity screw-up going on here, where your friends are mistaking one kind of balance in friendship for another.

    Anthro moment on reciprocity, because you all haven’t got enough to do already! Especially scholars of all stripes!

    [break for definitions]

    Reciprocity= exchange. Sometimes labor or stuff or money. Sometimes any number of other things.

    Generalized reciprocity is when there is an idea that if a party provides something to another party, there will be a return on that giving sometime in the future, and it will come out roughly fairly. “In the future” can mean lots of things, and so can “roughly fairly.” When parents provide support for kids, knowing their children will be emotional, social, and maybe financial supports later in life is an example.

    Balanced reciprocity is when there is an expectation of return within a fixed time frame, and with a fairly structured expectation of how much. This is why gift giving around Valentines day with a new *hug* can be so fraught. It’s a straight ticket to Discomfort Town when you buy, say, a fun card and a six-dollar TARDIS phone charm, and they show up with 52 dozen roses, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and David Tennant’s trench coat. There has been a miscalculation of what an appropriate exchange is, and now things are out of balance– and not just in the matter of gifts, right?

    Negative reciprocity is when both parties are expecting to do better out a deal than the other party. Bartering, for example, or making other kinds of trades can be like this. We all know picking up a valuable TARDIS bank for nothing at a car boot sale when the seller thought it was junk and let it go for a song is a good deal, right? But sometimes it can be sort of cheat-ey and unfair when these trades happen. Lying about what you are selling, for example, can be like that.

    [/ break for definitions]

    Friendships tend to work within generalized reciprocity frames. You know you get what you need from your friends, and they get what you need from you, more or less. Sometimes they help you out a lot and sometimes later down the road you help them and it all works out. Sometimes they provide lots of support after surgery and you are just awesome and wonderful and make a great friend and balance is maintained. If there is a long-lasting deficit, this is when friendships run into trouble.

    But this seems like your entitled friends are seeing things as a balanced reciprocity issue. If they don’t get a “return” on friendship in a “reasonable” amount of time in the “right” amount, you have somehow turned a balanced reciprocal exchange into a negative exchange where you “win.”

    And… no. Just no. How tiring is that to manage? So tiring.

    Being compassionate probably means you are also really attuned to social dynamics as well as individual feelings things. You can be seeing this sort of warping of the social fabric, where there is mistaking one kind of exchange for another, and your fraught friends are just feeling pressure and feeling like they can ask you for help because the balance sheet of support is saying they can. Maybe they don’t feel entitled to ask anyone else.

    But friendships don’t work like this. 1 move + 2 soups =/= 2 listening sessions at a party. If you don’t have the spoons that day, you don’t have them. And other friends are supposed to be good, kind friends, too. They can ask them! It will work out!

    Which is a long, I have lots to do but would rather witter online, way of saying… ugh. UGH. Your friends are lucky to have someone who is aware of and sensitive to these things. Hopefully they’ll pick up on your gentle redirection. But the bald-mirror-holding tactic? Totally fair. 2 soups =/= 1 counseling. You are not a reciprocity cheat.

    Also: It took me a long, long time to realize this in my own friendships. Which is probably why I have a handy model all worked out in my own head.

    • SadieBlake said:

      That is an awesome response.

      Also, your Valentine’s Day example? Happened to me. Well, not exactly – but it was funny boxers and a stuffed gorilla vs. a “no strings attached, just wanted to get you something pretty” diamond ring. Welcome to Awkwardtown. (And he wasn’t even one of the abusive ones.)

      LW, I think everyone here’s pretty much nailed it. You are awesome, and in reality you are doing your friends a favor by making sure that you are in the best possible space before you help them tackle their problems (which you totally aren’t obligated to do in the first place!).

      You could take on their distress right there and then, sure, and chances are it wouldn’t be as good or helpful as you’d want it to be – because you’re not at your best. It’s entirely possible that you could end up giving less-than-helpful advice, or just totally snapping, and doing more damage to someone who is already dealing with something tough. I know that’s not something you want, and I’m pretty sure your friends wouldn’t want that either.

      To put it in an analogy your friends would probably get: They want soup. But you’ve been ladling out soup all day, and the little bit you can scrape together at the bottom of the pot is cold, and kinda gross, and doesn’t have any of the good chunky bits in it. If they wait until Friday, you can make a brand-new pot of soup, hot and fresh, just for them. Wouldn’t they rather have homemade just-for-them soup than bottom-of-the-barrel leftover soup?

      So yeah. Keep being awesome – you’ve got this. 🙂

      • Emmers said:

        A guy I dated briefly showed up to our first date with a dozen red roses. He wasn’t a bad guy (if a little awkward), he just had different ideas about relationship structure and balance than I had. Those differences aren’t bad; they’re just signals that maybe there’s not so much there in the way of compatibility.

    • FlyBy said:

      Thank you for that Anthro moment! Is there a separate designation for people who assume favors will be offered (such as ‘we’re going to the same school? Great, carpool!), or does that fall under the balanced reciprocity heading? Or possibly a psychiatric heading rather than an anthropology one?

      • AnthroK8 said:

        Hm. I guess that’s a case of someone raised in one cultural/subcultural setting bumping up against another person raised in a different cultural/subcultural setting. (Unless it’s a totally out of bounds violation of social norms, and then it’s a violation of social norms.)

        I was raised in a military family. In US military communities, it is pretty much exactly common to offer people places to stay, and just be relaxed about folks in and out of your house at the last minute. There’s so much “the General’s wife has cancer and they have to go stateside tomorrow… quick, someone throw a formal party!” or “they moved here but their housing isn’t ready, get out the air mattress” not to. So they “great! Carpool!” thing? Not THAT weird where I was raised. (Maybe a little weird.) Mostly because you know you yourself will need serious help from someone sometime down the line, so you offer when you can.

        But not all communities are like that- some people/in some places don’t think of themselves as generally obliged to make space for people/ share rides/ throw events. It’s more formal, more carefully described, and less common. It makes a lot of sense- there isn’t a massive moving population of people who have to rely on people for housing/childcare/packing help that never goes away, and where everyone ends up in all of the boats at some point. Why would you necessarily need that sort of communal mutual aid?

        When you have those two sets of expectations of offering help/hospitality run into each other, things get weird. (My mom’s relatives are still confused by the way things are in my parents’ house, 40 years after she married my dad. We think they are weirdly worried about cleaning the basement before guests come over.) Both are totally socially acceptable within the range of American social norms about hospitality, but they don’t mesh.

        Which is why word-using and being aware that people do things differently, even people from your own community, is crucial. Otherwise Party I is thinking “why do those people never offer to help, and why don’t they ever ask?” And Party II is thinking “do those people not get that we don’t run a bus service? And that we got transport covered?”

        Of course, if they expect to carpool but never drive or pay for gas or anything? That’s social norm violating.

        • FlyBy said:

          Thanks for the reply! This situation was certainly violating local norms – they were the only family out of a group of a dozen or so that assumed favors were granted rather than asking for them. They were in the same demographic and same background as the rest of us, but there may have been a family history that included no boundaries at all. The family itself certainly had no boundaries, which rubbed everyone in the group the wrong way. It’s interesting to look at through the anthro framework.

          • Manatee said:

            Out of interest, how did/do you think they’d respond to ‘sure thing, I’ll work out what you need to chip in for gas and get back to you’ + big smile? Some people with no boundaries are ok when others set them, some are terrible!

            (Also loving the anthro perspective AnthroK8)

  18. bluegirl said:

    Lately I’ve been doing exactly the things that alphakitty suggests, and while it’s been really liberating to say “I’m sorry, I can’t do that for you right now,” and various equivalents, I’ve been struggling a bit with the pushback, and the accusation that I’m a selfish friend and I don’t give as much as I get in the friendship. I guess this post didn’t really say anything I don’t know or haven’t been doing, but it’s so, so reassuring to see someone else say it.

  19. Rose Fox said:

    I’ve been dealing with the opposite problem, that of thinking “but I oooowe them!”. Good on you for enforcing your boundaries!

    • For you, study up on AnthroK8’s awesome post on reciprocity! And I can give you an anecdote on letting things unfold…

      In Post #390, I indirectly pay homage to the woman who organized a casserole brigade when my daughter was in pediatric ICU with kidney failure. She did more: when the doctor said “Go home, pack a bag, and drive her directly to [the big teaching hospital an hour away],” I called that friend (the first person who came to mind, though we weren’t actually super-close), told her what the doctor said, and said “can you come get [my son]?” She jumped in her car and came and got him and I knew I did not have to give him another thought because this wonderful woman had him, so he was safe and happy and loved, and whatever the heck he needed she would make sure he had. Plus, she was probably on the phone organizing that casserole brigade before we even got to the hospital!

      Years passed (like, 4 or 5? I forget how old her youngest is). All I’d ever done for her was say thanks. She wouldn’t have wanted more, because to her it was like, “duh, that’s what friends do.”

      She had her third baby. There were some complications that kept her in the hospital afterward; I hadn’t even visited, but had run into her husband and said a casual “if there’s anything I can do, let me know.” Things got worse. She was rushed to the big teaching hospital. She almost died. Her freaked out husband remembered me saying “If there’s anything I can do….” (and our older kids meshed well; her older daughter was a year older than my daughter who was a year older than her son who was a year older than my son) so my husband and I wound up taking care of her 3 kids, including the newborn, for 2 weeks so he could be by her bedside. (With lots of help from other casserole-brigade-type people, who helped with food, laundry and getting kids to music lessons and such).

      Perhaps it’s strange, but to me this is actually a really happy story! Everyone is well. Our friendships were strengthened, never strained, because neither of us felt guilty about asking for help we absolutely needed, or resented someone asking rather a lot of us on no notice at all.

      The moral, to my mind, is that people who are in a big hurry to collect on what they think is owed them are fools; they should hope they never truly need it, but trust that if they are putting good stuff into the world, good stuff will be there for them if they do.

      For you? You will have ample opportunities to do kindnesses for others. And you will do them with pleasure. I don’t doubt it a bit.

      • Rose Fox said:

        Aw, thank you so much! That’s really sweet of you, and very helpful to hear, especially the last paragraph.

    • Jane said:

      Yeah, this is the end I’m on too — more along the lines of, “But I must earn my right to be here by doing x number of nice things, and in return, I may expect people to treat me like a Real Human Being!” as well as the ever-deadly, “Have I put enough favors in the universal goodwill savings bank to expect help from anyone if I need it?” Which of course is an incredibly panic-inducing cycle — I always feel like I’m desperately trying to catch up with the favors people have done me (a feeling that is exaggerated right now, because I just moved to a new country and needed lots of help to organize said new life.)

      • Boy can I relate to that comment. Nice to know I’m not alone.

        I’m still not great at asking for help even when I do need it, but I’m seeing progress.

  20. Fellow social worker here! And there are definitely times where I want to be more “social” than “work”.

    A couple of things – do you have a professional supervisor? Because they are often a wealth of experience about being awesome in public and how do deal with it, and while some of the experience is about managing friend expectations, some of this is about maintaining respect for our professional madskillz.

    Also, I personally have developed a zero shame approach to telling friends that “Yes, I am awesome, but I think you might need to talk to social-worker-who-is-not-me, who will be also awesome and on your side. I am to close to this, and if I have to choose between being your professional and being your friend, I choose your friendship. I hope you understand”

    Last resort – enlist your supportive friends to chime in “geez, give GOAWAY a night off!”

    • staranise said:

      Counsellor here. I’ve taken to using a benign, slightly-bland expression of awed concern, paired with a soft, “Wow. Maybe you should speak to a therapist about that. Sounds intense.”

      • I think my new favorite sentence is going to be “Wow, maybe you should talk to a professional about this.”

        It has so many uses and is hard to argue against.

    • MamaCheshire said:

      Almost-social worker here (on target to have my MSW in May and then sit the LMSW licensing exam) and these are my limits for people I know and interact with socially:

      #1: If we’re in crisis-intervention territory, EVERYONE I know socially, from “just met 10 minutes ago” to my own spouse gets the “Are you safe?” script. If I cannot get a clear “yes” in response to that question, someone-who-is-a-professional-and-not-me must get involved ASAP.

      #2: I will do one-off I&R (information and referral) and time-limited specific advocacy stuff for those areas I have advocacy expertise in for friends/co-workers/etc. Usually, this takes the form of “tips and tricks for navigating social safety net programs.” I will only do this one-on-one and privately, and will NOT do it in the middle of a social event for obvious reasons. “Put it in an e-mail and I’ll take a look at $MORE_APPROPRIATE_TIME, ok?” is my script.

      #3: I will recommend professionals or talk about what to look for in a professional. But anything that is the vaguest bit clinical? I will not actually DO. It could get me in trouble, and I have a history that involves two different mental health “professionals” at two very different times in my life basically deciding they are above such petty concerns as interpersonal boundaries. Hilarity did not ensue, and so I will not Go There with ANY social contact, except in a crisis-intervention situation long enough to pass the situation off to a professional-who-is-not-me.

  21. Jean said:

    Hmmm. While I am not a social worker, I do also give off “lean on me” pheremones, and have found it challenging while I’m going through tough times of my own.

    But if I might make a gentle comment? It’s not clear from your letter how often the follow-up conversations really happen. Like, do you actually schedule quiet time to hear about the problem? That might be the source of some of the consternation.

    I went through this with an (ex) friend a few years ago. After helping her through her own travails, when I lost my job I kept hearing, “oh, we’ll have dinner soon and talk about it”, and then she was busy. Permanently.

    So I would think about two things: 1) How committed are you to having the conversation later? If you are prepared to follow-up, then do it. Call them the next day and book that quiet dinner, or coffee or whatever. It may have taken some courage on their part to bring up the problem at all, and they may not feel up to pestering you to make that date.
    If you are really not up to hearing about their problems, and need a break of some period of time, then be up front about that. Don’t promise quiet dinners that you are not prepared to go through with. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but stringing people along doesn’t help either.

    2) Be prepared for some angst. I agree that full on reciprocity is not cool, but friendship is a give and take situation. Nobody likes to feel that they are being taken advantage of. If you are the kind of person who needs to shut off social worker mode and not hear about your friend’s problems in general social situations, or at all, then you have to accept that some of your friends won’t like this.

    • It might also be good, even if you are already serious, to be sure you’re conveying that to the person you’re talking to. I always hear things like “can we do this alone later?” as a brush-off even if it’s not, and never bring it up again. If they bring it up, I usually tell them it’s over and I’m fine now, because they already made it clear they didn’t want to hear about it, right*? So. In the case of people like me, specific times and places to meet are really important to hear, but directly acknowledging that they might think you’re brushing them off also helps. “I know that might have sounded like I’m shutting you down, but I’m not. Really. You sound like you need to talk to someone and I want to be there. Come to my house on Tuesday. I’ll make soup,” or some variation on that theme really helps to hear.

      *working on this. A delayed sandwich is still a sandwich, I am learning recently.

      • R.J. said:

        Oh, my goodness gracious, yes! “Can we talk about this later?” ensures that I will never, maybe ever, tell you what was going on. It also helps make sure that I will probably not open up to you much in the future, and for me, if I can’t be emotionally open with somebody we are not going to be close friends. Buddies, but not close friends.
        “Can we talk about this tomorrow when it’s just the two of us?” will get me to hug you, thank you, and save it all for tomorrow. Knowing I am worth planning for is often all I need to be able to get through whatever is going on that makes it a bad time for you to talk to me about my problem.

        • I hope you’re not as absolute about that as you sound, because it seems sort of hidden test-ish to me. “If you don’t say just the right words, despite not having a script to tell you what those right words are, I’m going to write you off as selfish, shallow and unworthy of my confidences.” Yes, I know it’s ideal if the other person *suggests* the “how about tomorrow?” However:

          (a) They’re at a party, relaxing and talking to a friend, maybe after they’ve had a drink or few. They weren’t given an advance copy of the script in your head or any kind of heads up that you have a crisis on. Nor do they know it’s a test, or how much it means to you that they say just the right thing tonight (compared to all the other times some friend has vented to them). They may figure if you really want to follow up you’ll take them up on the vague offer and if you don’t, well that’s up to you… which suggests that it may be worth at least saying “That would be awesome, what’s your calendar look like this week?” before you consign their friendship to the dustbin.

          (b) Your friends are people too, with their own crap going on. Just because on this occasion they don’t have what it takes to be the one who’s there for you doesn’t mean they’re selfish and awful. People have crunch-times in their jobs and personal/family lives, or physical- or mental-health bleak periods, during which fitting in even a coffee date would be one thing too damned many, or when they are so overwhelmed by their own problems that the thought of trying to take on even one little bit of someone else’s makes them feel desperate. Just because you don’t know that those things exist or what they are doesn’t mean they are not real.

          What are they doing at a party, then? Same thing you are! Trying to cheer themselves up! Doing the “if you act like you’re happy maybe you’ll fool yourself” thing, or maybe the “if I stay home tonight with naught but my own thoughts for company I’ll lose it” thing. Consider cutting your people some slack, giving them more than one chance to be there for you. Maybe take a closer look at them, and say “hey, are YOU ok?” And if you can’t do the latter — if you just don’t have the extra resources to probe beneath the surface, maybe you shouldn’t be too quick to judge them for not having anything to spare, either

          • goldenpeanut said:

            Wow. (h/t C. Hax) I think that’s kind of harsh. Phrases like “Let’s do this later”, “Perhaps another time”, and variants thereof *are* common brush-off techniques. Few people have the skill set or the circumstances to issue flat out nos, so we all learn to give and hear indirect nos. I don’t think that wanting to hear that this is not a brush off is testing people or expecting them to read your mind. Rather, I think that RJ and CheckeredFoxglove both provided helpful scripts for people who need to say no in the moment, but yes to later on, and who want to be clear that there really is a yes in there.

          • Yeah, those phrases can be a brush-off. But they aren’t always. It just seems to me that friends deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that sorting friends into keeper vs. discard piles based on whether they volunteer “how about tomorrow?” or not is what’s harsh. They may genuinely care, but depending on what they’re facing in their own lives, either right this instant or tomorrow or even some time this week may not be viable options, for reasons you would totally support if you only knew. But you don’t always. And what a shame to have sorted a friend into the discard (or “superficial friendship” pile) because unbeknownst to you they were going through their own rough patch.

            What it it’s “I can’t do this right now or I’ll shatter into a thousand pieces and I still have to get home on the subway?”

          • Perhaps I should clarify. I agree the scripts are great.

            I’m just speaking as someone who forgets names within seconds of hearing them, who has forgotten to serve the ice cream at her kids’ birthday parties a zillion times because she got frazzled, who goes home after receiving a gift/kindness and asks herself worriedly “Did I explicitly say thank you, or just vague appreciative stuff? Shit! I’m not sure!”, who as a lawyer was a phenomenal brief writer but not so good at oral argument, because her brain never seems to find the right thing to say in the moment, but damn is it good on reflection. So I’m a little sensitive about the idea that failure to respond in the approved manner on the spot means one is a shitheel. There’s gotta be some room for caring ineptitude.

          • unlurking said:

            (Hi alphakitty I 100% hear what you’re saying and i’d love to be friends with you. Because sometimes I say the wrong things. But even more than that, I have massive /fear/ of sometimes saying a wrong thing, and thereby losing the people I love – because it has happened. So to hear that there are lots more people I /could/ potentially lose over a reply that wasn’t deemed loving enough, even though it was full of love… D: Goodwill and trust in both directions are big with me.)

  22. The responses here so far have all been fantastic but, here’s my two cents.

    Firstly, as AlphaKitty said, you are an Amazing, Awesome person. Like, seriously.

    Now I know that you want to help your friends, they’re your friends and they helped you so of course you want to do the same for them however, you have to do it on your terms and in all situations, your health and well-being comes first! No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.
    As someone also in healthcare, I get my fair share of friends and family coming to me asking for medical advice or support BUT, throughout my training so far (I’m still training), we have been told time and again that we are not our friends’ personal doctors. If someone wants to ask me something about their medical conditions, I currently encourage them to see their own doctor (because I’m not qualified yet) and once I am qualified, they can see me within consulting hours where I am covered by my insurance and I have proper documentation OR if it’s urgent, I tell them to go to the emergency department.

    Now I’m not saying you should do this 100% but maybe take a little leaf out of this book.
    If Right Now is not the proper time (like at parties, that’s just such a social faux pas unless it’s an emergency), suggest a better one. Even invite them to make an appointment with you or as you’ve already done, invite them to dinner/coffee.

    Lend them emotional support at the time by giving them a hug and saying “It’s okay, I do want to support you and I know it’s hard, but I think it would be better if we had a private chat over coffee or dinner some other time. I don’t think here and now is the best place for us to do this because I won’t be able to give you the attention and thoughtfulness you deserve.”

    And as others have said, stick with the script. People will either accept it, or they won’t and the ones that won’t will just be a drain on your scant emotional resources and no matter what, you have to put yourself first and distance yourself from those people’s problems until you can deal with them properly because it isn’t fair on your or them.

    If it were me, I wouldn’t set myself up as the Friend Who Gives Free Therapy at all because it will just lead to burnout. Your job is already emotionally draining and if your friends are using your recharge time to drain it further, then you’re in trouble. You will burn out. It will affect your job and it is incredibly harmful to yourself.

    So look after yourself, be selfish with your emotional battery and stay Awesome.

    • emmych said:

      I disagree with the idea that GOAWAY is setting themself up for FEELINGSDUMPS~, actually — as another bearer of FEELINGSDUMP attracting genes, it’s just a thing that happens when you’re compassionate with people, especially if you’re the type who is willing, on occassion, to dole out some free therapy. I mean, if you’ve chosen a certain profession, something pulled you there. I’m going into Social Work because I like helping people, and that naturally plays out in my interactions with my friends and loved ones!

      It’s not a matter of whether or not a person is seen as a source of advice and wisdom (I mean we all have that one friend that folks know gives the best advice, right?), it’s a matter of the people asking for help understanding when no means no, and that their wise, awesome, smart friend does not exist simply to dole out wisdom when pushed for it.

  23. Guava said:

    Awesome advice from Alphakitty! I am also one of those people that gets cornered at parties by weeping individuals who are looking for some love and attention…though in my case, sometimes they are total strangers, drawn to the magnetic, invisible Compassion! chip in my forehead that I cannot seem to disable.

    One coping skill worked well for me in the final stages of a now-defunct friendship with an emotional vampire who was ALWAYS cornering me in social functions and bursting into tears by way of a greeting…which she would then use to leverage difficult, draining favors from me…which I would feel obligated to offer because she brought me tea once when I was sick, and then used that to cash in on 1,000 favors afterward.

    Here it is: When the person starts in, I fold my arms across my chest and repeat: “I’m sorry.” I don’t say it as if I’m apologizing, but as if I’m being sympathetic, and I also don’t offer them anything else. I do not hug them. I do not offer a solution to their woes. I do not offer any insights about their situation. I let them talk for a little while and then exit the conversation. If they ask me what I think, I’ll say, “Ugh…geez…I don’t know.” If the person asks me for something directly, I’ll say, “I’m sorry…but I can’t today.”

    I would never use this approach with a good friend, but it works like a charm on the more one-sided, user-type acquaintances. Because after a few minutes, they realize that I have nothing to offer them, and they move on to a more willing victim.

  24. emmych said:

    Ah, LW — while I’m not in the field yet (Social Work fist bumps!), I also have the Kindness-Spewing Pheromones and feel your pain tenfold. Jedi Hugs and another voice saying, fuck yeah, you deserve your responsibility-free time!

    This is also really awesome advice for people who have trouble saying no, or feel responsibility about things maybe they shouldn’t feel responsible for (i.e. other people’s feelings). Sometimes, you gotta look out for #1, even if it means you can’t listen to Becky’s worries about her partner, or how sad Greg is about his kid moving away RIGHT NOW. In times of crisis, some people seem to think that, since their issues are the centre of their world, they must become the centre of everyone else’s, which is just not true. It doesn’t matter if your dog just died, or your mom just moved to Kalamazoo to research butterflies without saying goodbye, or whatever other crisis arises — if I am having to take time out to look after myself in this moment, I am certainly not able to look after you. Look elsewhere for support, yo! It’s nothing personal — my hands are just too full making sure I don’t keel over!

    It’s defs good to be there for your friends, because I do feel there is a certain amount of reciprocity needed for any relationship. After all, if you have no love or time or respect to offer someone, why on earth should they offer any to you? I feel like folks just need to realize that “give and take” isn’t such a literal, “I did x so you owe me y” thing — it just means that sometimes things will be equal, sometimes you’ll have to be the one taking care, and sometimes you’ll need taking care of, and that this is normal and okay.

    Also, this quote:
    ‘”That’s like unplugging my phone when it’s at 2% and plugging yours in, when this is my only time to charge it!”’
    CAN I JUST SAY THIS IS THE BEST LINE EVER AND THAT I WILL USE IT THE NEXT TIME I HAVE CO-WORKERS GETTING MAD THAT I WON’T TAKE THEIR SHIFT AFTER I’VE ALREADY BEEN WORKING FOR TWO STRAIGHT WEEKS

    Excellent post all around, AlphaKitty! I love love love this advice, since it’s something I struggle with from time to time. Also, it’s nice getting a reminder that hey I’m allowed to have time to myself to recharge, and I’m not a MISERABLE HUMAN BEING for not wanting to listen to someone else’s woes 24/7.

  25. Minty said:

    LW, you have my sympathy. My girlfriend is currently in a similar situation to yours, with a close friend who thinks that “but I have FEELINGS and I want to tell you about them” should be more important than anything my girlfriend might be doing (including sleeping, when Friend is particularly upset.)
    I’ve been struggling to figure out how much I can/should do about it, since it doesn’t exactly involve me. On the one hand, I want to let GF handle it how she wants to. On the other hand, what I’d like to do is inform Friend that I refuse to be in the same room with her until she learns how to take no for an answer. She doesn’t ever really do it to me! But lately she is a ticking time bomb of superficially okay but actually pushy and belittling comments (“You don’t want to go to [place] with me because you’ve had a bad day? Psh, it can’t have been as bad as mine!”) and it’s really starting to get to me.

    • Well, as she’s affecting you directly, this so called friend, you can absolutely stand up for yourself. I would maybe talk it over with your GF in private first and use the same kind of scripts. It’s not required but it might make things easier if so called friend doesn’t see any weaknesses she can go after like the feelingsbombing bloodhound she is. Good luck!

    • popesuburban said:

      In horror movies, it’s usually the accepted practice to let someone know if there is a vampire hanging about, waiting to bite them. Your girlfriend’s friend is a vampire. Biiiiig fangy teeth, huge bloodlust, very sneaky, and perhaps possessed of mind-control powers that keep victims from knowing they’ve got fangs in them. So follow the horror-movie script and let your girlfriend know there is a vampire behind her, and that you’ve got stakes and garlic if she wants them.

    • sam said:

      ah. self-absorption. I actually lost a friend once over this. back in college, roommate and I had a mutual friend who was working/interning down in florida for [major theme park] for a semester. She was lonely and would often get off shift very late in the evening and call, which was annoying. One night, she calls at 2am and wakes me up, and then, even after I pointed out (in my grogginess) that it was 2am, demanded that I wake roommate up to speak because I wasn’t willing to chat. I, knowing that roomate had a final at 8am, refused to do any such thing. Florida friend refused to ever speak to me again, to the point of hanging up on me if I answered the phone roommate and I shared. Roommate, on the other hand, was very grateful that I didn’t wake her up.

      • Wow. (Wow to a lot of these “friends” in the comments!)

        Never being spoken to by that person again sounds to me like the best possible result.

    • Manatee said:

      As someone who had a tendency to get into abusive/manipulative relationships and friendships I have always really appreciated the few times a real friend stepped in and said to me (in private) ‘hey, that person’s not really treating you very well, are you ok with that?’ The fact that you don’t want to control how your gf deals with the situation suggests you would be totally awesome at doing that in a super supportive way.

      Oh and you could always suggest that the ringtone for that caller gets switched to silent after a certain time. Wish I’d thought of that when I was ‘friends’ with my 3am caller!

  26. To help you fight the guilt, LW;

    Earlier this year I hit a big mental health crisis. Completely unable to think, I called the last person I had spoken to, a friend with benefits I liked but didn’t know that well, and sobbed down the phone at him.

    He said “I can’t help you. I will help you find any help you need and pass this message on to any person you wish me too, but I can’t be that person for you and I’m sorry.”

    Even in crisis I understood, and he passed my message on to a close girlfriend who in turn helped me access medical care. I can see now that he really didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with my complex shit, and his washing his hands of me was the vital first step in my taking my problem seriously. I think of his words as one of the kindest and most compassionate things anyone has ever said to me.

    I wish you all the best in your boundary setting.

  27. twomoogles said:

    Good timing for this letter for me. Many, many of my friends (both on and offline) spend a *lot* of time telling me how they are ‘always the giver’ in their relationship and never the taker, they feel used by their friends, they give and give and are super supportive but then when they need help their friends aren’t there. I was wondering if I just attract a lot of people who have this personality, or if it’s a perception thing.

    This letter really made me look at some of the people saying this–I think some of them might be like the LW’s friends. That is, they ‘give and give’ and remember every incidence when they do. And then they ask for reciprocity in really inappropriate circumstances, forget the times when their friends *did* do things back, and remember the times when their friends couldn’t.

    The LW here seems really thoughtful and clear. She goes out of her way to mention the things her friends *did* do for her, whereas the flipside of this, people who insist they are ‘always givers’ can only talk about the times their friends *weren’t* there for them. And nobody can ‘be there’ for someone every single time.

    I got dubbed insensitive by a couple people after I had to straight up tell one friend I didn’t have the emotional energy to listen to her issues anymore. I still feel badly about that, but it became necessary. Still, I worry sometimes that people might think badly of me, and put me into ‘unsupportive friend’ box in their mind.

    • I think it’s a perception thing, and also it’s a self-centered thing. Like someone else says, when your world is exploding, it’s the MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER; but others many not feel that way.

      I think sometimes friendships work better as a community network, if you happen to be lucky enough to find one. Then when you need something, you can put out the word, and whoever happens to be able to help you that time is there. It works! Mostly you see it when someone goes to the hospital and then suddenly sixty people show up, or the like. Being tit-for-tat makes it impossible to work like this because in your crisis moment you’re expecting what you need from specific people.

      Your friends might also be the kind to never ask or let anyone know there’s a problem because OMG then people would know that they’re imperfect! And then resent not getting help. Which presumably would have to be psychic help or something, because your friends don’t know you’re struggling if you don’t tell them. Or tell them that you’re suffering but don’t tell them how to help. “I AM A SUCKING VORTEX OF NEED” makes friends sad and helpless, but “I CANNOT DEAL WITH THE FOODENING START THE CASSEROLE BRIGADE” means friends have something specific to do.

      I’m guilty of that, and didn’t even see it until my very best friend ever made an offhand comment about it one day, in a “oh everyone knows this about you” kind of way. I was like what? So I practiced and it sucked. Now I probably overshare. But OTOH, when I really really needed help from my friends, I was able to put up a post and make specific requests for help that would be meaningful to me and easy for them, and it totally worked.

      So… I dunno, but you could ask your complainy giver friends if they’ve asked for help lately. Or if instead they demand it, or ask only one person, or if they’re getting unrequited support from another source in the community. Also if they know how to say no. But also you can tell them to stop complaining at you?

      (Foodler gift certificates. If you’re in the US, check foodler.com. It might be only near colleges, I don’t know if they’ve expanded. Delivery restaurants partner with them and you order online, so the certificate is like a casserole brigade of Only What You Like To Eat.)

      • AllegroFox said:

        a) THE FOODENING is amazing and sounds like a horror movie I would like to watch, and
        b) The canadian/GTA equivalent of Foodler is Just-Eat (just-eat.ca) and it is amazing and I love it; especially since it means I never have to speak on the phone with a stranger when I am hungry. (I have phone-stranger mental blocks.)

  28. I have the opposite problem: people want me to talk to them about my problems (I was recently fired among other things) and I just don’t want to.

    • sam said:

      ugh. that’s the worst. both the being fired and the “what are you doing about it/how are you doing” questions. good luck to you!

      When I got laid off from my job (along with a whole host of others – firm is now in bankruptcy) I spent 2 years unemployed and looking for work. A former co-worker and I developed a strategy that included STRAIGHT UP telling people they weren’t allowed to ask how the job hunt was going anymore, because it created unneccesary pressure/guilt/shame spiraling/etc., with a hearty “Trust me, dad/frind/complete stranger – when I get a job, you will be the first person to know!”.

      and then co-worker and I would meet up regularly to have our own personal venting sessions, because it was significantly easier to talk about it with someone who was in the same situation rather than people who (well-meaning or not) didn’t quite understand why you didn’t have a job yet (wholesale contractions of your entire industry in the midst of the largest financial crisis since the great depression don’t make job-hunting any easier!).

      • I would definitely urge to try and tell people you don’t want to talk about it if you can. I realised recently that I basically spent the last 6 months nagging my friend about her job hunt, and that it was really stressing her out and I feel awful. Chances are these people don’t want to be making stuff worse for you!

        And major jedi-hugs if you want them. That is seriously tough.

    • I had this problem when my ex and I broke off our engagement. There were a couple of colleagues who would be like OMG YOU POOR THING HOW ARRRRRRRE YOOOOOOOU? every time they saw me, and I would give them a curt, ‘Fine thanks,’ and then they would gush OMG YR SO BRAAAAAAAAVE, ISN’T SHE BRAAAAAAVE and I would defensively detach from reality and slide sideways into a fantasy realm where I was punching them repeatedly in the face, while I waited for my paperwork to finish feeding through the office copier. How is it possible for people to be so invasively insensitive, seriously? Jedi hugs to you Monica!

  29. spinks said:

    There are a couple of things that come out to me from the OP. The first is that this behaviour has been going on for years, and the second is that OP notes that sometimes people will corner her in the kitchen and burst into tears. Note: this latter behaviour is not how friends normally interact in my experience, unless they are very close and one is in crisis, or one/both are very drunk.

    The reason this behaviour has been going on for years is probably because OP has been encouraging it. Often as we grow up, and especially as girls, we learn that people only value us because we help/support them. They like us for what we do for them, not who we are. Sometimes this leans into friendships where we feel we have to earn the love and trust of our friends in a transactional way. Being needed to be needed.

    If the friends comment that the balance in the relationship has changed recently, perhaps that is because it has — and that’s a good thing because being the public listening post may not be the role that she needs to have have in her friendship circle. Maybe training/ working as a social worker has opened her eyes to the need to set boundaries and safeguard her own mental health in her personal life; both of which are really positive things to learn.

    I agree 100% with alphakitty’s comments that OP sounds like an awesome person, with heaps of compassion and really well honed listening skills. And I hope her friends will appreciate how awesome she is, and be able to adapt and be proud of the even more awesome person that she is becoming. Good luck, your strategies for setting boundaries sound really good. And maybe it’s time to seek out new circles of friends if the behaviours in this group are really so engrained — not to drop your old friends, but to have some new options.

  30. I see this as being on the same scale as the Nice Guy. You know, the one who thinks that if he does enough “friendly” things for the object of his desire, he will eventually be able to exchange all those Friendship Points for either “Free Sex Ticket” or a one-time “Convert Friend to Girlfriend” marker. Except these want to exchange their FPs for non-sexual favours.

    • YES! This is totally basically the same thing.

  31. Careers adviser rather than social worker here, but I also get the “Ooh, whilst you’re here, can I just ask you…” treatment. A colleague of mine came up with this awesome flowchart for surviving New Year parties last year:

    http://careerslucy.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/the-careers-advisers-party-survival-guide/

    It might help you explain to friends that it’s not just about not wanting to hear about their problems, but also, you are not going to be able to concentrate properly or you might have been drinking or whatever if they approach you at parties. You’ve got a professional and ethical responsibility as well as your (entirely sensible!) desire to make sure you get a break, and that might be a useful screen to hide behind if your friends aren’t respecting your no.

    • That’s a great flowchart. I especially love that one of the options as a response to “What do you do?” is “Tequila shots!”

  32. mintylime said:

    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.

    Heck yes.

    For those people who keep mental spreadsheets and have soup-to-sobbing currency exchange values, I’d be tempted to say to “but youuuuu oooooooowwwwwwe meeee”, “Really? That wasn’t the exchange rate I agreed to in our friendship contract!” And let the sarcasm do the work for you.

  33. Boy can I relate to a lot of the comments in this thread. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I still get confused. I feel guilty for not providing the same level and consistency of support to one person and not another, regardless of my relationship with them.

    Another worry I have is a) people thinking I’m doing what I do because I want something from them or b) thinking I have no boundaries at all. So I sometimes find myself trying to strike the balance between being of help, but setting limits with them I don’t really need, because I want them to understand that I actually DO have those limits, even if they are different then most people’s If that makes sense.

    It’s an interesting journey though, especially when I’m reminded that 90% of the things that worry me are happening completely in my own head.

    • On the subject of fretting because you have received kindness from the world that you are not sure you have earned:

      You don’t actually believe the world is a meritocracy, do you? Where we all start out with equivalent opportunities, and people always get what they deserve? I bet not. I bet you’re well aware that some people start out with more of life’s blessings than others, and that crappy stuff happens all the time to people who have done nothing to deserve it. Car accidents happen, people get sick, jobs evaporate, other human beings do nasty stuff, etc. etc. You don’t sound like someone who would wail “why me???” when that happens, as if you think you’ve been singled out for ill treatment in an otherwise fair and balanced universe. You know shit happens.

      That being so, try to be as accepting of the occasions when it goes the other way — when you are the recipient of kindness that you can not honestly say you “deserved,” in the sense of having earned it in some particular way. To the extent good stuff even needs to be earned — that you can’t accept serendipity sometimes running in your favor — you’ve earned it just by trying to be as good a person as you can be, whether or not you’re always satisfied with the results (who is?). Try not to ruin the moments of grace with unwarranted guilt. Say “Huh! I guess grace happens, too!” Revel in them like sunshine.

      In a similar vein, if some people wind up getting more small kindnesses and support from their communities, it’s generally because they have had more of the crappy stuff happen to them, and that they are likable, so when crappy stuff happens other folks sincerely want to help! I don’t think either of those “imbalances” is anything to feel guilty about, either! Say, “huh! I guess I must be putting more good stuff in the world than I realized, that people want to be kind to me.”

      Finally, occasions to help fellow human beings should not be seen as necessarily a burden.* People like to feel connected. People like to feel generous. When a friend is hurting in whatever way, people like to feel like it is in their power to alleviate that at least a little. (Contrast that with how it feels when someone you care about is going through something shitty and there is not a bloody thing you can think of to do for them — which do *you* prefer?) So, instead of letting your guilt (or pride) poison the moment with a lot of “oh, you shouldn’t haves” and “this isn’t necessarys” because you feel morally obligated to push back that kindness, learn to say “thank you, this is wonderful, people have been so great, it’s almost worth the [crappy thing] to experience so much kindness!” Gracious acceptance is an art, and a beautiful one.

      And finally, like I said to Rose Fox above, you will have your chances to be kind, really you will.

      * (The people who are all whiny about having done nice stuff for friends and not gotten a “return”? As discussed extensively in this thread, totally *their* problem, for having wanted some particular return in the first place. Totally not worth worrying about ’em.)

      • To restate:

        If someone is giving you a casserole in an effort to lighten the burdens on your shoulders, and you in your guilt and pride imbue that casserole with so much Weighty Obligation that you are as burdened by accepting the casserole as you would have been by making your own darned dinner, you might as well throw the casserole away because you’ve ruined the point!

        It’s just a fucking casserole! An edible symbol of empathy and caring from someone else who knows shit happens and that it’s no reflection on your worth as a person that it has chosen you to happen to this time! Say “thanks, that’s very kind of you.” And even if you don’t care for whatever kind of casserole it is, let the fact of their caring brighten your day.

        • Leela said:

          Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is simply accept a kindness. I’m not good at that myself, but yes, sometimes a casserole is just cheese, mushroom, noodle and broccoli yumminess , and the proper and healthy thing to do is thank the giver and eat it.

  34. YB said:

    I was at the opposite end of your problem, LW. Several years ago (when we were both younger) I had a good friend who at one point was going through quite a rough patch. At one point our relationship because quite strained; during this patch they would quite often remark on how they felt no one was there for them. I ended up doing several things I regret in an attempt to prove I was a Good Friend. Fortunately, eventually I managed to figure out, oh yeah, I should probably Use My Words and Express My Boundaries. Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well; me setting boundaries made them push back. The comments increased in number and because increasingly passive-aggressive and I, unable to think of anything else at the time since I had already Used My Words, started keeping documentation so I could prove “No, I did this for you on X, see, I still care”. (In hindsight, not the best of ideas. Were that I could do it again, knowing what I do now I probably would instead have African Violet-ed them sooner than I did which would have been better for the both of us.)

    What I found that helped me the most was exactly what you are doing, LW. “I’m sorry I absolutely can’t drop [thing] right now, but my free days are [X] and [Y] and we can sit and talk or whatever else for as long as you need. When works for your schedule?” That was my boundary and it took some practice, but enforcing it gave me a little peace of mind back. I’ve since found that someone’s reaction to me enforcing that boundary tells me more about how much I want to be around them in the near future than just about anything else.

  35. 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.

  36. Blizzard674 said:

    This was really useful for me. I’ve struggled a lot recently and in the past with friends who are depressed and see me as one of their only outlets. While I’m happy they can come to me, want to be there for them and do devote time to listening, it’s very apparent that there’s only so much I can do. One friend always comes to me with her problems but will, without fail, shut down any of my advice. It’s exhausting. I’ve dealt with depression myself (and was probably rather needy at the time) so I try my hardest to be patient, but sometimes for that very reason I don’t have the emotional energy to help someone else. And when that is the case I almost invariably feel guilty.

    Anyway, there’s a lot of advice here about how to establish boundaries. What are some good tactics you all have used to determine what those boundaries should be?

    • First, when you say one person tells you his/her problems, then shuts down your advice, is it possible you’re misreading what he/she wants from you? It’d be a shame for you to be exhausting yourself trying to brainstorm solutions when all the person wanted was to vent, and for you to murmur sympathetically. Not only is murmuring sympathetically much less exhausting for you, it’s actually really annoying having someone problem-solve when you just wanted them to listen.

      Second, where/how to set your other boundaries depends totally on you, and what’s problematic about what’s happening now. Is it the setting, as in the OP? (Follow that advice). Is it subject matter (in which case you might say “this seems a little beyond my competence, perhaps you should speak to a professional”)? Frequency with one person (especially the same topics over and over, but not doing the things you’ve repeatedly suggested)? (Dealt with previously on this site, I believe). Cumulative effect of too many seekers in too short a time? People hitting you when you’re low yourself? (“I’m sorry, I relate a little too well; I’m afraid I don’t have it in me to be useful at the moment!”).

      In this context, boundary-setting is really about knowing the limits of what you can/want to offer and expressing that clearly and firmly, without guilt, on the “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others” theory.

    • Manatee said:

      Alpha Kitty’s excellent advice has it pretty much covered, but I also wanted to draw your attention to your own language. You talk about ‘determin[ing] what those boundaries should be’ (my emphasis). Maybe it will help you to think about it instead in terms of recognising what those boundaries are. ‘Should be’ implies that there is some sort of negotiation with society/your friends/someone other than you, or an external standard to be applied, but your boundaries are your own, they are simply the lines within which you feel comfortable with stuff, and are entirely subjective. Once you have determined those boundaries, i.e. worked out what you are and are not comfortable with, through honest dialogue with yourself, then by all means look outward when considering if and how you want to assert those boundaries, but starting with that completely subjective view of your own needs is a really good foundation as it gives you the ability to choose what compromises you want to make which may help your comfort levels when dealing with your friends.

  37. Jimmy James said:

    Its an odd thing, I know I am kind for the fact its the right thing to do. I don’t expect it to be returned. In fact I don’t want you to return it. In fact I prefer you take that kindness I give and give it to someone else. If you are being kind because you are expecting something in return, then you are doing it for the wrong reasons. So no one owes me anything, so I hope the kindness I give is given to someone else.

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