#633: My (mean)(depressed) friend

Hi Captain,

I’m worried about one of my friends, who I think is becoming depressed, a cycle I’ve seen her go through before. One of the things that makes me concerned is that she’s been lashing out at me lately and saying some pointed, personal, hurtful things to me. (Mainly being judgmental and critical about, say, my hobbies, or the way I approach my job, or asking how I am and then being very dismissive of my feelings.) As much as I’m worried, her meanness makes me really not want to talk to her or be around her at the moment. She doesn’t acknowledge the things she’s said as being hurtful, and hasn’t apologised which makes it hard for me to feel very accommodating – but knowing how she thinks, I’m sure she’s dwelling on it and feels awful, and bringing it up to clear the air will just feed the jerkbrain.

And yet, as much as I want to avoid her right now, and avoid the possibility of getting stung again, I’m still really worried. I’ve seen her seriously depressed before and I wouldn’t want her to think that if she’s really, truly desperate then she couldn’t reach out for me to help. I’m just not sure how to be supportive when I’m wary that even a message of caring and support could be met with an attack. Do you have any advice?

I do have advice. Surprise! 🙂

Call out the behavior as it happens. “Hey, that hurt my feelings.” “Hey, that was really out of line.” “Why did you ask me how I’m doing if all you’re going to do is be mean to me?” “That was rude.” And, I don’t think asking for an apology gets you a GOOD apology, but sometimes the act of asking for an apology can be helpful resolving an awkward conversation, in that it at least tells the person what a next step might look like. “That really hurt my feelings, I’d like you to stop saying things like that and also apologize.”

Being called out on crappy behavior might well start a jerkbrain spiral. Nobody likes hearing they are acting like a shitbeast, and if she’s already feeling terrible about herself, being called out on it won’t feel good. But if she’s acting like this because she’s having a depressive episode, she’s going to feel bad no matter what you say, and you putting up with mean behavior is bad for you and not actually helping her. It doesn’t actually feel good to take all of your filters off and just poop negativity onto everyone around you, and it can be a relief to have someone stop you if you can’t stop yourself. It’s honestly weirder and more alienating to have your bad behavior be totally ignored or coddled…like, “Can’t they even tell something is wrong?

Calling out the behavior is a way into the rest of the conversation, where you say “Friend, you’ve been really snarky and mean at me lately, and I don’t care for it. This kind of thing really isn’t like you, but it is like Depressed You.The only other times I’ve seen you acting like this, it’s been because something is very wrong. What’s really going on with you?” + “Can you check in with a counselor or doctor?”

You can make it clear that you don’t want to subject yourself to mean comments, while also telling her you care about her and are concerned for her well-being. It’s hard to be supportive to someone who doesn’t want your support, and it’s hard to be supportive and present for someone who is mean to you, so cut yourself some slack – if she responds to you with an outburst of mean things, it’s okay to get a little distance from her – give it a couple of weeks and then check back in to see if you get a better response, and then maybe go with short, easy hangouts in small doses or whatever you are comfortable with. Being honest about where your own boundaries lie is part of being a good friend.

56 thoughts on “#633: My (mean)(depressed) friend

  1. Seconding that letting all your negative shittiness out does not make you feel any better. Lashing out at people when you’re dealing with crap is easy to get into, but it doesn’t make you feel better at all. Mostly it makes you feel worse. So the friend is feeling like shit and lashing out and feeling like shit some more, and now you’re feeling like shit too. That’s a hell of a lot of shit. Minimizing the shit can only be a good thing. You can’t take away her shitty feelings (unfortunately they’re hers to deal with, even with support from others they’re still hers) but you can cut down on your own shitty feelings.
    Then you get friend feeling like shit, maybe not lashing out or not as much, and less followup shit for her, no followup shit for you. Less shit. Good things. It gives you more strength and energy and desire to support her and that’s a bonus for her as well as for you.

  2. This is 1000% the way my depression manifests itself externally. The last time I took an extended period of trying to be without my SSRIs it ended with me going back on the pills and telling several of my friends that I knew I’d been way jerkier and meaner for many months and that I was sorry. Being very nice and understanding folks, many of them said that it was okay. I said no, it really wasn’t.

    That has to be over a decade ago now, and I still feel bad about it. I forgive myself (because what else are you going to do, particularly if your friends forgave you as well?) but it’s a useful cautionary memory to me about how I can be when I’m wrestling with those feelings.

    But if I could wave a magic wand, alter the past, and have more of my friends tell me to knock that shit off? Oh yeah, I’d do it in a second. I don’t know how well I would have taken it; I’m sure that on some or maybe even all the times I’d have blown off the criticism. Maybe I wouldn’t have learned one second sooner, and I had to come to that knowledge in other ways. But maybe not. Or maybe just fewer of my friends would have listened to my shit and I’d have hurt fewer of them.

    They love me, so I know they would have tempered it or at least helped me to maybe see what was going on. “Don, that was really mean and shitty and I expect better from you. I don’t know what’s going on with you that you feel like you should say something like that to me, but it’s not okay,” is what I think they would have said. It’s the sort of thing some of them did. It’s what you should do, and I imagine that it’s what your friend, if she was in the right headspace, would want you to say and how she’d want you to protect yourself.

    It wasn’t my friends’ obligation to protect themselves from my crappyness but doing it would only have done me a favor by saving me from things I regret. Maybe I’d have done other things I regret instead. I dunno. But a good friend acting in a way they wish they weren’t isn’t going to think less of you for being good to yourself.

  3. As someone who has been a nasty douche at times, I can attest that it can be a relief to have someone finally say, “Hey! You’re supposed to be my friend. Why are you being nasty to me?” It can catalyze a kind of reset, and help regain perspective and equilibrium.

  4. Unlurking to strongly second (third?) the Captain’s advice.

    My sister, whom I love very dearly, goes through spells like this. Since she’s my sister and knows just how to push my buttons, it can be pretty unpleasant for me when she is in an anxious and depressed space. I do sympathize, very much, with her very real suffering, but I do not like it when she randomly criticizes my life choices, nitpicks my actions and words, and “teases” me about personal, painful subjects. This lashing out does not actually appear to make her feel better in any case.

    So, boundaries and distancing are the very tools to employ here. “Hey, that hurts my feelings, I wish you wouldn’t say that to me” and similar have actually worked pretty well. And it’s better for me to just avoid her for a while rather than get so upset myself (see above: knows how to push my buttons) by her being what seems like randomly mean to me. She is one of my favorite people most of the time, but my role in her life is not to be the punching bag when her symptoms flare up.

  5. Oh – I’ve BEEN this friend. Being mean and combative is one of my specialties when I’m depressed. More so than tearfulnees. Pissiness is also more visible to others than the overwhelming apathy of depression.

    I know this will seem impossible, but sometimes I don’t even know that I’m doing it. Everyone has to manage her depression differently, but for me, it’s actually been really helpful for people to point out when I’m grouchy, prickly, short of temper, prone to argument. It has happened several times that coworkers or friends or family have asked “You doing OK? You kind of ripped that guy’s head off.” Often, that asking was the first clue I had that I was at the beginning of a depressive downturn. Again, I know it seems impossible that I could not even know I’m depressed until I get those cues from other folks that my behavior is off.

    Last winter it was a lifesaver to have someone point it out, got me to my doc, got my meds adjusted.

    Hugs to both you and your friend. Loving someone with depression can be just as hard and in some ways harder than having the disease.

    1. OH MAN. I *really* want to second this tactic, because it’s worked wonders for me:

      It has happened several times that coworkers or friends or family have asked “You doing OK? You kind of ripped that guy’s head off.”

      For me, this is a twofold kindness, because (1) it reflects my own behaviour back to me, and (2) it acknowledges that I might be in need of help. It’s a pretty much foolproof way to shake me out of grumbling and remind me that it’s better to ask my friends for help than to spew my anger all over them.

      1. Yes. I’ve also been grateful when that tactic has been used on me, because it comes with the implied message that “you are not a bad person, this is a sign that something’s wrong” that helps to alleviate my (already considerable) shame at having snapped at someone.

  6. A few years ago I went through a really bad span of what I dubbed “high-functioning depression.” Outwardly I went through all the motions… inwardly, well “a horrifying mess” doesn’t really cover it, but it’s pretty accurate. I kept sending my then-boyfriend away, to keep him safe from Depressed Me. Because Depressed Me wanted to make him understand how badly I was hurting inside, mostly by being as hurtful as possible (which horrified and repulsed me all the way down to the ground). I kept having to tell him, “look sorry, but it’s been a bad day and I’m not a good person to be around. I don’t want to say something really damaging, so I need some space to be ugly in private.”

    LW, it’s hard to hear your side of the coin. It’s hard to think about all the hurt I likely cause when in the depths of depression. You know which is your friend and which is her disease. Thanks for wanting to be there for her, even when she’s all spines-out. Hopefully you two are able to establish some boundaries that work for you both, and that your buddy learns how to articulate when she needs people to come close and comfort her, and when she needs the space to lash out in private.

    1. Trying to save people from “depressed me” is something I have to deal with too. My boyfriend is so patient and kind when it comes to my pain, but in the back of my head “depression me” thinks there is an absolute limit to how much a person can take and that one day I will be so awful that he will just leave. Rational me and him know that’s not true that he is actually willing to be there for me. It’s just hard for me to convince my deepest fears of that.

  7. As a lasher-outer, I appreciate when people acknowledge that I am being awful. When they don’t I am like “but I can’t apologise because they haven’t noticed” even though this is a bit bonkers. Though I’m not everyone and I massively prefer the direct approach in everything.

  8. Oh, LW, feel your pain, have felt your friend’s pain. I was an incredibly nasty person in high school when I was having a major depressive episode. I was unbelievably mean and hateful to those around me. I was less mean and nasty but still unpleasant when I had a couple in college, in grad school, in the subsequent years. I can’t really pinpoint how often they happened after school because I suspect each episode was so close together that they might have just been one long depression.

    I remember having moments of clarity in all that awfulness where I kept thinking, “God, someone please notice. Someone please tell me something is wrong. Please tell me I’m not okay.” I couldn’t admit I needed help as part of the jerkbrain shitspiral, but if someone had said any of the things the Captain suggested, I’d probably have wept from relief.

  9. This is so, so timely. I have a friend who has been negative about everything lately, to the point that it’s become a chore to hang out with her because every conversation is just an endless list of criticisms of everyone she sees at work/on her commute/on OKCupid. It’s such weird behavior and I’m never sure how to confront her about it in the moment.

    I also used to lash out when I was depressed and bad at using my words. A friend called me out on it in private, and I felt terrible at the time, but I’m so glad she did that. I don’t know if I ever would have learned a healthier way to communicate without someone telling me that my current style was Not Acceptable.

  10. I had a friend who was acting this way, but when I told her that she was hurting my feelings, she said she felt like I was punishing her by bringing it up, and that nothing she had said was really that bad, and that it wasn’t healthy for her to talk about it, so we should just “move forward.” I ended up giving her the African violet, but I still wonder if there was anything I could have done differently. Have any commenters experienced a reaction like that, or been on the other side of that kind of reaction?

    1. That friend was depressed AND being a shitty friend. “I need you to just put up with it when I’m mean to you” is never the answer, in my opinion.

      1. Agreed. Friends don’t require friends to be their dumping grounds when they need to release pent-up negativity. Not to be flippant, but that’s what a paid counselor is for. Yes, a friend can know and love you well enough to stick around and not mind if you lose it at them once in a while. But friendship means “I love ya and I’ll help you through a temporary rocky time,” not “I love you so much I will let you treat me like dirt in the hopes that you feel better sometime in the distant future.” And the flip side: friendship means, “I love ya, so when I’m feeling gross I’ll try not to dump it on you, especially when you call me out on it because I wasn’t totally aware I was doing it,” not “Because I love you, I have a license to stomp on you when I feel bad.”

    2. I had an extremely shitty situation when my then-boyfriend’s dad passed away suddenly. He was grieving, obviously, and I was doing my best to be kind and understanding and never rising to any of the horrible things he said to me when he was at lowest points. And don’t get me wrong, I was by no means a perfect girlfriend, I had my own set of issues, was also perfectly capable of being nasty, and our relationship was in rocky territory even before his dad got sick. I know there’s no timeline for the process grieving, but he really stayed in the anger phase for a long time, and most of that anger was directed at me. It got to the point where he would scream “MY DAD DIED!” at me in the middle of totally unrelated arguments, months and months after the fact. I was in a constant state of walking on eggshells, terrified of saying the wrong thing and then inevitably saying it anyway.

      Eventually, we had a conversation where I pulled a Captain Awkward move (unbeknownst to me at the time) and asked him what he wanted from me – in a perfect world, how did he see our everyday interactions going? And his answer basically boiled down to “I need you not to expect anything of me and never call me out on anything because I am not capable of dealing with even mild conflict or criticism right now.” Even now I can’t be mad at him for that, because I can’t even fathom what it must be like to lose a beloved parent so suddenly, but at the same time, I remember thinking in that moment “I can’t do this, I can’t be that person ( …because you’re a shitty awful selfish asshole who can’t even support your boyfriend after he lost his father!” continued my Jerkbrain.) That’s when I knew our relationship was not going to survive.

      And it didn’t. I moved away, he shortly got together with his current girlfriend, they seem really happy and he seems like an utterly transformed person in general, which supports my suspicion that he was suffering from high-functioning depression for most of our relationship. But the ironic thing is, and he said this himself, is that he needed us to break up before he could start over. He called my leaving his “sink-or-swim” moment, where he could “continue being a miserable bastard” pushing away everyone who cares about him or actually pull himself together and get involved in his own life again.

      So yes, the point of that ramble was that when it gets to the point of “just put up with me when I’m mean to you” – in any relationship – letting it go is better for everyone involved, and I definitely don’t mean that as a platitude. I think it depends on closeness of the relationship, but sometimes I think if you are the primary person supporting someone through depression, you become entrenched in that depression. You and your words – no matter how loving and supportive – become part of what depression means from that person, another feature in the landscape of shitty feelings. For my ex, I was a crutch – I helped him get around and there were times when he definitely couldn’t have go on without me, but ultimately his quality of life improved immensely when he put me aside and committed to learning to walk again.

      Artichoke, I still wonder sometimes if things would have been different if I had stuck around, been kinder, more chill, less argumentative, been less in general, not said that stupid and insensitive thing I said that one time. But there wasn’t anything I could have done. Depression – whether chemical or circumstantial – is a giant shitbucket and sometimes there is no right answer.

      This was a lot sadder than I intended it to be!

      1. It’s sad, but it really resonates. My friend had a couple of miscarriages before all of this went down, and so I went through the same phase of wanting to be supportive but not being able to handle the nastiness. To make matters worse, a family member of mine had just died. So it was a horrible time, because I was also grieving, but that gave me the perspective of “I’m grieving but managing not to say mean things to the people I love, so grief and meanness don’t have to go together.”

        1. I am going through something similar with someone who is grieving a relationship that ended (badly) a couple years ago. She still lashes out, often at mutual friends or on social media, any time she sees him in a social setting (which happens a lot because a lot of people, including me, are still friends with both of them), he posts something on FB that rubs her the wrong way, etc. It’s gotten to a point where people are kind of afraid of her temper, and where her response to people pushing back against mean behavior is often along the lines that people are not being sensitive to how badly she was hurt, she doesn’t fit in with us anymore, etc. Which is so frustrating, because 1) it seems like she isn’t grasping that her identity, her feelings and her choices are actually different things and 2) if she keeps lashing out at people, her feelings of not belonging will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And…yeah, it’s also hard to see because we have all had bad breakups and many of us have been grieving other big things in our lives lately. There is no timeline on grief, I have had strong feelings bubble up years after the painful event, but there IS a finite number of “get out of jail free” cards to be released from accountability for your behavior.

          Right now I am taking some space (a lot of “bitch eating crackers” stuff came up after her most recent, and worst, lashout, which was mostly directed at me, and I don’t think I should get into that because things will go to hell fast) and figuring out what I want to say to her, but all these scripts and thoughts are helping.

    3. I have had a similar issue. I had a friend who would go through periodic bouts of being hateful to me and others, and using personal stuff she knew about us as weapons. Then a few weeks later apologizing and shame spiraling and wanting me to help (metaphorically) kick her and tell her what an awful person she was and no wonder everyone hated her. I really didn’t want to do either of those things at all, get kicked or help her kick herself but a lot of the time it felt like there wasn’t a third option.

      It was depression related and usually coincided with adjusting meds. It was really hard for me to find a way to be with her around that. Mainly because I wasn’t able to find a way to say “hey you are acting weird and we’ve seen this before, can you talk to someone?” where she would hear me. I think maybe we weren’t good enough friends or friends with a long enough history that she was able to hear me over the jerkbrain. I ended up having to African Violet her. Which sort of blew up a friend group because some people thought it was unfair of me to distance myself when she was obviously in pain.

    4. Most depressed members of my family respond this way…or freeze out…or rage out. Most of my family members are depressed. Some get treatment and have better periods, some have given up on treatment, some deny they have a problem. The only thing that has kept me from sinking into the turbulence of the earlier part of my life is to live pretty far away. I have to work so very hard to set boundaries when I am nearer. I have mostly cut the person who verbally assaulted and threatened my life when I quietly asked not to be insulted, but I’m made to feel like the mean one for doing so. Then I need to combo caretake/model compassion/walk on eggshells around those I haven’t cut off to be able to set boundaries without making them feel worse about their depression or reactionary.

      I definitely know some are grateful that I can empathize and hear and understand what they’re going through, and that is sometimes a nudge to get help/back into treatment/intensify therapy to those who are open to it, but they will ultimately snark/lash out me if I’m around them for more than a few hours because the inner demons are so dark. But I know most of them think I’m pretty selfish and not a good “insert family role here.” It took me too long to realize there was a purpose to my life other than being a sounding board or punching bag as long as I did anything other than set boundaries and protect myself.

  11. In particular, It’s honestly weirder and more alienating to have your bad behavior be totally ignored or coddled…like, “Can’t they even tell something is wrong?“ is vital vital vital. Because my jerkbrain does an excellent job of repeating that my friends merely tolerate me, put up with me, handle me with kid gloves because after all I’m a shit, not a real person, not a real adult …. blah blah blah. In sum, you do no favors by not treating your friend as an adult.

    1. “…my jerkbrain does an excellent job of repeating that my friends merely tolerate me, put up with me, handle me with kid gloves because after all I’m a shit, not a real person, not a real adult …. blah blah blah. In sum, you do no favors by not treating your friend as an adult.”

      Holy shit, thank you for saying this. I need to think about it more, but I feel like you kinda just nailed my relationship with one of my best friends. I need to tell him when his lashing out hurts my feelings, instead of just swallowing it out of fear of conflict and then writing it off as him being incapable of acting better. I know he’s also got the jerkbrain that tells him that his friends are just putting up with him or pitying him – which, honestly, is exactly how I end up feeling about him after an interaction like that. It’s not my job to fix his pain or change what his jerkbrain thinks, but I want to do what I can to change this dynamic on my end because I don’t actually want to be thinking so lowly about one of my friends.

    2. Thank you so much for this – this is exactly the kind of internal thoughts I have when I’m lashing out. At my worst, I had a (now ex) boyfriend, who when everyone would “oh, but he loves you for who you really are” – all I could think was “how awful – I’m being awful, and he loves that and is letting me continuously get away with that”.

      When depressed, I am also someone who lashes out – and often it comes from a place of wanting attention while actively hating myself. One situation that I could single out of a friend handling best was this friend has told me a secret about herself and the guy she’d recently been dating. I went out that night, got horribly drunk with some mutual friends and told that secret. The next day I woke up being like “wow, how horribly awful – why on earth would you do that???” I told her, and while she acknowledged/accepted my apology for being a dreadful person, she also asked what else was going on.

      I was never ‘let off the hook’ for being a completely awful person in that moment, but she was also able to say ‘hey let’s talk about what led to that point’. At that time had someone else just been like “you don’t seem like yourself, what’s up?” – I’m not sure it would have necessarily gone somewhere – but someone calling me out on being mean did.

  12. Ugh, I have a friend who does this — but she does this kind of extra tricky thing on top where she lands a hit on a place where, to admit that it hurt, you’d have to confess to vulnerability on that front. Usually about something sort of humiliating. I mean I’m blanking right now but she’s an expert at it, like the place where to even call her on hurting you you’d have to be like “actually I am really vain about my antique poodle collection” or something that it would be silly, in itself, to be vain about but she knows that you are but you don’t want to admit that you are so if she says something about somebody not appreciating how great your antique poodle collection is, and it hurts your feelings, to say “hey that hurt my feelings” you’d have to kind of expose yourself even more — maybe not to direct ridicule but you’d have to say the words “my antique poodle collection is really a good one and people ought to appreciate it” when you’ve always tried to kind of play it cool about it, because you know that’s an easily lampooned thing in itself.

    Or something along those lines. I am not trying to be obscure, I really can’t think of a good example at the moment but she’s like a stiletto artist at it.

    When she’s unhappy. The reason I maintain the friendship is that she’s sharp as a tack, and sensitive, and when happy, insightful about others in a lovely way — those same skills can go very dark, though.

    1. It’s hard to think of a good response without a clearer example, but this sounds like an odd twist of the classics like, “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” I’m pretty big personally on just owning (true or false) the trait the person feels you can’t defend yourself without having. So, I’d just say, “No, I don’t, so don’t make those kinds of jokes around me as you now know I won’t enjoy them.” So, I’d be inclined to go big, “Actually, I think I have such an amazingly awesome antique poodle collection that it baffles me how anyone wouldn’t be in awe of it!” It’s over the top enough that it comes out a bit joking, but it also affirms the thing that matters to you.

      I can think of variations on this that might be trickier to counter, such as a back-handed compliment. “It’s so good that you’re secure despite…” fill in whatever you are least comfortable with about your body or health or whatnot. Where maybe something like, “That’s just because of how awesome I am, but I’d still rather we not discuss X.”

      I’m not sure how well everyone call pull off statements about their own awesomeness, but I’ve found that they work very well in a lot of situations. And once you get used to them, they get easier. Obviously, don’t use them for no reason, because just going around telling people how awesome you are (no matter how true) can get annoying. But there are a lot of times when simply being able to state your own awesomeness as a fact you are confident about is really useful. You will likely get a bunch of sarcastic, “And modest too” responses, but those can just be laughed with.

      1. I absolutely agree with this. “I guess it’s just because I’m totally awesome” or “I’m too awesome for (whatever)” are such lifesaver comeback lines to me. If someone is going to go overboard with their joke, I’m going to go overboard with my self-love response. It sends a message like, nope you can’t get me with that thing that you’re trying.

        It kind of throws mean people off their mean people balance too, because they’re not expecting anyone to come out with something good about themselves too.

      2. I hate the backhanded compliment. I get a lot of questions from a friend who’s pretty insecure and high-maintenance about why it’s so easy for me to attract partners, and how I always have “someone lined up.” I might adopt the “because I’m awesome” line, at least silently and to myself 🙂

    2. Back in middle school, some folks in my friend group were pros at this. For example (made up details, but accurate in spirit), ripping on boy bands in front of C, who is a huge fan of boy bands, knowing that C is unlikely to speak up because then she’d have to admit to liking That Thing We’re All Mocking, leaving C to be all awkward and ashamed and feeling powerless.

      Ugh. Middle school girls. Don’t be like middle school girls, mmk?

    3. A lot of emotionally abusive people are that way, though. In fact, they rely on it. As CA has pointed out lots, nobody would hang out with abusers ever if they were shits 100% of the time.

      1. Oh my yes! I’m de-lurking just to second this. I had a roommate who I considered a best friend who would do this *ALL THE TIME*, she was the queen bee at making friends then tearing them down and wearing the perfect “I love you so much!!1one!” smile while doing it. Emotionally abusive & manipulative (gaslighting anyone?). It took me years to recover and I’m still thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some therapy sessions to work through some of the left-over baggage.
        (This was someone I truly considered a best friend, I had her in my wedding even though husband wasn’t thrilled, etc… We had a ton of good times, but she was not a healthy person).

    4. Well, she is not being a very nice friend. It should be possible to expose oneself to one’s friends, and not have to fear their stiletto-like insight when they’re unhappy. In a similar situation I might say something like, ‘I love my antique poodle collection with a passion, and I expect the people in my life to be happy for me about that. Why should I care what the rest of the world thinks?’

      Friends have said this to me when I was being a snarky bitch, and it worked. I have done the same to them. Mocking each other’s passions can be a thing that friend groups grow out of, so she may find herself having to drop this stuff fairly quickly to avoid losing people.

      1. I’ve been thinking about it a little more with these comments, and it reminded me of an earlier thread in which people were discussing self-deprecation as bonding in female friendship (specifically the “I’m so fat no I’M so fat” dance). It’s actually this, so people are right, I’m sort of setting myself up for it by doing that kind of interaction (not always auto-body-snark, just a lot of self-snark). And the dance of self-snark is like “I’m going to say terrible things about myself laughingly” and the rules are the other person is supposed to commiserate / match it — we have done this a lot together, since high school, but she will occasionally (when unhappy) suddenly make a joke that figures you as *actually* as worthless / unattractive / hopeless / dumb etc. as those prior conversations lamented. And then of course, what’s your defense? You said it yourself! I mean you’d have to either admit “no actually that was all bullshit, I pretty much think I am awesome and was just playing a ritual game” or you’d have to say, “hey you are breaking the rules of that game, where we each lament ourselves but we never ever confirm the lamentations of the other about themselves because the point of the game is to exorcise the spectre of self-hatred by raising it to absurd heights”. I mean I guess really the lesson is, the first game is poisonous and creates the conditions of more poison. So knock it off (note to self).

  13. Thank you for all these responses! When I look back at my letter, I think what I was really thinking was “How can I be supportive to someone who is obviously hurting, *while avoiding them in case they hurt me*” – and if that’s not impossible, it is a big ask. I haven’t been calling out the meanness as such, just changing the subject or ending the conversation, but I think you’re all right that actively pointing out that it’s not cool is the best way to go. Thanks for pointing out that ignoring it isn’t really making her feel any better. And it’s a bit of a wake-up call to the way I don’t stick up for myself that well either. (“But what if she’s right and I AM weak/flaky/needy/whatever? Maybe I don’t have any right to say that I don’t want criticism” Every time I think I’m done with that pattern…)

    1. Your Jerkbrain is just irrelevant when it tells you things like “But what if she’s right and I AM weak/flaky/needy/whatever?” You do not need to be perfect. You’re not the one acting like a jerk. Your friend may be picking on one of your actual flaws, and your Jerkbrain may try to convince you that you should swallow her jerky criticism because her point is accurate. But even if it is accurate and you ARE flaky or whatever, SHE is being a jerk by being mean to you about it and picking on one of your flaws. That’s not how friends should treat each other, and THAT is the point.

      1. Yeah, seconding this. To be real Southern about it, it doesn’t matter if what she said is true, it matters that it was RUDE. It was impolite. It was not okay to say, and saying mean/true things are not the way friends should act.

        I think true/false dichotomies are pretty much useless in most interpersonal interactions. I think a paradigm of helpful/unhelpful is much more worthwhile. Honesty is not always the best policy, if that honest is catty and unhelpful. (There can be a slippery slope to “I should just lie about the affair because that wouldn’t be helpful to my relationship….” I hope I’m articulating this well enough to be clear that that is bullshit.)

        (tw for the next 3 paragraphs: body talk/weight gain used as an example)

        For example, it may be true that my partner has gained X pounds and is feeling shitty about their body. True statement. But is it helpful for me to point out? Depends on how I do it. Not Helpful: “You wouldn’t feel as shitty about your body if you hadn’t gained all that weight. Maybe you should do something about it.” Maybe true (in the meanest way possible) but NOT HELPFUL and super rude and very mean.

        But helpful might be: “Hey, you seem really down on your body lately. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better? I could tell you all the amazing parts of your body I find super sexy…” or knowing my partner feels better when they’re more active (regardless of size), I might say, “Man, we’ve been lazy this winter! My body could do with some exercise. Want to start hiking together on weekends now that the weather is better?” In the rare case I am actually concerned about my partner’s health (rapid weight gain can be related to a lot of medical things), I might encourage them to go see a medical professional. If none of this works, I might have to get blunter: “You saying a lot of insecure things about your body is making ME insecure about my body. If there are things we can do together to make you feel better, we can brain storm that, but I\regardless, I need you to stop saying stuff like that around me.”

        None of this requires I be a Crusader for the Truth and pick at or mock their body or weight gain, even if “You’ve gained X pounds in a short amount of time!” is literally true. It’s not helpful or relevant and it’s fucking mean. (Also, who the fuck cares! More of your sexy body to cuddle! I would be more concerned about the body image issue than the weight gain.)

        Saying hurtful, but helpful things sometimes is required in a relationship, but saying mean things BECAUSE THEY’RE TRUE basically never is. Call that shit out.

        tl;dr: Whether something is “true” is irrelevant if it is mean. If something hurtful bears saying, saying it as kindly and helpfully as possible is what friends do. And then they back off if their advice seems to be unwanted.

        My example is a bit trivial (I have high-functioning depression, but more of the “disassociate from everything” variety than the lash-out variety), but when I am most likely to lash out is when I am HANGRY or my blood sugar is too low. Usually I catch myself after one lash out because I’ve worked to be really self-aware because I don’t like hurting people, but sometimes I am feeling too crappy to be self-aware. The worst thing someone can do is just indulge/ignore my shitty behavior or try to “appease” my offering a million options or trying to change their behavior. The best thing that can do is say, “Whoa, that was kind of mean.” or “I think you need to eat something. Here: food.” so I can break the cycle.

        1. I feel that last paragraph so hard, except for me, it’s when I’m really tired and trying to push through it. I have some really good friends who will grab me when I’m being a bastard and say, “I think it’s time for you to go home and get some rest,” and they’re almost always right. I don’t get a lot of typical “I’m worn out/I’m exhausted” symptoms, but this one is dead-on reliable.

      2. Wow. This is really an eye-opener for me. The spouse has this trait, too, and of course he tends to poke the spots that are sorest, the things I feel most defensive about.

        (Huh. Actually, when I think about it, I can remember him in this mood poking at spots that weren’t sore, getting no response, and continuing to try until he found something that would make me feel as awful as he felt.)

        But now I’m thinking I need to practice a script that says, “I’m a flawed human being, but nevertheless, you’re hurting me, and I’d like you to stop.”

        1. Yes.

          Even assuming the things we’re sore about are true, just because something is true doesn’t give a person a right to say it without reason.

          If the true thing is causing problems, sure, bring it up. But, “Hey you’re weak/flaky/needy/whatever” doesn’t need to be constantly picked at. “Hey, could you give me a call next time you’ll be late?” or “hey, could you give me a bit more space for a few days” is actionable, and seeks to fix an underlying problem. “Hey, you’re flaky/needy” is just an insult that aims to put the other person on eggshells.

          On people who pick until they find a way to hurt you in order to feel better about themselves, I have very strong “RUN! RUN AWAY NOW!” reactions. After asking for it to stop, and just getting a stream of denial from the individual in question (similar to the “I AM NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, YOU’RE SHOUTING AT ME” crap when a person is yelling at you and you’re talking in a normal voice), leaving was the best thing I ever did. And so perhaps I’m projecting that onto your situation.

          But if your situation is at all like mine was, please try to fix it or leave. You don’t have to live with a person who randomly gets in moods where hurting you sounds like a good idea to them, and they’ll keep trying until they succeed. That’s not okay at all.

    2. (“But what if she’s right and I AM weak/flaky/needy/whatever? Maybe I don’t have any right to say that I don’t want criticism” Every time I think I’m done with that pattern…)

      The thing is — I’m not not NOT saying your jerkbrain is right, but I have found this helpful when my own jerkbrain starts going on a tear like that: pretend, for a moment, that your jerkbrain is right, and that yes, you are those things. You are human, you have flaws, fine. BUT, even imagining for a moment that those things ARE true, there is still a big difference between criticism and meanness. If Friend A is, genuinely, just always late and kind of unreliable in general, Friend B is absolutely allowed to be frustrated, but the way for Friend B to deal with that is not to make mean, just-kidding-but-not-really comments. It is to be a grown-up and say “Hey, Friend A, can we figure out a way to arrange our hang-outs so that it’s easier for you to make it on time? Would it help if we did it at a time of the day/week when you’re less busy, or if we did more stuff close to you?”

      Criticism is one thing, and it can be done in healthy, productive ways. (Although you are allowed to say to friends, also, “hey, I appreciate the concern, but that’s a really personal issue for me and I’d really prefer not to get into it, let’s talk about $TVSHOW instead”. Boundaries are great things!) Meanness is something totally different, and is by no means something that always goes hand-in-hand with criticism.

      Again, absolutely not saying that your friend’s mean comments are right, or that your jerkbrain is right when it starts making the same kind of sounds as your friend! But I’ve found that telling myself “fine, pretending for the moment that I am $FLAW, would this be a helpful way of addressing that?” can help me when I’m having trouble getting out of a jerkbrain spiral or an unpleasant interpersonal interaction.

  14. Just to add a different angle: one aspect of depression is a feeling of not having an impact on your surrounding, feeling ineffective and powerless. If you react to your friend’s behaviour, you tell her “your actions matter. you have an effect on me” and that is a good thing. As long as you emphasize it is the actions, and not her as a person, that are a problem for you. And of course it is also good to tell her when something she did had a positive effect on you.

  15. Dear LW:

    Your first responsibility here is to yourself. You don’t want insults and meanness directed at you, and you don’t want to be a mean person.

    The Captain and the Awkward army are correct in pointing out that calling out your friend’s meanness and snark can protect you from it, andis a kindness to her, and protects you from becoming mean yourself.

    Cruelty is water off a duck’s back for a while, and then it isn’t. And once it isn’t you can find yourself wanting to say and do rotten things. I find that uncomfortable and bad for me.

    So I agree with the Captain: tell your friend that she said or did something mean, when she does it. And say you want an apology.

    My depression and anxiety don’t manifest as meanness, so I can’t speak to that, but I will reiterate: she has other choices. She is not good at those choices yet, but they exist.

    And one more thing: saying “it’s the depression” (or the booze, or the bad upbringing, or the culture, or or or whatever) may be true as a top-level explanation, but it neglects another truth. It’s also your friend. She has a mean streak. She allows it to come out with you when she is in some state. She’s choosing to not treat her condition and to be mean.

    Someone said that mental illness doesn’t make us saints. Some people with mental illnesses are bad people. And I would add: all people are imperfect, even those of us with illnesses. If you take away my illness I won’t be perfect, I’ll still be flighty and self absorbed and live in my head. What will have changed is that I won’t act out my compulsions as much.

    Too reduce this screed:

    – you should use the scripts
    – your friend’s illness is not an excuse
    – your friend should take care of her illness, because if she doesn’t she allows herself to act like a bad person, and she will – rightfully – lose friends
    – you don’t need to apologize.

  16. Oh boy. I have been this mean depressed friend in the past. And I would have appreciated it so much if someone had called me out on it (kindly) and explained that I was being mean and out of order and hurtful.

  17. Not even depression related in my case, but I really wish my friends would have called me on my meanness, rather than forgiving me.
    I grew up in a household where my dad was the only person “allowed” to express his anger, and what he modeled were vicious, explosive, out of control, verbally-cutting rages. Since I didn’t want to be like _that_, I mostly stuffed my own anger. One weekend in my very early twenties, I was driving somewhere with my then-girlfriend, and realized there’d been a very long pause in the conversation. I looked over at her and saw she had tears running down her face. I had to ask what was wrong, then mentally scroll back through what I’d said to even realize I’d said something cruel, and only then figured out, “oh, I’m _mad_ at you”. I hadn’t been consciously aware of my anger, and it came out as mean comments that I only realized were mean when I saw the reaction.

    I got myself into therapy that Monday morning, and trained myself to recognize my anger and to express it more usefully, more kindly, and with much more awareness.
    Having done that, these last twenty-something years have been quite a lot better than the first twenty!
    You may be doing your friend a bigger favor than you know by calling her on her bad behavior.

  18. Speaking as someone who’s prone to bouts of nastiness during depressive episodes, please, please say something. It’s very true that getting called out on your bad behavior can start a jerkbrain spiral–but when people just let you act like an asshole without saying anything, it can feel like you’ve been tilted into a Twilight Zone sort of thing where nobody even notices that you’re behaving horribly.

    My advice? Don’t wait until it all builds up and you’re really angry to have the “You know, you’ve been a real jerk lately” conversation. Call out bad behavior in the moment. A simple “Wow, that was uncalled-for” can be an act of kindness.

  19. Another angle: Depression can make you feel like your actions don’t matter, and that you are powerless and invisible. If you point out that her actions hurt you, you tell her that she has some power and her actions have an impact. This can actually help her. I wonder if part of the reason that some depressed people lash out at others is exactly that they are unconsciously trying to get the feeling of having an impact on their surrounding back. So not reacting and/or just breaking off contact might make her depression worse, but giving her honest feedback on her impact on you might good for her, although her first reaction will probably be negative.

  20. I’m in this EXACT situation right now. My friend and I went through breakups at the same time, but mine was much smoother than hers and I’m actually happy about it, whereas she is a complete basketcase right now. She said some really mean, unwarranted stuff to me, and I’m really torn between calling her out on her bullshit and giving her the time/space she needs to get her emotions together.

  21. I really appreciate the timeliness of this letter and all the responses. I’ve been meaning to write one similar for a while, though about my colleague, not my friend. My colleague has had difficultly adjusting to her new position in the several months she’s been here, which has led to many meltdowns laced with minor insults hurled my way. I always think in my head, “Hey, just because you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean my feelings are irrelevant.” But It’s a hard thing to call someone out on bad behavior when you know they are already feeling shitty. I kind of developed this habit of just shutting down and not saying much of anything (something that started with the colleague she replaced who had the same sort of meltdowns). This only made things worse with both of them, deciding I didn’t care about their problems or even hated them. So I’m especially grateful to all the people who wrote in saying they were a “lasher outer” and would have appreciated someone calling you out on your bad behavior. I definitely plan to use this advice in the future. Thanks so much!

  22. Shit, did someone write a letter in about me? Whoever it was misgendered me, but damn. Sorry, everyone.

  23. Any advice for someone whose friend does this, but then turns around and best *themselves* up if you dare say anything?

    It’s turned into not being able to say anything to her because it’ll descend into jerkbrain dump from her and right now I don’t have the emotional/mental energy to deal with it, but then I feel like the worst person in the world 😐

    1. none — but there was a pretty brilliant scene in Arrested Development where Lucille’s adult kids call her on being cartoonishly mean to to them and she suddenly flips it and reverses it on them by going into “oh god, I’m a terrible mother, you must think I am the worst mother in the world” and they end up falling over themselves to crowd around her and comfort her.

      & this is one of those things they tell you to watch for in abusive romantic relationships — do you end up apologizing to / comforting someone about *their* bad behaviour? Run! Run run run!

      Anyway, the point is, it can happen in friendships, too. I have never dealt successfully with it, I mean, where calling on someone on their bad behaviour (good for you!) gets counter-weighted martial arts style so that the person starts showily self-flagellating in front of you so that their pain trumps your hurt and the conversation ends up several states away from where it began…. Maybe recognizing the pattern and limiting interaction is the only good answer?

    2. I haven’t tried dealing with this in a long time, so I haven’t tested this. But I think the first thing I’d try would be after they finish their whole speech about how awful they are to just say, “How about you just apologize to me and try not to do it again?” I wouldn’t even address the jerkbraindump. If they then apologize and continue the jerkbrain dump, I’d say, “Thank you for apologizing, and now I’d like to change the subject and move on…” and go back to whatever you were discussing before or bring up something new. If they continue the jerkbrain dump without apologizing, I’d try, “If you feel so bad about it, then why don’t you just apologize, try not to do it again, and we can go back to having fun.”

      Basically, following the rule that when someone is doing something really obnoxious to get a particular type of reaction from you, you do not give them the reaction they want or else they will keep doing the obnoxious thing since it gets them what they want.

      They may not be as willing to be your friend if you enforce your boundaries, don’t let them be mean to you without expecting an apology, and do not reassure them when they say how awful they are, but if they can’t manage that, then you haven’t lost much. And they might, instead, simply start acting better, which would be awesome, since presumably they also have good traits you do enjoy, which you’d enjoy a lot more if they stop doing this sort of thing.

      Also, remind yourself, a lot, that it’s not your job to reassure your friend that they aren’t a bad person in response to them hurting you. Really, really not. If your friend wants to beat themselves up whenever they do something wrong, then that’s not the most healthy solution and it might be good for them to talk about that to a therapist, but that’s really their decision to make. But it certainly isn’t your place to make them feel better about doing bad things. Because there’s a big difference between reassuring someone when they just feel insecure and want you to help remind them how many good things there are about them and reassuring someone who feels bad because they legitimately did something wrong. They should feel bad, for a little while, and use that to learn to not do that so often. If they choose to drag out that feeling bad, that’s a choice they get to make. It’s not your place to try to talk them out of their desire to attack themselves for doing the wrong thing. Although it’ll probably be easier for you if you learn to emotionally distance yourself a bit when they do it. I expect it’s unpleasant to be around even if you aren’t trying to help soothe the hurt feelings of their having done the wrong thing.

      1. This is wise. Insisting on an apology + a stop to the behavior is you giving them a way out of the spiral, if they choose to take it.

  24. My mean depressed friend is my mother. When I called her out by saying “that hurt” or something similar, she would respond with justification of some kind. Like “you hurt me this morning” “um what?” “oh-never mind” Then I learned to challenge that. “so, you’re trying to hurt me because you owe me one? well it worked” she’d say “that’s not what I meant”
    I started to limit the time I spent with her, which made her even more hurtful and mean when we were together.
    This spring when she sent a series of hateful emails accusing me of all kinds of evils, then ‘broke up’ with me, it was a relief. I’m sad that my relationship with my mother can’t be better, but I’m glad to be out of harms way and I wish I had the guts to stop going back for more abuse years ago.
    LW, it can be tricky to stay available to your friend for support and friendship while being unavailable for shit and abuse. I’d like to suggest that if you can’t strike a balance, err on the side of protecting yourself and putting your relational energies where there is reciprocal respect and love.

  25. I’m going to quote a very wise person whose name I unfortunately don’t know here:

    “A Dx is not a license to asshole.”

    You have a perfect right to call out people who are being mean, whether they are depressed or sick or just having a bad day. Their problem is not going to get better by hurting you, and you don’t have to take it in the name of being a friend/daughter/coworker.

  26. I used to be like that. I would be awful. No one ever called me on it. I wish they would have. I’ve figured it all out. They no longer have to worry, because now I don’t say anything at all. Thank God, I stopped that stuff.

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