Dear Captain Awkward,
One of my friends has mental health issues of severe depression (along with some other stuff) that is being ineffectively treated–a situation that they are trying to change, but solutions are slow going.
The depression brain weasels are causing my friend to regularly assume that everyone they know and care about is actively furious with them. I (and other mutual friends) will regularly check in with our friend only to hear how they were sure we were mad at them for a litany of tiny “infractions” that most of us would never even notice.
I know that my friend can’t help what the depression tells them. But it is also becoming incredibly difficult to spend the first hour of any interaction with this friend repeatedly reassuring them that no, really, I’m honestly not mad. The extended confessions (“I was so sure you were mad at me for the following reasons…”) seem to spin them up into a state of heightened tension and to be causing harm to them in spite of the “forgiveness” afterward. I think the harm is stemming from their viewing the confession as evidence that they are awful and that their forgiveness is predicated on our saintliness, which will surely run out someday.
In short: while I’m not mad at them and I do love them dearly, the weekly confessions are hurting them and are a genuine drain on my own limited spoons for social interactions, causing an avoidance spiral that doesn’t help them believe people aren’t angry with them. Is there a set of scripts you might can recommend for cutting through the litany of specifics each time and reminding them that we’ve done this before and those recurring feels are just the depression speaking?
Much love back, because you sound like a great friend and this is very delicate stuff.
Interrupting is rude and we were all raised not to do it, right? But there is a case to be made for it here. Give your friend a short interval, and, when you feel yourself running out of patience, interrupt the flow.
Your friend: “I was sure you were never going to call me again because I am so awful…”
You: “Let me stop you right there. I am not mad at you. In fact, I am calling because I like you and want to talk to you. But I don’t have the energy to hear the Jerkbrain Memo Re: Why You Suck today.”
Them: “You’re so good to me, but I’m sure any day you are going to give up on our friendsh-.”
You: “I am not going to do that, and I don’t like listening to you talk about yourself this way.” + SUBJECT CHANGE.
Ideas for subject changes:
- Ask them about something they are a fan of. “Have you finished The Martian yet? It reminds me of old MacGyver episodes.”
- Ask them about a hobby. “How is the terrarium coming together?”
- Ask them for help figuring something out. “I can’t figure out which pair of glasses looks best on me. Can I text you some photos and get your feedback?”
- Follow up on something you talked about last time. “Any news on your Grandma’s trip around the world?”
You’re not going to suddenly become a shitty friend if you do this. You aren’t going to stop asking “How are you?” and listening and caring about the answer. This interrupting the initial flow of self-hatred and criticism is not about not listening to your friend, or not honoring their pain, or about asking them to pretend that everything is all right for you. It is about interrupting something that has become an automatic, crippling, horrible, spiraling habit. There is a ritual happening here, where they vomit their horrible feelings and you reassure them, but they don’t believe it and they don’t become more reassured. If you give yourself permission to stop completing the ritual, over time ritual may become much shorter or even stop entirely, making room for more intentional conversations.
Be warned: The first couple of times you interrupt it might be even more awful than usual. Your friend might have a shame spiral that is now about how you have to cut them off from talking about their shame (instead of just their normal routine shame-spiral). If you’re not an interrupt-y sort, you will feel mortified and brittle. Keep doing it, though. I predict that if you do it consistently, the habit will change and your friend will catch themselves, with something like, “You don’t want to hear all that.” It might sound passive-aggressive as hell when they say it at first, so don’t protest that you DO in fact want to hear all that, just keep saying gentle things and keep changing the subject. Them catching themselves is good.
Other scripts & strategies:
- “I need to be your Distracting, Talk About Puppies And Rainbows Friend Today.”
- “I can listen to 5 minutes of venting, so make it good. Then you will listen to five minutes of venting from me, and then we will proceed to new business.”
- “That sucks, I am so sorry you are feeling like that.” Sometimes there is nothing TO say. Just empathize and let them get it out.
- “That sounds really difficult/annoying/awful. What do you think you’ll do?” “Solution-oriented” sounds like such a corporate robo-douche term, but asking the person to tell you their plan is another way of breaking up the ritual of negative brain-dumping.
- “I don’t know what I can say to reassure you that I am not mad at you. I am mad at your Jerkbrain right now, because it keeps accusing me of lying about my intentions and feelings. What could I do or say that might make you feel better?” They might not know, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask.
- Sometimes, but ONLY SOMETIMES AND WITH GREAT CARE AND IF YOU THINK THE PERSON CAN ROLL WITH IT, agree in a joking, hyperbolic way that mimics what the depression is doing. “Yes, you are terrible. That is why I call you every week and why you make me laugh until I literally pee myself and why I love giving you hugs: Your terribleness.” “Yes, I am furious at you. That is why I can’t wait to find out how your job interview went, and to send you 10,000 cute animal gifs.” “You are literally the world’s worst person. That’s why I called, actually, to see if the World’s Worst Person would be interested in having ice cream with Saint Me, the World’s Most Patient and Selfless Person.” One (again, ritualized) thing that happens with these conversations is that they say “I’m terrible,” you say “No you’re not,” and then it becomes Asshole Brain Debate Club where they try to convince you of their terribleness by offering detailed evidence. If they say “I’m terrible” and you say “Sure, ok. Also, your hair looks pretty like that,” it breaks the automatic call-and-response they are used to.
Two related posts are:
Let me add a few things from past posts.
- Routine is important. Having a regular check-in can help your friend predict and count on you and lessen anxiety (somewhat).
- If communication is draining to you, make sure you do this at a time when you have a lot of energy to spare, and when you can relax/treat yourself in some small way. Take care of yourself.
- If you live nearby and can see each other in person, shake up the routine of what you do together. If your normal thing is to stay in and watch TV or movies, try going out and doing something instead, or try coloring books/games/puzzles/knitting/crafting (something participatory). If you always talk on the phone, try using a chat program. If you always chat, try a phone call. Depression likes patterns and settles into them like a pair of comfy old slippers. Change what you do and see if depression lags a bit to catch up.
- If you do invite your friend out (instead of going to see them) or otherwise change things up, make it about your preferences rather than “for their own good.”
“A walk in the park will do you good”==> “I’m in the mood to be outside, care to walk with me for a bit?”
- If you don’t have the energy for whatever reason, be (strategically) honest. Your friend may sense that they are being managed and call you out on it. Be honest: “It’s really good to catch up with you, but I am not feeling so awesome today and I need to talk about light subjects.“
- If you have to cancel plans for some reason, reach out the next day with a text to say hello. It’s reassuring.
- Small, frequent doses of company or thoughtfulness might work better for you right now than infrequent, more intense hangouts.
- Get in the habit of treating each new day and interaction like a blank slate. Maybe last time your friend ran themselves down for half an hour before you could interrupt, and you are dreading how it will go today. Do your best to show your friend that you don’t hold onto past irritations and slights. “Yeah, last week was pretty intense, but I’m not upset with you. What’s new today with (safe, interesting subject)?“
Remember: Your friend needs a trained counseling and medical pro to treat their illness and help them feel differently. While it’s good to be gentle with your friend and their feelings, you aren’t responsible for fixing their feelings and even if you were you wouldn’t be able to do that just by being a great friend. You are allowed to try to redirect conversations and set limits on what you can handle. Remember also: Being consistently present and engaged is more important than getting any one interaction perfect. Forgive yourself for mistakes, and for getting impatient or bummed out sometimes.
Readers, if your friends have been especially good at interrupting or getting around your shame spirals when you’re in one, I’d love to hear what worked.
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