Tl:dr – What do you say when someone needs you to tell them that you care about them more than you do care about them? Is there a way to be honest but not make them feel like you actually dislike them? Is there a way to lie so that they actually believe you? Is there a way to get them to knock off asking you?
My partner has a long-time friend who is lonely, isolated, sporadically employed, and who has some mental health issues. Friend is smart, funny, usually well-meaning, and knows how far to push friendship and charity without pushing too hard. My partner gives Friend lots of time and occasional money.
None of this is a problem. Friend doesn’t intrude on our family time too much, and my partner’s friendships are theirs to manage. Partner doesn’t bring Friend into every conversation or insist that Friend is at all of our events. Friend doesn’t usually inconvenience me at all, and if they do it’s in ways that I’m happy to do to for my partner, and because I have goodwill to Friend and I don’t mind hosting them or hanging out.
My problem is that Friend will sometimes initiate conversations with me about what a burden Friend is to me, and how Friend feels ashamed to be included in events that are important to me when they are Partner’s Friend and not My Friend. I don’t think Friend actually wants to be my friend – they don’t usually ask how I am, or talk to me when my partner isn’t around, or seem to care about me except as someone to listen to them (although they are like that with my partner, too, because Friend is very self-absorbed). I think that Friend would like it if **I** really felt a true friendship-like connection to Friend that would cause me to **really** want to invite Friend to stuff not as a charity, and to **really** want to hang out and chat with Friend, even though I don’t think Friend feels that way toward me or wants to feel that way toward me.
Friend is very smart, and certainly is very sensitive to how people feel about them and react to them, so Friend knows that, in fact, I don’t feel those ways. I feel charitable good will, Friend isn’t an unbearable pain to have around, and I love my partner and don’t want to keep someone out of our home who matters to my partner. Friend also knows when I’m lying.
So when Friend asks me these things, I usually do some combo of lie and deflect. I say that Partner and I both brought lots of our own friends and family to the relationship, and that we each hang out with and play host to each other’s peeps. I say that it’s my pleasure to have Friend over. But even though both of those things are true, I’m not answering Friend’s real question, which seems to be something like “don’t you care about me,” or even “why don’t you love me.” I do think that my partner loves Friend. Love is a wonderful mystery, because I can see that Friend is not a very good friend in a traditional sense, but that if you love a person, you just do love them. I don’t love Friend, and I like Friend only in a casual way.
Friend’s need to be loved and to be reassured both touches me and also annoys me. Friend is not good with social conventions like “don’t make people choose between lying or saying mean stuff,” and when they ask me these things I usually fall back on really strict social conventions like, “I am at best saying empty nothing right now and at worst lying because That’s What We Do,” but I don’t like it. Moreover, it doesn’t give Friend any of what they need – it’s neither honest nor kind.
Is there a better, more honest, kinder way to respond?
– Not Your Friend, But Not Mean About It Either
Hi there, Not Your Friend,
It’s possible that Friend is doing some kind of automatic ritual “I’m not worthy” shame dance that is 99% between Friend and Friend’s jerkbrain and has almost nothing to do with you. Since Friend is not accepting your platitudes at face value, and you’ve come across this question and request for reassurance more than once, Friend is most likely not asking you for a critique along the lines of “Actually, since you mention it, I think you’re pretty self-absorbed, and it’s annoying that you keep asking me why we’re not closer friends when you rarely bother to even ask me how I’m doing, but my partner loves you so I am resolved to put up with you for the rest of time. That will go a lot easier if you stop forcing these strange discussions onto me, thanks so much!”
If you do want to address this a little bit more than you have been, I have two suggestions:
A) Talk to Friend, strategically. Next time Friend asks you the awkward question or does the shame dance ritual, try this:
“I *definitely* think of you as Partner’s friend, the way _________ is more my friend. My partner would probably never call up ________ to take her to a solo lunch without me, just like I probably wouldn’t think to call you for a one-on-one visit. But I’m glad you’re here, the same way they are glad to see _______. Does that answer your question?”
It’s probably not the “Are you kidding, I LOVE YOU” answer that the Friend is looking for, but it’s honest and if you keep asking someone if they like you you gotta be open to the possibility that once possible answer is “Not as much as you want me to, sorry.” If Friend wants to be closer to you so much that they keep asking importunate questions, and they won’t accept your attempts at letting them save face, they can’t also turn around and be mad at you for answering more directly. (Well, they probably can, but it won’t endear them to you further, with good reason).
- “Hey, you’ve brought this up a couple of times now, and my answer hasn’t changed. What would it take to get you to take my word for it that it’s really no trouble/my pleasure?”
- “You know what, I never really worry about it – You’re Partner’s Friend, and Partner’s friends are always welcome here, the same way my friends are.”
- “You already know what I’m going to say.”
- “I’ve already answered this question a couple of times – why are you asking again?”
- “This is a very awkward question. What would you like me to say?”
- “That’s all I’m really comfortable saying. Can we change the subject?”
Saying some version of “I don’t feel like getting into this with you” is an answer.
B) Talk to your partner. Ask them to make hangouts with Friend more solo hangouts vs. the-three-of-us hangouts, ask them to give you warning if they are inviting Friend over (b/c that might be a night you do something social outside the house), ask them to take Friend-hang time to Friend’s place or a neutral location more often than they do now, ask themrto check with you before automatically inviting Friend to you-centric events (so you’re not having one of these weird chats at your birthday dinner).
At least some of this problem is because you don’t like Friend that much, but you’re bending over backwards to be a good sport for your Partner’ss sake. What if you were honest with your partner about how Friend is making you feel? “I usually like Friend just fine, but these requests for reassurance and closeness are really taxing and I could use a break.” Or even simpler, when your Partner texts and says Friend will be coming by for dinner tomorrow and is that all right, text back and say “Sure, have fun catching up – I’m going to go to the movies.”
Probably your partner is going to be very cool and understanding about this – they know that Friend can be a little draining and will appreciate having some clearer boundaries. In the off chance that they give you grief, remind them about the Geek Social Fallacies. “Hey, I want your friends to always be welcome here, but I’m not Friend’s biggest fan, so, some balance please?” The flip side of any good “Your friends are always welcome, and I promise to be a good sport” agreement with a partner is probably “And out of consideration for how cool and welcoming you are, I agree to limit how much I inflict people you don’t like on you.” After all, if your partner doesn’t want to cook dinner for Friend solo, without you as social buffer, maybe they don’t want to hang out with Friend that badly.
It might never be comfortable, and that’s okay. I get so many questions from readers along the lines of “How can I prevent these kinds of awkward discussions from happening in the first place/ever again?” and the answer is: You probably can’t. What you can do is get better at handling them in the moment (with scripts, strategies) and handling the aftermath (practicing letting go, reminding yourself that you’re not responsible for everyone’s feelings all the time). So, if you want to keep politely deflecting for the rest of time – “Nonsense. Friend considers you such an important friend, and it’s really my pleasure to host you for xyz event” or simply “Really, it’s my pleasure” – then do it without guilt please! You don’t have to engage more deeply with this than you already are, and it’s okay to let it be slightly weird indefinitely.
174 thoughts on “#1103: “My partner’s awkward friend and their requests for reassurance.””
I’m getting a vibe here that, maybe, Friend is *really* clingy with Partner because they are a good source of narcissistic supply, and resents having LW there and preventing them from having Partner’s full attention?
Plausible, as is sensing that Parnter is pulling back from the friendship a bit and looking for someone to blame.
We don’t have to solve this mystery, though. Requests for reassurance ore not bad in themselves. Repeated requests – from a person who is repeatedly deflecting them – are pretty annoying and it’s okay to not give them a ton of attention.
Is Partner pulling back though? I can’t seem to find a reference to that.
Either way, I think Friend is determined to believe that LW doesn’t like them no matter what answers they get. I think their constant “Am I a burden?” is a passive-aggressive way to either make LW NOT want to spend time or put themself in a place to play the victim. LW should realize that either one is plenty of grounds to actually dislike this person.
Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in but I felt it was passive aggressive as well. Almost like “how dare you not want to my bestie” or is a response to a less than HIGHLY ENTHUSIASTIC or gushing response by LW upon seeing Friend. (I feel this pressure to respond in a super interested way when I’m stressed with certain people who seem to just require head over heels reassurance and it’s exhausting because it feels they simply won’t accept neutral. It feels very similar to when people ask you to “smile” and cheer up but really you are just walking down a hall to the bathroom and I wouldn’t think to be grinning away while on my way to do that. :-/)
And yet they don’t. Does that matter to you?
I’m definitely projecting HARD all over this letter, and that is the feeling I get too.
But as Captain replied, I suppose it doesn’t particularly matter. It doesn’t change the advice for the LW in how to respond to Friend or ask for assistance from Partner.
I feel like it helps to call those behaviors what they are, though, if that’s what’s going on here. That way LW doesn’t have to guilt themself so much over not putting up with another person’s bad behavior, and they can be a little bit more blunt in telling Partner that Friend is having a corrosive effect on the friendship.
Only I didn’t get that vibe at all – the LW states that Friend is a lovely person, just a) not their cup of tea and b) in a bad place. People in bad places can be clingy and inappropriate without being nasty people, and diagnosing Friend as ‘narcissistic’ seems like quite a jump to me. The LW seems to look for a way to gently shut this discussion down, not remove Friend from their life.
I guess I’m not sure how much I trust LW’s reporting? LW seems to be trying awfully hard to avoid saying anything unpleasant about Friend. And maybe Friend really is a nice person, but Friend also has some issues and is behaving in some ways that are starting to sound pretty intrusive. I know *plenty* of people who will remain firmly in denial about out-of-bounds behavior because they don’t want to feel like the mean person who had to draw the line in the sand.
I’m pretty nice but I don’t know how long I could take this before I said something more to-the-point, and probably asked Partner for some perspective and maybe an intervention between myself and Friend. I don’t have the emotional energy to keep dealing with people whose need for validation can’t be filled.
*shrug* I’d be trying awfully hard to avoid saying anything unpleasant about anyone I was complaining about (other than the complaint itself) if they genuinely were pretty great on average despite having the various minor flaws everyone does, because if I mentioned those minor flaws I’d fear they’d be misinterpreted. But anyway, LW didn’t try that hard to avoid criticizing Friend: they said Friend is pretty self-centered in addition to having this constant desire for reassurance.
I think Friendly HIpposcriff has a point. I think throwing in that Friend is narcissistic is quite a jump. I’ll add that being a narcissist and spotting a narcissist, et al, has been in the social feed for awhile and has come to have much less of an impact than it should. ‘Narcissistic’ or any variation thereof seems to be more of a general ‘label’. That being said, I’m all for saying Friend is selfish and self-centered.
Hm I don’t know I would try your more tactful option first and if it didn’t work I would totally try the unvarnished truth ie
“Actually, since you mention it, I think you’re pretty self-absorbed, and it’s annoying that you keep asking me why we’re not closer friends when you rarely bother to even ask me how I’m doing, but my husband loves you so I am resolved to put up with you for the rest of time. That will go a lot easier if you stop forcing these strange discussions onto me, thanks so much”
I feel the same. I don’t think it would be out of line for the LW to express their honest feelings about Friend’s harassment of them for constant validation.
If that sounds awful to the LW, then don’t. But I know for me, I would feel very relieved to call out the elephant in the room. And in my experience, that can actually really help the relationship and the needy Friend may even appreciate the truth (sometime placating can feel gaslighty) or maybe be compelled to do a bit of self reflection. But even if not, now the LW can stop doing the Polite Dance if that’s taxing to them. Again, if confrontation sounds more taxing or may strain the LWs relationship with their partner, then skip it.
Let’s read that again:
“Actually, since you mention it, I think you’re pretty self-absorbed, and it’s annoying that you keep asking me why we’re not closer friends when you rarely bother to even ask me how I’m doing, but my partner loves you so I am resolved to put up with you for the rest of time. That will go a lot easier if you stop forcing these strange discussions onto me, thanks so much”
Would you really, hand to God, say that to someone? Someone who your partner is very close to? Or to anyone, in general?
After I’d made repeated attempts to ask a person to knock off a behavior I felt was annoying, and they did nothing to adjust? Yeah, I probably would.
“…you keep asking me why we’re not closer friends when you rarely bother to even ask me how I’m doing…” would sound like LW wants to be friends and is demanding reciprocity.
I don’t think that’s actually what LW wants.
Depends on how awful it was. Friend sounds like a big box of not fun. And after a while I get tired of being the reassuring nice person. What emotional labor is friend doing around not being annoying? Sometimes truth is important in boundary setting. It’s not about cruelty it’s about me deserving peace in my own darn house. I’d be mortified to imagine I went to someone’s house and annoyed them so much they thought I’d saying this to me and if friend is an actual friend they will be too. If not? It’ll bring that out.
No that would be difficult.
But I imagine for every person who does say something like that, five people will try to hold it in until eventually their mental dam fails and it all comes gushing out as a wave of terminal invective.
For me personally – I’d want to say it but not be able to spit all that out. Most likely I’d split the difference with something like “I like you fine but I’m getting really tired of having this same conversation over and over.”
I’m with you, PintsizeBro. LW seems to want to stop these conversations, not deliver some home truths about Friend’s neediness. In fact, LW seems very clearly not to want to make these kinds of comments, given that that LW’s partner loves Friend, and LW loves Partner.
If I had these parameters, I could see saying, “What I really don’t like is having these conversations repeatedly. Can you please stop bringing it up? It makes me uncomfortable.” LW’s MMV, but this is a statement I’d feel okay repeating if Friend kept bringing it up.
That’s exactly right!
Same: “I have already said, multiple times, that I don’t dislike you–but I do definitely hate having this conversation with you each time I see you, so maybe could we just not? Take yes for an answer, Clingy Friend-of-Partner!”
That seems pretty cruel. There’s a huge difference between backing off of the reassuring answers, and saying something outright mean. Sticking to neutral, noncommittal answers would be enough to remove the validation from the conversation; why would you want to be harsher than that, especially to someone your partner clearly cares a lot about?
Except LW has already been giving “neutral, noncommittal answers” and STILL Friend forces them into these awkward uncomfortable conversations. Without, as LW admits, *ever* asking about LW and their life. Seems pretty clear to me, with LW admitting that all Friend does is take from LW, that Friend is a leech.
I hear you and agree about Friend, but getting Friend to see that they’re a leech doesn’t seem to be the LW’s goal. I don’t get the same vibe of urgent discomfort from the letter that would prompt me to have that kind of response. The LW honestly does just seem to want something more pat to say.
Made me laugh out loud!
Telling Friend “I think you’re pretty self-absorbed” is just going to create Drama. LW, do not do this. Friend will make Sadface to Partner about how you Hate them and they can never come over and it’s best if they give you space and and and.
Agreed. If this script is used then LW comes off as an awful person and Friend comes off like a victim which, honestly, furthers that “I’m just a burden to everyone” attitude. They’ll have this to point to. I think a better script falls along the lines of “You are very important to Partner and we both want to make them happy. I think it’s great that we share that, but it’s okay that we’re not friends. Can we agree on that and stop with this line of conversation? It makes me uncomfortable.”
Yeah… I mean, if you want to be Truthful, saying something like, “Well, to be honest, your repeated requests for reassurance even after I reassure you are getting awkward and making things kind of weird and I really don’t know what else to tell you at this point.” would be perfectly honest without being outright mean.
Yes, “self-absorbed” isn’t good. If the OP has to list faults – although I personally wouldn’t recommend it – it would be much better to stick to things that are less obviously subjective or simply more neutral. I mean, what good can it possibly to do tell someone they’re self-absorbed? If they are, they almost certainly don’t realize it – self-absorbed people almost never do realize it – and therefore the chances of their changing are essentially nil. So all you’d be doing is providing nonconstructive criticism that hurts someone you (or at least the OP) doesn’t want to hurt and who is important to the OP’s partner. I just don’t see the point.
I think the captain’s scripts are much better because they sound kind of responsive without actually giving Friend anything to really chew on. The goal here, or so it seems to me, is not to take an iffy situation and turn it into a full-blown drama. It’s to make it easier for the OP to simply remove themselves from the drama.
It might be that LW wants to say this but doesn’t want to hurt Friend, which is cool. It shows compassion on their part.
I am in a situation similar to Friend, and in my case, I kept asking for reassurance that all was well from my room mates, one of whom had been a very close friend for two years. Long story short: I was emotionally abused by my mother and two partners, so I have highly sensitive radar to Things That Don’t Feel Right. I don’t want to derail the thread, but I had gone through a lot of stuff like being out of a job, being behind on rent, etc. and they were gradually growing more distant. When I asked directly, I was told “It’s just stress, we’re doing the best we can.” I could still feel something was wrong, and last week, I pushed too hard for the truth. Now I’ve lost my close friend and her friend.
My point is, even if it seems like it’s going to hurt or cause a little drama, speak up now, and be honest. I’d rather go to the doctor for painful stitches on a cut toe than eventually lose a leg to gangrene.
I can identify with that. I was also emotionally abused by my mother, and one of the biggest symptoms for me is that I’m hypervigilant about, as you say, things that Don’t Feel Right. I can tell if someone’s anywhere less than 100 percent pleased to see me, and if there is some reason that I can’t immediately tell (e.g. I live in a country where English is not the first language, and I’m not so good at picking up nuances) then I assume that something is up, it’s like my default option. It’s something I can just sit with these days (“oh there goes my brain, assuming everyone is scary and hates me again”) but when I was younger I always wanted to sort of break through the fourth wall of friendships and discuss what our relationship was and whether we were OK with each other and stuff. And it definitely lost me friends.
That kinda sounds like the exact opposite of what the LW was asking about, “a way to be honest but not make them feel like you actually dislike them.” Even if we as readers don’t like Friend’s behavior, the question isn’t about getting them to see what’s wrong with them as a person, it’s about giving the LW a script to deflect the question if (when?) it comes up again.
Excellent scripts as always, Captain. However, it looks like LW used “Partner” and they/them pronouns to refer to their partner, not “Husband” and he/him pronouns. Consider editing your response?
Yes, this was my error – I was working on another letter in another tab and made a mistake elliding things. Fixed now, sorry for the error.
I’m not sure where the husband language is coming from because the partner and letter writer aren’t referred to in any gendered way throughout the letter as it’s published here.
I don’t have any advice to add to the Captain’s, just sympathy for your situation – one of the first signs that my mum’s depression is less under control than normal tends to be either self-blame (of the “I’m sorry I’m such a rubbish mum and a burden to you” type) or increased emotional fragility on random subjects (Me, watching Murdoch Mysteries: “I wish the show writers wouldn’t keep playing with the lead characters’ emotions all the time!” Mum, in tears: “I’m sorry!” Me:”…I’m not blaming you” Mum, in tears: “It felt like you were.” Me: “It’s not your fault for liking the programme! I like the programme too! I’m just saying, it would be nice if they let the characters have some nice things occasionally, and didn’t hurt them and the audience all the time…”).
But yeah, it can be very difficult to tell whether someone’s got an out-of-control brainweasel or is being manipulative – and either way, it can be horrendous (and repetitive) to cope with. Good luck!
“But yeah, it can be very difficult to tell whether someone’s got an out-of-control brainweasel or is being manipulative”
I mean… after a while it doesn’t really matter. It’s still having a negative affect on someone else’s life.
Yes, this. If it’s brainweasel then it’s still the Friends job to work with their own jerkbrain so it does not outsource the sad all over the place. If someone refuses to do this I generally no longer care if it’s mean-spirited or not ’cause the effect on me is the same.
Tho I give a different tame frame to anxious vs manipulative people and I would be generally more kind to someone who is anxious and has hard time to control it (more: ‘I get that you are nervous but this conversation has repeated x times and I need you to ask to stop, pls’ scripts) than to someone who is manipulative (more calling out bullshit like: ‘if you feel uncomfortable and so worried here you can leave, no worries, we will catch up later’).
But there is a point in which this no longer matters and you just need to stop throwing emotional labor at the other person..
In my teens and early 20s I used to ask for a lot of reassurance from pretty much everyone in my life, and I’ve made a lot of progress taming that particular brainweasel but I still get the urge a fair bit and every so often I do still act on it. I can report that it’s a HUGE relief whenever someone acknowledges not just the immediate ask but also the pattern of asking (your “I get that you are nervous but this conversation has repeated x times…” example). It’s confirmation that my concerns have been heard and taken seriously and for the most part I don’t have relapses with the same people. I know calling attention to the behavior probably seems harsh or awkward to LW and to a lot of readers, but sometimes it’s really kind. In fact, having the pattern called out to my face a couple times was what made me aware that there even was a pattern.
All of that said, I’m in therapy and it’s going great and I know it’s no one’s job to manage another person’s brainweasel for them. I intentionally wrote that I used to ASK for a lot of reassurance rather than that I used to NEED a lot of reassurance, because no amount of reassurance could ever be enough. What I NEEDED was to take care of the underlying junk.
BrainWeasels LLC: outsourcing the sad since forever!
Yeah, sometimes brainweasels make us do manipulative shit. It doesn’t make it not manipulative and it doesn’t make it anyone else’s job to put up with it.
Yeah, I’m currently moved back in with my mum because of my mental health, and the last serious spiral I had was when she was renewing her car insurance and decided not to put me as living with her – I thought she wanted me out, sharpish. Turns out me as a housemate would have saved her £20 over the year, and if/when I did move out, changing it again would be a hassle, and it was easier just to lose that twenty quid.
But I hid upstairs for a good half hour trying to figure out how, unemployed, I was gonna manage to move out within 6 weeks.
LW, it seems like you and your partner have decided that it is important to you to be welcoming to each other’s friends. Which is awesome! But hopefully that won’t get in the way of you taking the Captain’s advice to disappear for more hangouts, if you want to. I have a childhood friend whom I love very much but who sort of irritates some people and is also very sensitive to vibes that someone doesn’t like her, and we mainly hang out just the two of us. It’s a win for everyone – my husband doesn’t have to pretend he likes her more than he does, she gets one-on-one time with me, and I can just hang out with her without worrying about anyone’s feelings.
I have worked with somebody really needy like that, and I find it exhausting as hell! Do NOT like it. That said, she IS a nice person, she does her best at work, and I work with her as little as possible. I got really annoyed one stressful day (partially her fault because she sucks at time management) and told her I disliked it when she fished for compliments, and that her being so needy was difficult for me to tolerate. She was semi-crushed, but a few days later acknowledged that I was right to say what I said.
I agree with Captain, this could def be just the friends jerkbrain/anxiety.
Yeah, this reads as anxiety-brain to me too. And that can be fine, when you’re talking to someone who is actually part of your support network! I have an anxiety disorder, and I have a close friend who has an anxiety disorder, and we basically take turns supporting each other through bad days where our respective brains are being a jerk.
But it works because a) we’ve agreed to do that for each other, and b) it’s a reciprocal process. LW didn’t agree to be part of Friend’s support network in this way, and doesn’t seem to be getting much back from this relationship; they shouldn’t feel obligated to keep offering reassurance.
Also plus, even people in your support network can draw lines re: how much they’re willing to petsit one’s brainweasels! I had serious anxiety that caused me to constantly ask a loved one “are you upset with me?”; after quite some time of “no, of course not” they finally broke down and said “no, but I will be if you keep asking that on the regular.” It was hard to hear, but necessary and important.
When there’s a gender identified in the response and not in the letter, it pretty much always turns out to be because the original letter contained information that didn’t make it into the published version. It’s not done maliciously and I’m sure the Captain will edit the response if it needs to be edited.
I’ve edited it – it was a mistake holding over from answering another letter (that isn’t published yet). Sorry my brain got hetero-centrism all over this. I’m deleting other comments to this effect now that it’s corrected.
Oof, I have a friend (acquaintance, really) who does a version of this after their relationship with our mutual friend imploded.They will message me out of the blue thanking me for not dropping them like everyone else did. What am I supposed to say to that? (So far I’ve gone with not acknowledging or interacting with that statement beyond the first instance. And muting their convo so I only see it when I go into the app, and can choose to read it if I feel like it.) Following this post and replies with interest.
I would use the Captain’s Script A.
Then if Friend responded in a clingy/needy/Why Don’t You Love Me way, I would acknowledge what I think is the feeling behind the statement:
“It seems like you really wanted to hear something different than what I told you”
“This seems like its making you pretty sad”
Etc, and if Fiend keeps on:
“I hope you can find comfort for this feeling. It sounds pretty painful, and I sure wouldn’t want you suffering in this way”
And then repeat.
“Yeah, it sounds hard”
“Yeah, not sure I’m the right person to give you what you need, but I genuinely hope you do find the comfort/support/reassurance you deserve”
I like these!
I’m sure that ‘Fiend’ was a typo, but I like it just the same.
Thank you for these scripts. When I was in clingy brain weasel territory, these would have helped me, whereas a blunt ‘I don’t really like you, I just tolerate you’ would just have fed the weasels. (There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to be besties, but telling someone you don’t like them is still an aggressive act in my book.)
I like them because it allows me to be very present, compassionate and genuine with the person, without taking on any responsibility for making them feel better or changing their situation.
When people have spoken to me this way, I feel very heard and held. If I feel rejection from them, it feels very gentle and safe.
I dealt with an ex-friend who utilized that wonderful combination of forced intimacy and forced teaming (“thank you for being a true friend and sticking by me, unlike everyone else”) while also being entirely one-sided about it, and it ultimately ended very badly for both of us. I hope for LW/Partner’s and your sake there will be lots of great suggestions/anecdotes of successfully pulling back on these interactions so that things can resolve amicably for everyone.
I’ve had this same experience. A lot of one-sided intimacy plus “thank you for not being like everyone else who gets sick of me” is a poisonous brew.
Yeah, forced intimacy and that type of language can be a sign of emotional manipulation. Yuck-o! Hope it isn’t the case with this situation.
Oh my G-d, my ex-husband did this constantly and I didn’t realize it until just now.
It sounds like your acquaintance is inviting you to comment on their situation. Like you could say the tiniest thing and they might just go off. It’s such a manipulative thing to do, saying things like that.
I think if you want to, you can just say some version of “Please stop saying that. I didn’t drop you because I like you—it wasn’t a favor. But I don’t like reassuring you about it, and having you ask me over and over makes me enjoy talking to you much less. If you want to talk about your feelings about other people, we can do that, but please don’t make that about me.” (If of course, you actually do like them and are willing to talk about their feelings of loss.) That might sting a bit, but it also might be reassuring—it kinda gives them what they’re asking for, but sets a very clear limit about only wanting to say it once.
Jeez enough is enough (not you specifically, but everyone). The cap made a typo/accidentally assumed genders it happens but there are already three four comments about this. Let’s not make the whole thread about “THHEEHEH CAAPP MADE A MISTAKE”. Cap just moved and has a busy life, I bet shell fix it when she can.
I appreciate people correcting me – it’s a good reminder to SLOW DOWN and PROOFREAD, because misgendering has consequences and I really try never to do it. Thanks for the vote of confidence, though, should be all fixed.
Speaking of proofreading, in case you haven’t caught and corrected these between me loading the page and posting the comment:
ask themrto check
your Partner’ss sake
Nonsense. Friend considers you (“Friend” should be “Partner”)
I’d suggest a middle ground though – while correcting errors is generally good, it’s generally good webiquette to scroll or ctrl-f through the comments real quick to make sure it hasn’t already been pointed out. Otherwise all the other readers have to scroll through repeated corrections, and it gets old.
When people fish for compliments (or reassurance), positive reinforcement would be reassuring them, and if they can depend on LW to be “nice,” they will likely repeat the behavior, whether they’re motivated by manipulation or they’re suffering brain-weasels. Negative reinforcement might be as simple as LW breaking the “nice” illusion (a person can still be kind but not nice).
Maybe “Actually there are some people I don’t really want at this event– and they’re not here. Enough said.” (don’t give specifics). Or “No, I don’t keep pity-friends– that’s cruel.” Sometimes simple bluntness can break the illusion of “nice” even if it isn’t mean. Maybe you could call attention to the questions themselves: “why do you ask? What makes you feel that way?” It might make the asking uncomfortable enough that Friend will stop, or who knows, maybe they have some real beef.
If LW wants to communicate that they want Friend to remain Partner’s friend and not LW’s, maybe something along the lines of “It’s great to see you two together / that Partner has such a good friend,” “I love that Partner has such a great Team Partner…”
But yeah, what CA said about LW just dealing with it in whatever way is not excruciating for them, there’s certainly no “right response.”
I have a friend who once sought constant reassurance from me and while I genuinely did consider him to be one of my best friends, the part I didn’t like about the reassurance seeking was the implication of “You might be one of those awful friends who strings people along indefinitely.”
So saying something like “All this reassurance seeking makes me feel like you suspect I’m some kind of cruel, fake person.” allowed me to address the brain weasels’ concerns directly without so much chastising him for having them in the first place.
Yeah, I’m just realizing that one thing that is so appealing about your approach is that it’s so reassuring because the kind of person who feels like they MUST be friendly to someone they resent as a “burden” (ahem, me when I was a kid, because all the adults around me told me to and I didn’t think I had a right to say “no” to literally anyone about anything) is exactly the kind of person who won’t respond honestly to Friend’s badgering… because they feel them MUST be friendly to Friend. It just makes Friend’s behavior all the more illogical (but hey, brain weasels aren’t usually logical, so). These are all the kinds of scripts I really could have used when I was like 9.
I’d be careful with “why do you ask?” though. In normal social parlance, yeah, it means “heads up, that was a weird question.” But someone who wanted you to be more intimately interested in their life and issues (but isn’t interested in yours!) may very will take it as “aha! Now they are interested in my thoughts/feelings/troubles! Victory!” and intensify.
That’s true. Maybe a more specific “do you take issue with my behavior” would be better.
I love the Cap’s advice, especially about talking to Partner.
I’d probably say something like “Dude, the *only* time you’re a burden is when you do this about being a burden and ashamed. You’re welcome here, you know you’re welcome here, and it kind of freaks me out that you keep doing this because wtf am I supposed to say? Seriously, stop it with the “burden” weirdness and we’re all good.”
If Friend tries it again, I’d throw it all back on them by asking them, why do you keep doing this and what am I supposed to say?
And if it comes up after that, I’d be some variation on “that weirdness is your burden, not mine, so I’m noping out of this conversation to make sure it doesn’t become my burden.”
I like this script a lot!
I like it too! I think it’s nice that CA acknowledged that this is about Friend’s jerkbrain and not a reflection on LW at all. It can be tough to be a person that always needs reassurance, and at the same time tough to be on the receiving end, since it’s a need that’s impossible to satisfy – I think if someone like Friend finds a source of reassurance, it’s possible that they’ll keep coming back for it as long as it’s satisfying or positive. It’s sometimes really useful to learn that constantly asking for reassurance is an annoying habit, and might be a kindness to Friend to point this out.
Cool. Love this, and all other responses that consider compassion, something typically underutilized round here.
While the LW rightly has first dibs on advice, and top priority on setting personal boundaries, there’s no harm in responding to life’s annoyances from a place of compassion.
I like it too! I particularly like that it (potentially) stops a vicious mental cycle from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy:
Step 1: Worry someone doesn’t like you.
Step 2: Ask for reassurance from that someone
Step 3: Repeat step 2 until you become an unbearable drag to be around.
Step 4: Take their (now completely justified) desire not to be around you anymore as proof that your initial worry was valid.
Step 5: Repeat with other acquaintances.
It might be hard for Friend to hear at first, but an honest spank to a brainweasel’s nose might keep it from gnawing on additional targets.
This list of steps 1-5 is brilliant. Just pointing it out to Friend might be all that’s needed to get Friend to snap out of it.
“Honest spank to a brainweasel’s nose…” = brilliant and hilarious! My own brainweasels could use some honest spanks sometimes!
I have sort of been in this cycle (not to the point of permanently driving away people though, I don’t think) and something that has helped is to have a good friend bluntly say to me that I need to stop whining/leaning on them incessantly/asking for reassurance so much/whatever it is. The couple specific conversations I’m thinking of weren’t fun in the moment, and I probably just reacted with more self-hatred in the moment, but upon reflection I found them useful (and remained very close friends with both people).
I think part of what drove my worries was the fear that my friends wouldn’t tell me if I was leaning on them for emotional support too much, so maybe I had already crossed a boundary, and would they please reassure me that I haven’t, etc. It helped to have someone essentially say “This is the boundary! It is right here, and in fact you are trampling all over it right now so would you please take a step back?” Sure, there was a part of me that hoped the boundary was further away, or I wouldn’t have gone there at all, but mostly having some clear information about where it was calmed me down and helped me to recalibrate my own behavior.
Your second paragraph in particular really resonates. In just about any context, if someone has demonstrated a willingness to say ‘no’, it’s much easier not to be paranoid that they’re just being polite when they say ‘yes’.
This is where I would go to– basically just be honest that you want them to stop asking you that because it’s annoying. I know in the past I’ve repeatedly said things that bothered someone without realizing it (I should have known better, but at the time I didn’t– I am thinking of sooo many examples from my teens and 20s…) and really appreciated when someone just told me to knock it off. And then I learned how to stop annoying people in similar ways in the future.
If they don’t knock it off, then that’s a problem.
Seconding this! I do the burden-dance, I have friends who do the burden-dance, and we use this script on each other regularly.
This! I have a person in my group therapy that expresses regularly what a burden they are. I felt so uncomfortable and annoyed and chose not to speak up. A week later they did it again and therapist leading the group told them, ‘the only part of you being an actual burden is when you say you are a burden and get stuck in that vortex and delaying your participation in the exercise/group.”
I love the “what would you like me to say” for people that just won’t stop asking. It puts it out there so perfectly that I am clearly not giving you the magic answer so you go on and vocalize it yourself. And then, I can follow up with something like:
Well, you and I are clearly not going to agree on that one.
Well, that may be what you’re hoping I’ll say, but that wouldn’t be an honest answer on my part. Would you like me to lie?
That’s not for me to say/do/voice an opinion on. You’ll have to speak to [someone else] if that’s what you’re looking for.
…..and conclude with, “I’ve given you my answer time and again. Now please don’t ask again.” You’ve got to nip this in the bud. Captain’s use of the word “draining” is spot on.
The suggestions are great! Just also want to say to LW that your compassion and honesty shines through and you seem like a really genuine person. Best of luck with the situation!
It sounds as if you feel like Friend is acting in good faith, so I think I’d probably say “I don’t know that you and I are ever going to be *close*, but you’re good company, I enjoy having you around, and Partner and I don’t have a problem letting you know when we need time alone together; trust me, if you’re invited, you’re wanted. OK?”
See, this is a kind and thoughtful script. No snark or shortness. Thanks Marna!
LW, it sounds like a big thing keeping you lukewarm on Friend is that they take a lot (in time and emotional labor and sometimes even money), and they don’t give much back in return.
What if you directly asked them for more?
Not at the exact time they’re being needy, but if and when you could use some help painting your living room, or a ride to the airport, or a cat sitter – what if you asked Friend? Would it make this recurring conversation less awkward if you could say, “Hey, you’re not a burden – you were so great at helping us clean out the garage!” The idea of love languages is used to excuse a lot of bad behavior, but it’s not so awful to say that Friend might be the kind of person who’s better at directed practical help than asking how you’re doing. Friend might even appreciate having some guidance on how to show their affection for you.
This advice runs counter to the Captain’s – it gets you more enmeshed rather than more separation from your partner’s friendships. But sometimes it’s nice to have a bigger support network, and if this person is going to be in your partner’s life for the indefinite future, it’s worth considering.
In my experience, people like Friend aren’t the best to rely on for favors. A support network is great, if they’re actually supportive. If you ask friend for a ride or a cat sitting session and they flake out on you, that’s just more inconvenience than when they flake out on basic politeness like asking how you’re doing or not backing you into weird conversational corners.
I second that asking Insecure Friend for favors isn’t a good idea but for a different reason. As far as I can see, Insecure Friends seem to be asking for reassurance, but deep down in some twisted way, they’re trying to prove that they’re not worthy. (Obviously I’m not talking about all of them or even this one necessarily. This is just general observations.) So I ask for a favor in an effort to give positive proof that Insecure Friend is valuable to me, and Insecure Friend somehow makes big terrible mistake that proves the opposite.
After about the 3rd time I get those confusing, don’t-know-what-I’m-supposed-to-say questions, I ask:
“What do you want me to say?”
And then I sit tight and listen while Friend scrambles for words. Friend might come up with something I can agree with in which case I say “Yes! That’s it.” Friend might spiral into a bunch of self-deprecating stuff in which I case I say “Really? Is that what you want to hear from me? Have I ever given you the idea I believe that? What have I said or done that makes you think I think that?” Friend might say “I just need some reassurance sometimes” in which case I can come back with “Reassurance? You got it. I do care about you.”
Basically Friend is demanding you guess what they need to hear. So far you’ve been awful at guessing because Friend keeps saying “No, guess again.” So stop guessing and ask.
Yeah, but in LW’s case, if Friend wanted reassurance, the most LW would be able to honestly say is “I don’t totally dislike you” which isn’t exactly reassuring at all….
I am seeing slightly more than that that could still be honest – ‘I am so happy that Partner has good friends’ ‘Friends of Partner are welcome here’ ‘You’re a decent person, good company when you aren’t asking me frustrating questions like this, and I value your friendship with Partner’ ‘I know we’re not super close but I do like having you around sometimes for visits’ etc. Or whatever is true.
I’d be tempted to remind Friend that you don’t have to be intimate friends with everyone, and it doesn’t mean you hate them. Sometimes you just have enough close friends in your life already. Sometimes someone is a nice person but not a ‘kindred spirit’.
I like “I care about you” because it’s vague enough not to be dishonest. I know the phrase can mean different things to different people and in different parts of the world. I can use it to mean everything between true romantic love and a general wishing well. In other words, I care about my partner whom I love in a sexual monogamous relationship, and I care about the people who staff the supermarkets in town whose names I don’t know. I also care about the people I read about in newspapers but have never met. It’s easy for me to say I care about you. I don’t want to see anyone suffer. But I don’t see it as a brush off. LW asked if there was a way to lie so that they actually believe you. That’s why I suggest “I care about you” if Friend is aware enough to know they’re angling for reassurance.
Also, even if you do love someone to little bitty pieces, which the LW clearly doesn’t in this case, endless reassurance is a huge ask. It’s exhausting. EXHAUSTING. “I value all of Partner’s friends!” or “You’re great company!” is fine once. Or twice. Maaaaaaaybe three times. After that, if you keep asking, I will kind of want to lay down and die, because the emotional labor involved in continuing to reassure is hugenormous.
My favorite is always when you can see on their face the moment where they realize that what they want you to say is actually completely unreasonable and never, ever going to happen. Changes the subject right quick.
What about “One of the cool things about Partner, is getting to hang out with all his/her/their cool friends sometimes too!”
Which, is simultaneously: short, affirmative in a general sense, but also continues the felt distinction between partner-friends and my-friends – and suggests the hanging out shouldn’t be expected to be all the time.
I think this just sort of feeds Friend’s need for constant reassurance, though.
You probably can’t. What you can do is get better at handling them in the moment.
This. This. This.
“No, Friend, you’re not a burden. But having this same conversation over and over does get a bit old. If I didn’t want you here, you wouldn’t be here. Can you please trust me on that?”
Another good script is this: “If I have a problem with you or what you’re doing, I will tell you.”
If you like, you can follow it up with, “In that spirit, I am telling you now that I don’t like the repeated requests. We’ve gone over this, and I’d like you to stop now. Trust that if I’m mad, I’ll let you know so we can fix the problem.”
Yes this!! I’ve used this on folks who do things to annoy then say oh you seem upset. It’s subtle bullying. I always make them repeat their issue three times and say, well if I want to tell you something I’ll use my words. Ok? And I say tge ‘ok’ in a ‘we are done now’ voice
I find the script also gives you an “in” for the times you actually need to say something. “Remember we agreed that we’d say something if something was actually bothering either of us? This is me saying something, in part so that when I *don’t* say anything, you know that we’re just fine.”
I don’t think this conversation is happening because Friend thinks you’re lying about them not being a burden. I think it’s happening because Friend is feeling crappy in that moment and is seeking reassurance to help them feel better. You’ve offered that reassurance repeatedly in the past (no matter how unwilling or dishonest it might have been, it was effective enough to make Friend feel better enough to drop the topic), so Friend is coming back for more.
If you want these conversations to stop, you need to break that cycle. Ideally, you probably want answers that are neither reassuring nor cruel.
I like open-ended questions for this. “What makes you think that?” “It sounds like you’re pretty upset right now. What are you going to do to help yourself feel better?” “Why would you say that about yourself?” These basically reflect the conversation right back onto Friend; you’re no longer the source of reassurance, you’re just facilitating Friend in having a more honest conversation with themselves.
This might still be more work than you want to do. If so, that’s legit. But if you’re willing to do it short-term, I suspect Friend will stop coming to you with these thoughts after a couple cycles of this, because it turns into a challenging introspection rather than a feel-good moment for them.
If you’re looking for a shorter cutoff, I like “Wow. I’m not sure what you want me to say.” (I prefer this to “What do you want me to say?” because it doesn’t have the possible interpretation that you’d say it if only you knew what it was. That makes it a true dead-end.)
Sorry to self reference but thanks for this comment as I do this sometimes (with my husband) when I’m trying to get little hits of love (I’ll think to myself: “I suck”) and then turn to him and ask “are you mad at me?” and wow it has nothing to do with anything he’s doing. I’m basically milking him for comfort. (Note to self: please don’t do this). Anyway, I do think Friend is trying to manipulate to be more included in things by making LW feel obligated to profusely show how much Friend isn’t a burden by inviting him to everything. Yuck. (The fact that Friend does nothing but speak of themselves and their issues…I’d be curious to know if that is a longstanding feature of Friend or just is the case when they are going through something. If not that seems narcissistic or perhaps LW’s partner is more a mentor vs. friend/friend in which case I wouldn’t expect reciprocity (and it might even be unwelcome). I wonder if LW’s partner wishes there was more reciprocity?
You may well have meant it this way yourself, but in case not or in case it’s not clear to other readers, you shouldn’t do that becasue asking a question that doesn’t address what’s actually going on is unlikely to get you the response you want, not becasue it’s bad to seek reassurance from people who care about us when we’re feeling anxious or insecure or otherwise bad. Something like, “Hey, I’m feeling really down on myself, and I could really use [a reminder of my good qualities, a hug, whatever will help reassure you],” is likelier to get the response you want becasue it’s clear to the other person what ze can do. That may also make it less confusing/annoying for the other person, both because ze then knows how to help instead of having to guess and because you don’t need to keep obliquely hinting if you get your desired response right away.
I know for myself, with people who do this, it’s not the reassurance that’s a problem – I want to make the people I care about feel better if I can! – it’s the process of first having to figure out that the other person is trying to communicate something other than what zir words denote and then having to guess how to address that unstated problem in a way that’s helpful. If there’s some method of soothing that’s usually effective (back massage? gift of chocolate?), you can discuss that beforehand, too, and then all you have to do is say, “I’m feeling kind of anxious right now,” and the other person will already know how to help without you having to determine what might help you feel better in the moment.
Yes…all good points. Thank you. (I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek when I say “are you mad at me” and my husband gets I don’t truly think he’s mad but of course he doesn’t really know what I’m looking for and sometimes I don’t either…just, something…lol…)
My best friend in the world has put up with me randomly needing reassurance for years. But I’ve gotten to the point (largely because she spanked my brain weasels by pointing out to me that I was trying to tell her how she felt and would I knock that shit off please and thank you) where on those occasions I can feel my brain weasels getting the better of me I will actually say to her: “I actually know [our relationship is] fine, but my brain weasels are being exceptionally mean to me so can I ask for some reassurance that we are fine?”
It feels kind of ridiculous but it works for the two of us.
I also am lucky enough to have a friend to whom I can complain about brain weasels, and she can complain to me. It helps a LOT if you tell the other person what the brain weasels are lying about to you this time, so they can offer the right reassurance. If I can say “my brain is saying you don’t like me because it feels like I am always the one to reach out and make plans, and it feels like you don’t care enough to make plans with me,” then I get in response something like, “I’ve been really busy recently and haven’t been able to reach out, but I can make plans for the next few times we hang out, and also I love you and your brain weasels are jerks.” It works much better than my previous stewing, which made things worse until we hashed it out.
So there’s actually nothing wrong with seeking comfort and support from a loved one! I find it really helpful some days too. But I find it works better when I follow certain parameters:
– Ask a loved one. Not an acquaintance, not a coworker, not a casual friend–but someone who already cares about you intimately and is invested in your happiness. (You’re already doing this! A spouse is absolutely a good source of support!)
– Ask if they have time/energy to offer support right now. If they don’t, it’s not personal, it’s not a reflection on you, and it doesn’t mean they don’t want to help–it just means you should either wait until it is or find someone else. Doing this lowers frustration for both sides, since you aren’t trying to get water from a stone and they aren’t feeling drained beyond their ability to support you.
– Tell them what you want. “My brain is being a jerk right now and I could really use some reassurance” tends to get a better response than “Are you mad at me?” because it tells them what you need. Most people appreciate this and will give you what you ask for! But if you leave them to guess how to help (or, worse, to guess that you need help at all), they might spend their time and energy doing something unproductive or even hurtful, because they don’t have the info needed to know better.
– Reciprocate. Probably your loved one needs support sometimes too, whether it’s comforting words, room to vent after a bad day, someone to handle the dishes when they’re feeling frazzled, whatever. You should offer that support (when you can do so without undermining your own stability). When you look out for each other, both of you end up happier and more stable in your lives.
All good stuff!
I completely agree with breaking the cycle, but I hesitate at the why-do-you-feel-that-way/how-are-you-dealing-with-that questions. There is IME a strong possibility that people will take that at face value and you’ll end up their unpaid therapist as they unload the life history of why they feel that way, complete with weekly updates.
I feel like this is a case of two people who don’t like each other very much, but who are also quite sensitive to people not liking them very much. And so it results in two people feeling weirdly and acting weirdly around each other, trying to simultaneously ignore and manage the feelings. Friend doing the “Is everything really ok? Am I really ok? I’m not really ok am I?” dance and LW doing the “I am magnanimous and charitable, I will rise above my real feelings” dance. I feel like LW’s attitude of specific-dislike-but-general-goodwill-towards-all-mankind is palatable to Friend, but Friend doesn’t have many coping mechanisms besides apologising for their existence.
Do you mean palpable?
I don’t really see any dislike, just a complete ambivalence and lack of connection.
Friend is a perfectly reasonable person that LW just doesn’t click with, and Friend doesn’t click with LW. That not clicking is fine with LW, but Friend feels awkward about it, so keeps bringing it up.
Yes. They’re friendly acquaintances, or even very casual friends, as far as I can see. And LW is happy with that, but Friend finds it somehow awkward that they aren’t close friends.
Perhaps Friend has got it into their head that if someone spends a lot of time with you and doesn’t start to feel super close to you, then it’s some kind of judgement on you or something wrong. Or perhaps Friend feels awkward about spending so much time around someone who is just a friendly acquaintance, and in their home, and assumes that being close would be better somehow.
But I’m not reading dislike, just ‘not really on the same wavelength’, ‘nice enough but don’t feel any urge to be close friends’ etc.
Ugh. They arent sorry for being a bother or potentially being a bother. They simply don’t care. But they do care that you not only have them around when they feel they may be intruding, but in addition to your generosity you must also reassure them how much you like them??? This usually happens to me when someone has overstepped and plans to do so again bc of a pattern. And wants me to tell them it’s ok. It’s not. Rather than reassure them just try to be comfortable with 1. Holding silence. Not rude silence but just a funny look with a laugh lihe you just aren’t sure what tgat all means. Bc really friend isn’t saying what they really mean which is ‘tell me it’s ok to impinge on your partner I NEED to be told it’s ok.’ Or you can 2. Just ask ‘why does it matter?’ I’ve asjed folks this. Why are you saying this? When they say ‘well I feel bad’ which is poop (the ones in my life) I say well if you feel bad about something v you are doing maybe you might think about doing something different? Occasionally with persistent users who also want reassurance I will add that ‘well if you feel bad why are you telling me? Shouldn’t you be saying sorry and then stopping? It sounds like you’re trying to get me to say it’s ok. If you don’t think it’s ok why should I?’ Or sone variation
I have been the person who wants constant reassurance. Its not about not caring. It’s about caring too much. BigDogLittleCats script is the best. The ones that try to use reason are…not so good. Or at least they would not be with me. It’s about emotion, not reason. My script would probably be something like ” I care about you” (Like Clarry says, it means a lot of different things. And the letterwriter DOES care-this is an important partnersfriend, and they care about partner) ” I find it difficult when you ask for reassurance all the time, I feel like you are telling me that I am lying, and that does not feel good” (this is all about emotions- demonstrate that your emotions are being affected by Their emotions) ” I want to make a commitment to you that if I am ever uncomfortable or unhappy about you being here I will tell you. Would you be able to commit to me that you believe me that I am happy for you to be here, and not ask me anymore?” If its me, I will say yes, but still forget and ask again. At which point you remind them ” We made a commitment not to talk about that unless something changed. Has something changed I should know about?” But also being willing to tell them occasionally- without them asking – that you care about them and are happy they are there- is good 🙂 (And I think, true enough)
I have also been that friend… BUUUUUUT I only ever did that to really close friends or partners, aka people who could (and sometimes did) dig deeper / have a conversation about what was really the matter. A friend of my partner? That’s weird. I don’t think it’s a conscious manipulation technique, more something that comes from a genuine need, but still, LW is not under any obligation to stand this irksome situation. In short: yes to scripts that cut it short (of course without being too brutal). I’m a big fan of the “If you weren’t welcome, you wouldn’t have been invited. Please trust us to be able to say “not today” if we don’t feel like seeing you or anyone else”.
This is something you can do with a person who is your actual friend! Offering reassurance and support is a thing friends do for each other. Presumably over the course of the friendship you also do things to support them, too. These are things that LW’s partner could do.
But it is not the job of your friends’ partners. That’s a level removed from your support network, and even if you see them semi-frequently while hanging out with your friend, unless they become a close friend as well (which LW and Friend clearly aren’t here), it’s not reasonable to ask for support in the same ways. It’s reasonable to not want to do the labor of offering reassurance and guidance for a person who’s just your partner’s friend.
True, but I think there is also a human kindness that everyone is due which involves at least trying to respond to people who irritate you with “I” statements, instead of directly telling them they are being annoying. I have very mentally ill clients, and I am not their mental health worker but their lawyer. Many of my peers snap at their clients when they are being annoying or even abusive. They believe that is client control. After all, it’s not technically our job to be their support network. However, after years of doing this and feeling worse about myself somehow, I don’t. I believe in doing my best to address their abusiveness towards me with “I” statements and deflection (to the extent appropriate without compromising my professionalism).
In this case, because they are friends with someone you care about – some assurance sandwiches might help too. Ex: “I think I’ve told you that you aren’t a burden! I enjoy your company when you come over and you are always welcome no matter what the occasion. But, I feel like this is not enough for you because you keep asking? It makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. Am I doing something to make you feel unwelcome or like you are a burden because you keep asking?”
And repeat the last as a response when the question is…inevitably…repeated again. That’s how I would handle it. though that may not be correct.
I’m from a country where the idea of saying to someone I get on with in a social sense, but don’t particularly like, that I *care* about them makes me so this face: D:
As you and others say yourself, “caring” means a range of things, but I think it implies in general that you’re more emotionally invested in them than the simple “not wanting anything to suffer”. Even if that person has the same range of interpretation, I think it’s needlessly ambiguous.
I’m not exactly the most emotionally evolved person, and if an acquaintance said to me that they “cared” about me when I was being a draining dickhead (yes, often I know I am in the moment, but find it hard to stop), I would then go into an even more draining dance (hopefully internal) of “what do they really mean???”
So, I would err on the side of not making potentially ambiguous statements that *might* imply a greater degree of emotional investment than you actually have.
I like the scripts around, “Honestly, if I had a problem with you, I’d let you know.” Probably, now it’s been more than once, followed with, “And this is me letting you know that these particular conversations about whether I’m cool with your hanging out [or whatever their actual phrasing is] are getting a little bit repetitive.”
Although… “I want to make a commitment to you that if I am ever uncomfortable or unhappy about you being here I will tell you.”
—what if that isn’t true? Because you know they will have loud messy feelings all over you if you are honest that, yeah, they drive you banana crackers (but you tolerate them because Partner loves them)? It’s unlikely that I’ll say so!
Sometimes we socially tolerate people we don’t much care for because someone we love loves them, or they’re an ingrained part of a social nexus, or whatever. I think it’s a huge thing to expect emotional homesty from all of them, I guess.
When I was about 20, and in a stage where my anxiety was very heightened and I was very insecure about myself, I kept convincing myself one of my friends didn’t actually like me or was mad at me.
So I kept asking if he was mad at me. Like, all the time.
Then one day he kinda snapped and went “no, I’m not mad at you, but if you keep asking I will be!!!”
After that I was a lot better at keep my InsecureThoughts to myself, and over the years I’ve gotten better at taking deep breaths, and unless I think I might have actually done something other than merely exist, I do not ask people for reassurance that they don’t hate me/are mad at me anymore.
I’m not suggesting that LW says that particularly- her situation isn’t the same; but just to point out that if Friend is having that kind of mentality, saying something could help them snap out of it. I think Captain’s script works well in that regards-it’s honest and to the point, but still reassuring that Friend’s presence is welcome.
My instinct on reading this wasn’t that it’s a Friend-centric shame ritual. My instinct is that it’s manipulation. Friend keeps bringing this up with you because they want something from you. They want you to do emotional work for them. They might want some kind of commitment that they can hold you to later. Given how the situation looks to me, my priority in OP’s place would not be to spare Friend’s feelings. I might say something like, “I wouldn’t have invited you if I felt it was a burden,” or, “If you feel ashamed to be here, you don’t have to come,” or even, “You talk a lot about what a burden you are, and it’s really making things weird. I don’t really want to have this conversation.”
I love your scripts! Especially how you can turn them into a whole plan: start off kindly and reassuringly with “I wouldn’t have invited you if I felt it was a burden,”, then if it happens again you escalate a little bit to “You talk a lot about what a burden you are, and it’s really making things weird. I don’t really want to have this conversation.”- this one is still nice and just casual, and if it still does not change you roll out the big guns with: “If you feel ashamed to be here, you don’t have to come,” which is kinda harsh but I think it’s reasonable at this point.
Generally I’m not sure if this is Friends anxiety or manipulation, but I think it’s very on-point to just causally and friendly call a spade a spade: This conversation is kinda unpleasant, you keep repeating that and it makes me feel weird, can you please stop?
If the Friend does not stop after being directly asked to I guess they show they are not THAT worried about your comfort after all, because now they now how to make you more comfortable – stop asking – and they refuse to do that. At this point t’s not rude to just start cutting it.
Even if it’s legitimate anxiety, it’s still sort of manipulative because they’re trying to relieve the anxiety through the LW. It may not be *maliciously* manipulative, but it’s still basically about using somebody else.
Many thanks to the LW for writing this question and the Captain for answering it! I’m dealing with a slightly similar situation in that my spouse has started dating someone who is a friend of both of us, but clearly has become a closer friend to my spouse. I like them, but their life has been (through no fault of their own) a series of crises for the past several months and I’m happy to help how we can but also need firm boundaries because of how badly it went the last time we helped one my spouse’s partners who was in crisis. Also, this friend does a bit of the “I’m a burden” dance, and seems to me to have some yellow flags around burning bridges and taking it personally when people don’t reciprocate friendship and conversation overtures the way friend would like them to. It puts some limits on how much reciprocity I can have with this friend and how close to them I can be.
As a response to the “I’m a burden” dance request for reassurance from people I do generally care about, I’ve sometimes been able to use “Will ya stop saying that?!” sorta jokingly “It’s no trouble at all to help you out but you cutting down someone I care about (aka yourself) isn’t fair. Cut it out!”
All of this is said with sort of faux-exasperation joking and smiles. I think it works specifically with people who get into anxiety spirals where I disrupt the emotional trajectory by jolting them out of it, and then they half-smile or sorta-laugh and they sorta re-set where they are. Then launching into a subject-change can really work.
If they try and go back to it later in the conversation I will go “you’re doing it again, stop!” with a smile and a laugh.
I suppose this works better for people who are closer friends so you know how it’ll go…I also know it has been used on me in similar circumstances to great effect.
I really like this advice! thank you— it was really helpful! I can totally see some of these scripts coming in handy in various situations! 🙂
I would do something like “can you trust me?” (if they say no, then you can kinda shut down the discussion there but they will probably say yes) “then I need you to trust me that I can advocate for myself when I do and do not want something. can you do that?” then for yes or no I would say, “okay, then we don’t really need to have this discussion again.”
I love the analysis of what’s going on and the scripts. I only wish I were more optimistic for a good long term effect. In my experience, when I give reassurance in one way, the insecurity comes back in another. When I point out the loop we’re in, the wording changes. The one time I got downright insistent that Insecure Friend was fine, she went ahead and did something so outrageously wrong that I finally could no longer reassure her that everything was fine. At that point I realized she’d won. She’d been angling for a way to tell herself that she wasn’t deserving of me, and she got what she wanted.
I don’t have enough experience with the Insecure Friend phenomenon to call this a prediction, but I would be on the look-out for Insecure Friend to become increasingly obnoxious until reassurance isn’t possible. Right now the obnoxious behavior is asking for reassurance, but it doesn’t necessarily have to stay there.
I’ve had this happen on three separate occasions, with three different people. I liked them! We weren’t super duper close, but I liked spending time with them!
But all of them did the exact same thing your friend did.
I am a person who has done this to someone I was super close with (believe that the person is telling the truth when she said she cared but then doing something “bad” that actually brought the outcome). I do think that it is common behavior for people with deep insecurity and/or trauma.
It is not an excuse at all, but I didn’t realize that it was my way of sabotaging something that was truly dear to me until after the deed was done. Now that I know about this I have been trying to work on it, but I can say wholeheartedly that at the time, I had absolutely no conscious knowledge of why/what I was doing and how it would impact the friendship. I do regret how things went (it wasn’t something hideously awful, but created a huge strain in the friendship) but I also have compassion for myself in the sense that I did not know better. People with moderate/severe mental health issues are still responsible for what they do, but they do deserve understanding.
I like the responses to the Friend. It sounds like Friend is extremely codependent and expects others to manage his/her own feelings instead of doing it him/herself. So there’s a bit of boundary-crossing here. All the letter writer can do is continually reinforce the boundary. It’s not up to them to manage Friend’s psychological state.
LW, you don’t say whether you’ve tried laughing it off or otherwise dismissing these concerns, and I’m wondering whether taking the requests for reassurance too seriously is creating a feedback loop. I know that when I’m feeling a little needy, I’ll sometimes make a self-deprecating remark that I expect–or at least hope–will be dismissed out of hand:
Me: Gah, I’m such a burden!
BFF: What? No, shut up.
If instead of dismissing me, my BFF said nothing or acted too concerned or started being *too* reassuring, I would probably start to think omg, she DOES think I’m a burden, and everything would go downhill from there. (A mismatch in how seriously the thing needs to be taken can be a feature of an ask/guess conflict, which has been talked about here before.) Maybe try something like this:
Friend: I’m so sorry for intruding. I know you don’t really want me here.
You: Pfft, don’t be silly, of course I’m glad you’re here. Now who wants cake?
There’s something inherently reassuring about having insecurities dismissed this way. It sort of says that this thing you’re so concerned about hadn’t even occurred to the other person, so it’s really not something to worry about. Bringing it up repeatedly only to be met with the same light dismissal feels increasingly unnecessary, or in the case of self-absorbed people, increasingly unrewarding. Try it and see if the behavior doesn’t taper off.
Also, cake. It always helps to have cake.
I would be surprised if a causual ‘of course not, don’t be silly’ weren’t the LW’s response the first couple of times the ‘burden’ question was raised; it’s a pretty common social convention, as much an automatica call and response as ‘thank you’/’you’re welcome’.
As for your dynamic with your friend, it sounds like that’s something that’s established as okay within your friendship; they know you’re just seeking reassurance, don’t mind delivering it, and also can trust you not to keep the exchange going once they’ve done so. There’s nothing at all wrong with that pattern if it works for you and friend, especially if you have a good and reciprocal relationship otherwise. With LW and this guy, it sounds like a different story, to me.
The comments section is meant to offer different perspectives and experiences, and are not aimed only at the LW, but at everyone reading. If my comments don’t apply to certain readers, they’ll pass them by. That said, I’m not sure how this reply you’ve written advances the conversation. It kinda comes off like you’re advising me not to give advice, which…thanks? You’ve gone out of your way to let me know that everyone already knows how to do this (not true), that the dynamic in my friendship is not the same as the dynamic in every relationship (obviously), and that my advice doesn’t apply to the LW (in your opinion). Your comment doesn’t offer the LW anything new. As far as I can tell, the only thing it’s done is make me feel bad about sharing my experience and wish I hadn’t said anything at all. So. Well done, you.
I think the Captain’s response is great. Here’s a variant script: I like you fine. I’m getting tired of this conversation though. What do you need to hear so that we don’t go through this again?
I’d suggest something like this:
‘Hey, don’t beat yourself up in front of me like that. Look, I think you’ve got some self-esteem or anxiety issues going on, and I feel like I’m hearing from them right now. But I’ve already tried telling you it’s cool, and that isn’t making the worries go away, so I’m gonna try something else – I’m just not going to feed them. It’s actually quite easy to accidentally train a brain to worry more just by spending time dwelling on the worries, and I’m starting to feel like these conversations are doing that. I don’t see you as a burden, consider that the case till further notice, and I’m not going to positive-reinforce your self-hatred by talking about it. Change of subject. How’s that thing you’re doing going?’
And then, when they come back to the subject, just go, ‘Nope, not feeding that anxiety cycle. I starve the brainweasels with my resolute neglect. Change of subject. What’s the latest on that thing you’re interested in?’
Because the thing is, this is actually true. If someone is rewarded with soothing, even if it’s less soothing than they want, whenever they talk themselves down, then they have no reason to stop doing it. If they like the soothing, they can get into the habit of thinking dark thoughts about themselves just so they get more soothing, and that’s doing them no good at all. You can be perfectly friendly by maintaining a stubbornly cheerful, ‘Nope, I only play with you when you’re not running yourself down!’ vibe, and it might actually help them.
Totally stealing “I starve the brainweasels with my resolute neglect” to use on myself. ❤
I’d suggest a slight edit, to “Change of subject. Let be tell you about the movie I just saw/the project I’m working on/the cool thing I saw on the way home yesterday.” Friend is never going to ask LW about their interests, job, or what they thought of the latest summer blockbuster, and already tends to make the conversation entirely about the things they’re interested in.
Two advantages of this: 1) if LW can get Friend to listen to what LW finds interesting, instead of dragging every conversation back to Friend’s life and interests, LW might start enjoying Friend’s company. There may be people who are happy to spend all their time hearing about someone else’s life and interests, with no chance to talk about their own, but LW clearly isn’t one of them.
2) If the conversation is at least partly about LW’s activities, interests, and such, rather than only about Friend’s, that might quiet Friend’s brainweasels, by moving the focus to something other than Friend, and Friend’s interests, and (implicitly or explicitly) what LW thinks about Friend and their activities. That doesn’t have to be anything that actually involves intimacy on LW’s side–an impersonal topic doesn’t require LW to offer intimacy (if Friend is even interested) or to be an audience for The Friend Show, with occasional interruptions for a pledge drive, please give now if you value this programming. (I used to listen to quite a bit of listener-funded radio: the pledge drives were almost always less interesting than the programming they interrupted or replaced.)
You may be right. The reason I suggested changing the subject to something about Friend is that LW says Friend is self-absorbed; if you’re trying to get someone off a subject, it helps to have the new subject be something that will distract them, and for Friend, that would need to be something that was still about Friend.
It could be that LW might enjoy Friend more if they could talk to Friend about their own stuff, but if Friend is really wrapped up in themselves, then trying and failing to get them interested might end up exasperating LW even more, and that’d definitely show. It’s quite a lot of work to try and get a self-absorbed person to listen to your stuff, and this already sounds like a tiring relationship.
If Friend can be persuaded to listen to something non-intimate about LW, it could work. In a sense, it could act as a deterrent: ‘When Friend goes down the I’m-a-burden route, the conversation switches to something that isn’t about Friend at all, so they lose attention rather than gaining it.’ It depends exactly how self-absorbed they are, and how hard LW feels like trying to establish more of a connection rather than creating some distance. LW will know best about that, I guess.
LW here. Thank you all so much for your comments. They are really helpful.
Re-reading my own letter and the responses made me wonder why this is situation is so distressing to me. It definitely goes beyond social awkwardness. The comments helped me see that (a) telling someone that they are wrong about how you feel when in fact they are right about how you feel is a form of gaslighting, and I don’t like doing it. (b) Lying in this beyond-social-white lie/gaslighting situation makes me ashamed, and that makes me defensive and angry. I get angry when Friend does this, not so much because they are pestering me, but more in an abusive way like NOW SEE HOW YOU MADE ME LIE TO YOU! And that’s terrible. No one is *making* me lie and I can choose not to do it. (c) I really don’t like Friend very much.
I’m going to re-read the comments and the scripts and practice some response that feels more genuine but not mean. And thank you again very much.
You seem very thoughtful and empathetic and careful—gosh, I know that awful feeling where you recognize an anger in yourself and realize you’ve been blaming someone else for it but IT WAS YOU ALL ALONG—and I wish you and your partner the best as you navigate Difficult Friends.
I want to also tell you the thing your not-friend is doing is actually manipulative and awful. Not-friend may not mean to be doing this…it could be jerk-brain spinning its wheels…but that does not change the fact that they constantly try to coerce you into performing emotional labor to shore up their own emotional fragility without putting an ounce of emotional labor into you. They demand all the validation and shoring-up without returning any benefit. Also the labor they demand of you has no end or bottom. They use up your emotional spoons you would probably far-rather give to people you care more about and who actually engage in reciprocity. I’m exhausted just reading about how not-friend behaves and I’ve never had a conversation with them.
LW, this additional context is helpful. I have a parent with serious mental health issues, and she occasionally will do this sort of baiting to get us to meet her emotional wants.
You are NOT abusive by not giving in to this person’s baiting. I might honestly see this person less, if possible, and include them less often in group gatherings, because I doubt they are pleasant to other friends.
No one could blame you for not liking Friend very much. You can bluntly say you don’t like Friend that much and accept being a mean horrible person who wantonly hurts the feelings of a fragile person with mental health issues. Or you can stay in the loop of constant and ineffective reassurance, saying things you don’t fully believe. No wonder you don’t like the choices! It would seem to me that you’ve been manipulated, and no one likes feeling they’ve capitulated to manipulation. This is why I said elsewhere that I wasn’t optimistic for a great long-term result no matter what you do. For what it’s worth, when I’ve been given a choice like the one you have, when I have to choose between true-but-mean and kind-but-not-genuine, for me it generally comes down to my blurting the truth after trying to suppress it for a long time, and then everything gets magically better. I feel awful for a while, and then I feel better.
Have you thought of talking over with Partner how you’re feeling and what you’re tempted to say? I get the feeling that Partner too may feel similarly conflicted and may be glad you’re taking the lead in telling off Friend.
I’d assumed you liked Friend, at least a little. Dealing with someone you dislike is actually easier. Here’s why: you can push the problem back into your partner’s lap.
Partner, Friend gets on my nerves. Going forward, you’ll have to soothe and entertain Friend.
Friend, you’ll have get the validation from Partner, I’m braising leeks.
This is pretty much exactly how I deal with my brother’s partner. She is incredibly insecure and at first I was friendly towards her but ambivalent about how I felt about her… now I actively dislike her after she has cornered me at various family events and tried to get me to do emotional labour for her and reassure her that we, as a family, like her. She also does this with my mother who has a greater tolerance for the ‘I’m a burden’ dance than I do.
Whenever Brother’s Partner is handwringing about her place in the family, I tell her that she needs to have that conversation with my brother, and I’ve been blunt with my brother that his partner has worn out all my goodwill by targeting me for her emotional reassurance instead of him. He’s understanding that his partner needs reassurance, which is good for their relationship, but I don’t want to be closer to her than nodding acquaintances.
LW, it is a-ok to pass Friend and Friend’s needs back to your partner. It is ok to dislike someone, even someone your Partner is close to. You won’t like everyone that you meet and you’ve been more than charitable in trying to understand Friend. Give yourself the gift of space from Friend.
LW, be kinder to yourself! You say “no one is making me lie” but that’s actually kinda incorrect; literally all of our social training from early childhood is telling you that bluntly saying “No, actually, I find you obnoxious and would not miss you if you went away forever” is not an option.
For good reason, even. That kind of thing is not so much burning bridges as bombing them from orbit; socially we have reason to refrain from that in most cases. But it’s true that that conditioning is really strong. You’re “lying” because you have been told to do so since you were able to stand up, literally.
I wouldn’t fight that feeling; being blunt about “yeah, I barely tolerate you, for Partner’s sake” is unlikely to go well. For all the reasons that society trained you not to do it in the first place! I’d recommend finding something you CAN honestly say (“Partner’s friends are welcome here” maybe?) plus a shutdown of the conversation that invites no follow up (“Please don’t ask me that again; it’s awkward and makes me feel like a poor host” or something). And repeat. Verbatim. They will get bored and stop, or get annoyed and complain, but they are unlikely to keep it up if the cycle is short circuited like that.
I’m really glad that you came to realisation c. The resentfully gritted teeth came through clearly in your letter, and Friend sounds exhausting. It’s okay not to like Friend, and it’s okay not to want to invite them to to your events, or to ask your Partner to make friend into much more of a ‘them’ friend rather than an ‘us’ friend. It’s also okay to have and express opinions on things like the amount of money Partner gives them and the amount of time Partner spends tending to them. Partner is your partner, not Friend’s partner, and it does not make you uncool or unreasonable to feel negatively about Friend and how they affect your relationship.
I’ve been friends with a couple people like this in the past, and it’s always ended badly. I don’t know if it’s anxiety or conscious manipulation on their part when they’ve done that kind of thing to me, but it becomes super draining and inevitably begins to feel like pressure to hang out with them and be friendlier with them than I would prefer to otherwise.
I really like the Captain’s scripts for this, and especially like the idea of Partner doing more solo hangouts with this friend, just to put some distance from you and this behavior that making you feel put on the spot and uncomfortable.
I ended the friendship with the last person who did this to me 4 years ago, and still felt almost triggered reading your letter because dealing with that kind of behavior from her repeatedly over the course of several years messed me up pretty bad. So I can understand why you don’t like Friend much, especially when this behavior is so draining and hard to deal with. It’s completely understandable.
If this was a friend of my husband’s doing the behavior, I’d probably have a conversation with him that the friend’s behavior is making me uncomfortable, and can he please try to make most of the get togethers with this friend outside of our home, and not leave me alone with this friend to minimize these uncomfortable conversations coming up, and actively intervene if it does come up when he’s around. I think it’s fair to expect a partner to protect their partner from the behavior of a friend of one of them that is creating discomfort.
What if you said something like “if that is how you feel who I am to correct you”. Would that make it worse or make them stop?
This Friend reminds me of a person I used to know when I was with my previous partner. He was my ex-husband’s best friend (and for all I know, might very well stil be). I had very mixed feelings about him: on the other hand he was very generous (for example, he gave us some very expensive computer parts when we needed them) but on the other hand, he was also very self-absorbed and rude. I used to think that he seemed self-absorbed because he lacked social skills – or because he was anxious – or both. Luckily, though, we shared some common interests and I always steered our discussions to those areas. I never really thought what to think of that person: some parts of his personality I did like but he always made me feel a bit uncomfortable so when I divorced from this person, he kept his friend and I have never seen him since.
I love The Captain’s scripts and suggestions. Managing Freinds feelings is not your job and if you have not already talked with your partner, I would begin with that; perhaps you could come up with a common strategy which would lessen Friend’s need to seek reassurance from you.
What do you do when you hang out all together? Could it be possible to do something which would take so much time and concentration that it would prevent Friend from having alone time with you? Or could your partner take more responsibility of Friend’s comfort since they are their friend in the first place? In which situations does this Friend seek you out and ask their questions? Could you swich responsibilities with your partner and/or possible other friends so that alone-with-Friend time does not happen?
If Friend asks for assurance in the future I would probably say: “Hey, you have asked this several times in the past. Why are you asking this?” I do not know whether Friend is very forthcoming or not but gaining more information about them could help you to think of further strategies.
Best of luck, dear LW!
LW, what benefit do you and Partner get from this friendship? It sounds like Friend is exhausting, TBH.
I think it’s pretty clear that LW gets nothing out of it, but respects if not necessarily understands that Partner does. That’s all we or anyone needs to know, really. Partner wants to be friends with this person, so here we all are.
Right. And trying to figure out what Partner gets out of it, if that’s sufficient to justify what Partner puts into it, etc., etc., etc, is just pouring more of LW’s emotional labor on the problem. What LW needs is a way to personally disengage.
This may depend on your style and your friend’s, but I have a number of anxious friends and acquaintances who look for reassurance in mildly annoying ways, and I sometimes am able to tease them out of it by saying basically “yes, a clearly ridiculous and silly version of your fear is indeed true.” So in this case, I might say something like, “Yes, here you are in my innermost sanctum, and it was so onerous to climb all the way to the sink and get you this glass of water, will I ever recover?” or something. When this works, it’s nice because it does a couple things at once: a) deflects the exhausting request-for-reassurance ritual by not giving it directly, but b) conveys that the fear is not only wrong but obviously wrong, and c) gently says that this line of questions is silly, also d) can be a nice light bonding moment of shared humor.
This long post is for anyone else is reading this thinking, omg I’m totally that friend, and see, I KNEW they didn’t like me!
I’ve avoided/strained relationships where I cared at all if someone liked me. I’ve tended to only be comfortable if I don’t care about the other person’s judgment, which means I’m only comfortable without being vulnerable? No good. I want to actually like and be liked. It’s been excruciating, the return to “wanting to be liked.” Part of my growth has involved using my own judgment, and if I think “they don’t like me,” I’ve had to learn to refrain from trying to befriend them / “kill them with kindness.” It involves allowing people not to like me.
When I was a kid I was bullied racially, and we lived in small towns full of little social interactions where white folks (esp white moms) sometimes made it clear, and sometimes didn’t make it clear (while being terrifyingly polite), that my mom and/or I was unwelcome. I’m sure many of the white folks must have liked us, too, but I’m discovering that I basically learned as a child (reinforced by mom) that no one tells you the truth, people smile at you while they hate you/think you’re a lesser human, etc.
I’ve been reading this book about the adolescent brain that describes that as you mature you develop a map of your own interior world/feelings, etc, and a ‘map’ of other people (meaning that you learn that other people have needs, feelings, internal worlds, etc). It was like a light switch went on when I read that because I realized that my ‘map’ of ‘other people’s internal worlds basically taught me that no matter what someone says or does, they probably wish you weren’t around. I’ve also realized that I learned not to trust my own internal “I don’t like/do like” signal, about situations, and about people. I lived in a constant mess of unsatisfying, passive-aggressive interactions, and my best friendships tended to be with people who were also sort of disconnected and wanted to monologue about aggravating people/social problems (I think we at least took turns!).
I feel like my life has been full of good people who distanced themselves from my negativity, or who smiled at me while enduring me. I honestly didn’t know the difference between this reaction and racists-being-polite. It has been so much work to notice who I genuinely feel good around. Slowly I notice and build confidence in who I like, which helps me build a mental/feelings map of people who genuinely like me.
Sporks, what a difficult experience. Your third paragraph really resonated with me; my mother was eerily similar. It really set me up for a lot of distortions that I’m not sure I’ve completely dismantled.
Kudos to you for all the work you’ve done into unpacking your maps (sorry for the mixed metaphors!), and Jedi hugs if you want them.
I am so, so sorry you went through that. I hope you are surrounded by lots of good and sincere people now.
Fistbump of solidarity from someone who also grew up surrounded by Small-Town-Polite Haters. What’s the book’s title and what other things have helped you build that internal map of people who like you?
Thanks everyone! Here’s the book, called Brainstorm. http://www.drdansiegel.com/books/brainstorm/
Really, my conscious experiences of being like “hey, that person is genuinely kind,” or “hey, I actually feel good around that person,” and integrating those into a conscious awareness of my esteem/trust of that person is pretty new. I got harassed pretty badly and publicly at a work thing last fall and it has been a catalyst for letting go of professional success as my main source of good feels about myself. Up until that point I think I’ve not trusted regular people who liked me outside of my professional role because I experienced them as not that bright.
I don’t know that I made the connection in my above comment, but basically when my comfort zone was “people don’t say what they mean, fuck them,” I wouldn’t be ask-y/needy. When I was around a certain kind of activist, I felt validated. But then I’d get triggered by someone’s distance, by people who actually showed me they were put off, then I’d suddenly get very interested in their opinion of me. I’ve gotten hooked on a lot of douchey men.
So now I’m slowing down and just being very present whenever I’m with someone who has kind regard for me. I notice that if I’m sensing both genuineness and liking of me that I get defensive, even contemptuous. My map-of-the-world is being fucked with, right?
Gosh, I’ve probably been such a jerk to people! But now I can at least stop when I feel my chain yanked by a situation, where if I go there, I might confirm that the cool kids really don’t like me / that guy doesn’t actually love me. I’m so happy to finally have some direction, which isn’t about doing but feeling and paying attention until my lovingkindness-radar is properly tuned.
Sporks, I am so sorry you have had to experience that smile-hating racism when you grew up! Slowly growing out of a mindset like that takes so much energy and work – but every time one is stressed it is so easy to slip back to that headspace again. I have been there, too (though for reasons which are probably somewhat different than yours). My mother’s first concern was always: “What will the people think about this?” My friendships have been much like those you described, too, with people who were disconnected for various reasons and often angry about it.
I am very much sure you are likeable and lovable and that there are and will be people who love you, just as you are. Take care of yourself!
“My partner gives Friend lots of time and occasional money.” You have problem with Friend, but, for me, the real problem would be with Partner. Way back in the thread it was suggested that you go out to the movies when Friend comes over; how much time are you supposed to spend exiled from your home because Partner has a needy, boring Friend that Partner has around your house lots of the time? You said you didn’t feel invaded, but you’re far more tolerant than I could ever be; I would go mad having Friend around, wanting this and asking for that from a comparative stranger (you). And I really hope the money given to Friend is Partner’s, not mutual.
I actually have a blown up version of this problem. My job puts me in contact with a whole lot of wonderful and socially awkward folks. Think bartender to the geeky crowd. And I have to reluctantly participate in several of the shame rituals a day. These people aren’t really friends, more like regulars who I happen to like and are looking for companionship. There are many of them. So I don’t bother with full-on pacifying rituals and social conventions anymore, but non-committal shrugs and grunts don’t seem enough. It seems the sweet spot between the two is a very firm and clear “you are not a creep/pest/burden/whatever you called yourself” and a VERY firm change of subject, or even physically removing myself from the conversation. Not foolproof. Maybe too cold for a friend-like person. But it’s helped me keep my patience with otherwise lovely folk who I would hate to wound.
As someone with, you know, obsessive cognitions, this is what I have to do to myself when I get down this rabbit hole. It literally looks like going NOPE and then changing the subject on myself. Someone with obsessive worries about being a burden is already probably locked in an endless cycle of trying to prove and disprove their “I am a nightmare and no one likes me” hypothesis. Offering to participate in that seminar is sometimes not any kind or more helpful than saying “I have no evidence that supports this hypothesis, as far as I can tell you’re fine” and then bailing the conversation.
The word “burden” jumped out at me here, because I think this is a case where the connotations of a word conflict with its literal meaning. Being a burden on others is, according to the brainweasels of the world, the worst thing you can be. It does have the connotation of “unwanted”. But English doesn’t really have a word for “burden you’re glad to shoulder for a while”. When I carry my groceries home, that’s a burden, but I wouldn’t choose to leave them at the store. When I worry about a friend’s difficult situation, that’s a burden on me too, but I do it because I care about them.
I think the LW has trouble answering the “Am I a burden?” question because the honest answer would be “Yes, but it’s okay, I’m doing it for Partner”, but to Friend it would sound like “I resent your presence and never want to see you again”.
I don’t actually have a solution here.
I don’t really have much good advice except to say people who do this are really exhausting to be around. There is no way to express how you feel without validating Tiresome person’s belief in their own terribleness. Unfortunately regardless of its origin this is sort of manipulative, this person wants validation and some sort of emotional labor from you when they are not actually your friend, but your partner’s. I’m not sure what to do except shut down the behaviour – what this person is asking is not reasonable. You could address the behaviour in a direct way – “I’m not sure what to say when you ask me these things” or ask them why they are asking these questions. I was once in a friend group where one friend was always doing this and the other people would start making casting motions and jokes about fishing for compliments. I’m not sure making fun of the person is the right way to proceed but calling out the behaviour in a lighthearted way might make them stop doing it.
Hi Captain, somewhat off-topic, but I’d like to thank you for the “This is a very awkward question. What would you like me to say?” script. It’s perfect for those weird questions that people bring up out of nowhere (typically the ones that imply they thought I was an idiot and that they can’t believe I have some basic knowledge of A or B topic, like “Wait, how do YOU know anything about that??” or the ones that show they’ve created a backstory for me in their heads that turned out not to be true). I like that script! Thank you!
Great and timely for me, this post! I have a Friend who asks if I’m avoiding them. I’m not but I’m also pretty aware of their mental health state and I’m glad to see that they are able to speak up for themselves and question the story they are telling themselves. On the other hand, it’s getting OLD. I’ve learned, over time, that when I’m disturbed about something/someone, they usually remind me of something about me/my life/my experiences that bother me. Hello, Hall of Mirrors! And while that’s good, it gives me something to work on for myself, how do I work through this with Friend. I like the idea of open ended questions that were suggested here and I’m also seeing that boundaries are being suggested.
First, the question that I could ask might be: ‘What are you looking for from me?’ I think this equally applies here. I can sit, listen and validate Friend, even if the response contains requests for things that I am unwilling/unable/uninterested in doing.
Second, boundaries. It’s difficult to apply them for many. I’ll admit my own floundering for fear of hurting the other person but if I abandon myself constantly for others, I’m not taking care of myself, right? Someone in the comments mentioned something along the lines of saying, ‘you keep bringing up X topic. We’ve talked about it before and nothing has changed. Please stop bringing it up.’ Some variation of this exists, if only to say, ‘I’m sorry you’re struggling with this but I’m not able to support you around this topic.’ I might even add/ask them to not bring it up again.
Friend IS being manipulative. Friend IS being passive/aggressive. Friend does not know how to or is afraid to directly ask for what they want. That sucks for THEM. And it sucks for ME if I’m unable to/unwilling to set a boundary.
Lastly, I see many mentioning how it’s not likely to be able to tell Friend how they feel about Friend. This is true. Friend won’t hear you or they will come away even more hurt and it might not fix the issue because it doesn’t assert any boundary.
“Oh goodness, you’re worried I don’t like you? How funny! I’ve always thought you didn’t like me that much because you hardly ever ask how I am, or talk to me when Partner isn’t around, or, really, know much at all about my life. Sounds like we’ve both got our wires crossed!”
And then a lovely, friendly smile.
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