Context: J and I are both part of an online circle of friends who have known each other for years. Although several of us have never met in person, we consider each other close friends. Since we’re geographically scattered and many are dealing with our own issues of mental health, stress, strained finances, etc., we have limited bandwidth for socializing, making the main group chat an important point of contact, and alternatives to it hard to construct.
J has issues I’m not going to try to diagnose here, but they result in periodic outbursts of self-loathing. When this happens, it generally takes over the entire group chat for hours. We used to try to help, but never seemed to get anywhere. Over time things have gotten worse, to the point the rest of us agree they should be talking to a professional, but they’re highly resistant to seeking any help. Now we commonly say nothing because it’ll at best not help and at worst result in their self-loathing becoming anger directed at us, and usually this results in them complaining that no one listens or cares.
I fear this will reach a point where others start leaving the chat entirely to avoid them, and/or J getting kicked for exhausting the admin’s patience, resulting in people I care about dropping out of contact and losing important supports. While this isn’t exactly my responsibility to deal with, I’m generally one of the people with the most metaphorical spoons available within the group, and I don’t want to push the problem onto those with less.
On the one hand, we can just plan for the eventuality of having to kick J entirely and the fallout from that, but I’m hoping there are strategies we can try before it gets to that point to keep their outbursts from poisoning a communal space, while also encouraging them to get help (especially if it doesn’t involve in-person counseling or therapy, to which they’re particularly resistant) in a way they’re more likely to actually listen to. Other than the admin muting them, everyone refusing to engage at all, or broken-recording with “seek professional help” when J gets started, I’m at a loss.
– Not a Doctor
Dear Not A Doctor,
Here are some related posts:
- I love my friend but their Jerkbrain is draining the life out of our conversations
- I lent an ear to a friend, how do I get it back?
Let’s talk about the group chat dynamic of this and what kind of help you can actually recommend in that context.
You could try structured venting within the group chat, like, “Ok, everyone, what’s bothering you, nothing too large or too petty. I’ll start: I have one of those zits that makes my earlobe feel like it’s 4x its normal size, also, the USA’s freefall into fascism is really bumming me out. Who’s next?” where there isn’t room for the long-form venting J is doing and also everyone gets a turn.
Let’s talk about the part where if y’all don’t respond at all to J’s posts, they complain that no one listens or cares. I understand the instinct. You don’t know what to say. You don’t want to reward or encourage the behavior by giving it a lot of attention. But the “TOO AWKWARD, PLEASE STOP” signal isn’t getting through to J. Also, the silence must be an awful feeling for them, right? You’re J, you’re pouring your guts out to your friends and nobody says anything at all. You wonder, are they even reading?
So I think it’s important to respond in some way.
“Hey J, that sounds awful. I don’t know what to say, but I read what you said.”
Don’t give advice. Don’t offer solutions. Don’t feed the spiral. Just sit there with the person for a second and say “I see you.”
You could also try:
“J, that sounds like it feels awful, I’m so sorry. Sometimes I don’t say anything because I have no idea what to say and I’m afraid of saying something that will make it worse. Is there anything I could say right now that would help you feel better?”
Even if J doesn’t know what would make them feel better, I think it’s good to ask them to think about it for a minute. “What are you looking for right now? A place to vent? Advice? Acknowledgement that everything is terrible? Cute animal videos? As your friend I don’t always know how to help but I don’t want to leave you hanging.”
Over time that might prompt J to be more specific about what they want when they start venting, like, “Sorry y’all, I know I’m doing that thing again, but I’m just venting for a second – no need to offer advice or send me 10,000 links to therapists.” That would be better than it is now, right?
Sometimes acknowledging the awful feelings while also asking the person how they want to handle the problem can help keep the conversation from spiraling endlessly, as in, “Wow, that’s awful. What do you think you’ll do about it?”/”What do you want to do next?” Don’t pressure the person to come up with or have answers to those questions, especially immediate answers, just change the habit from eternal doom to eternal doom + maybe naming one tiny action.
Sometimes just communicating your own ability to engage is better than nothing. “Hey J, I’m sorry you’re feeling low. I don’t have the focus or energy to be the listening/comforting friend today, but I didn’t want you to think nobody was reading.”
Then there’s “J, I’m so sorry, that must feel terrible. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I really think it’s time to call in the cavalry and get some professional help.”
Important: There are no perfect responses to what’s happening that will make J 100% feel better or definitely seek help or not get their feelings hurt or not prompt them to lash out or feel alienated if you change up the way you’ve been interacting. Maybe there is no feeling better for J right this second. Maybe imperfect (but honest, and kind) is the best you can do. (I mean, kinda the whole point of your letter is that the situation with J isn’t fixable by you, so, don’t beat yourself up if things are still awkward even after you speak up).
Since starting this site, I’ve run across a lot of people who get very defensive about recommendations to seek professional help, and that’s understandable. It isn’t unreasonable for someone to have their feelings hurt when someone says “I think you should tell someone about this…someone who is not me.” I don’t think they’re paranoid or wrong to hear “Get a therapist please” as “My friends all wish I would stop talking about my pain with them.” That is in fact part of what they are saying, even when it comes with a side of “I love you but oh god please get help so you can feel better!” I mean, one conscious reason I drag my ass to therapy every week is so that I have a designated place to dump out all my anxieties and negative feelings so I’m not overburdening my peoples. The “feeling better” part is nice when it happens but not even the point sometimes. We can’t pretend that access isn’t a real problem, and the effort to get affordable care can seem insurmountable when you’re already down. Online alternatives exist, but it also takes effort to research them and find something that works for you. Even if you can access care it takes a lot of courage and hard work to actually go and do the work on yourself. If people don’t want to go to therapy and are sure it won’t work for them, they’re the experts on their own lives and me recommending it for the 1116th time won’t change that.
Still. As imperfect as our fraying & unequally resourced mental health system is, I think that there are limits to what friends, even concerned friends, can personally absorb when someone is in a down cycle. Therapists have set office hours, with 50 minute sessions, and they have structure and boundaries and limits around how they do their work. While they can’t prescribe medication, they can direct their patients to people who can and advocate for them in seeking out more comprehensive mental health care for instances where talking through it isn’t enough. If trained carers don’t think the answer is to listen to someone’s self-loathing comments for hours at a time is a best practice, then how can the expectation be that y’all can absorb that on demand in a group chat setting? Caring about someone and taking on the full load of their emotional well-being in real time for as long as they need to talk about it aren’t the same thing and you’re not a bad or selfish person if someone else’s mental health struggles make you feel like you’re in over your head.
J is very resistant to the idea of therapy, but the irony is, like this guy, J clearly wants to talk about their feelings and problems. And I think you can use that, and say that.
Like, “Hey bud, I know you are very resistant to the idea of therapy, but since you’re already talking a lot about feeling terrible and down on yourself, can’t you at least try sharing all this with someone who knows more than we do and who might be able to really help? There are services where you don’t meet in person, you just chat with someone like you are here. The difference is that the person you are chatting with will probably know way more than us about what might help you feel better, and the chat will be 100% focused on you (vs. a group space where all of us are trying to talk over each other). Want us to put together some links* for you?”
J might be receptive to this but chances are they won’t be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and keep trying. The follow-up answer either from you or the group’s admin might be “J, you’re the boss of you, and whether or not you seek professional help is ultimately your choice. That said, I need our group chat to be a place we can all hang out and seek support sometimes, and if [1 specific recent instance of J monopolizing chat] happens in the future, you might see me interrupt you more, or change the subject more, or ask you to take it to a professional even more, or even mute you when I reach my limit and want to be able to focus on what other people are sayig. It’s not because I don’t like you or care about you, but because I have limits on how much I can be a listener or a counselor, especially in this medium. Are you sure you won’t give online counseling a try, just for a couple of sessions?”
Notice the “I” language. J’s monopolizing behavior is affecting the whole group, and the whole group is feeling a certain way, and it’s very tempting to use the authority of the group when you talk to J, but there is nothing more distracting or alienating in a tough conversation about boundaries than “The whole group talked about you and we agreed that you should do x.” By owning it and making it your issue – “I sympathize, but also I need the community to function as a social space and not always be a helping space” – you are actually making a stronger case because it’s more personal to you.
Nobody feels great either hearing OR saying “I love you, but I am reaching my capacity for how much I can listen and help, so I need to tap out of certain kinds of conversations before I get overwhelmed, would you like help finding other outlets though?” Setting limits is hard, especially when someone is so clearly suffering, but in the end I think it is kinder to set and communicate limits than it is to silently endure everything until you reach your breaking point and kick J out of the group/end the friendship/cut off all contact with them/remove this part of their support system from them. You can use that, too, when you talk, especially since it’s gonna be real easy for J’s jerkbrain to interpret “my friend is setting limits on how much I talk about how much I hate myself” as “oh god everyone hates me even more than I hate myself.” Before wading in, remind yourself and remind J that feedback is an investment in the relationship.
Script: “Listen, if we didn’t want you here, we’d just mute you/set up a different group/kick you out. When I don’t like someone, I don’t bother to have super-awkward conversations with them about mental health or tell them ‘hey, my ability to engage with this is pretty small today, I’m sorry,’ I just disengage. I’m talking to you about this because I care about you and I want you here. I’m recommending professional mental health treatment both because you deserve the very best care and because I need to be honest with you about my own struggles and the limits of what I can do. I know you hate this – I feel awkward as hell right now, too! But if you’re going to say [super upsetting thing J recently said] in group chat, you can’t be surprised if people don’t know how to respond and you can’t be mad if people who care about you start thinking of ways you can actually get all the care and support you need and deserve.”
*Here are some online therapy providers. I haven’t used them personally so YMMV, but hopefully it’s a start.
These are the big ones that come up all the time in Google searches and lists:
There are more in the guest post here.
Anyone used a really great online mental health resource? The comments welcome your suggestions.