I’m not sure what to make of this case, but the cognitive dissonance is noteworthy.
A woman writes to an advice columnist named Dear Polly at New York Magazine. The column’s author is Heather Havrilesky.
The letter begins:
I have a good friend who used to light up my life but now drains my life force. We are both weird girls, radishes even, if I can flatter myself. We are not beloved by all (or even most) and we are unapologetically into the things we are into. We have fun together and, for the first year or so, our friendship felt balanced and healthy.
So far, so good. But now, something has changed:
This friend, let's call her Mercury, has become very depressed over the past year. At some point, she stopped sharing her true feelings with me.
Hmmm… this is therapy-speak for friendship: friends share their feelings with friends. Aside from the fact that this is idiotic, the truth, as the letter writer will reveal, is that Mercury is sharing all of her true feelings. But, these are negative and hostile feelings, the kind you might have when you are depressed.
She texted me angrily when I posted a photo on Instagram of me out with a different friend. When her plans are disrupted, she either throws a tantrum or pretends she doesn't care, only to erupt about it later. She's cut off several shared friends because they didn't want to talk about the minutiae of her work problems over happy hour. She hoards resentment and holds me accountable for hurts I didn't know I caused. The list goes on.
Should LW stay with her sometime friend Mercury?
Polly, the long and short of it is that she is being a bad friend. I know she is depressed — her work life sucks, she desperately wants a boyfriend but judges all prospects harshly, and is unsure of her future. I've been there and empathize deeply. Another friend told me to cut Mercury off because she is self-centered and makes everything about her; I replied that she is so depressed that she interprets everything as an insult. I believe this to be true.
Why is the LW sticking with her friend? Why has she not succeeded in sitting down and asking Mercury what is wrong? She has chosen to act the loyal friend, to turn the other cheek, and to try to ride out the storm. And she has offered her friend gobs of empathy. One needs to get over the idea that empathy is some magical psychic balm.
In all honesty Polly does not have very much of a clue, either. She suggests that perhaps the LW is acting out her own guilt by allowing herself to be abused by Mercury. A perfectly useless insight if ever there was one.
In fact, Mercury is in very close touch with her feelings and she is sharing them all. Heaven knows where she got the idea that that was a good thing to do so, but she didn’t get it from me. Instead of sharing her feelings Mercury should try to explain what happened, what went wrong.
I have no idea what’s wrong with Mercury. But, when a friend who has been bright and cheerful, who has brought joy into your life, suddenly and inexplicably turns into a ghoul who sucks the joy out of your life, she is probably in some serious trouble. Perhaps she was traumatized. Perhaps she has fallen ill. I do not know.
To her credit, the LW sees Mercury as a friend in need and believes that she has a duty to be there to help her. When Polly offers up some psychobabble to explain why the LW is continuing to hang around she is turning good character into a psychological defect.
One understands that there are limits to what you can do when someone does not want to tell you what’s wrong. But, fairly clearly, something did. If she cannot say what’s wrong and if her behavior is pushing all her friends away that means that she believes that if she confides in them she fears that they will run screaming for the hills. Mercury does not need to tell her friend what caused the very dramatic shift in her personality. She does need to confide in someone. Or at least, to be checked out by a physician.
The LW senses this. That is why she is staying around. And that is why she is willing to put up with abuse. Perhaps it’s time for an intervention, for a sit-down with Mercury wherein LW and perhaps another mutual friend confront her and tell her that while they love her and understand that something is wrong, they strongly recommend that she find someone she can talk it over with.
It does not have to be them. They are not busybodies. If Mercury thinks that she is shielding them from her pain she needs to hear that if she seeks medical assistance they will be there for her. If she chooses to act it all out with them, they will not.