Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Friendship Turned Bad

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.

For example:

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.


Ares Olympus said...
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Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

I didn't follow where "LW" comes from. .... OH, I see "Letter Writer", deduced by inconsistent "the LW" phrases later.

I agree the long-winded answer by "Polly" seems less than helpful considering the lack of specific information. Polly seems she's arguing more with herself.

I always thought the answer to such predicaments is "good boundaries", so a difficult friend is a chance to learn to be assertive, to say no sometimes, and always easier said than done, but its easier done when you plan ahead and try sometime and see what happens. At least planning ahead is what it took for me to stand up to my brother when he was using drugs and in denial that his behavior was huring others.

In my case I had to legally evict my brother, and I had to enforce that and not let him stay at my house afterwards, and being homeless was what got him to go into treatment, even as he was in denial he needed it on his first of two rounds.

I like the word "intervention", and I admit I don't know how such a thing works, but at a minimum level I'd call it "gossip", which means talking about a person behind their back with other friends and family who care about the bad friend, and finding strategies for a "consistent front", so the bad friend can't as easily play people off each other.

It's not really a good game for anyone and you still have to question your own partipation, since its just as easy to scapegoat and blame-the-victim as really help someone who is acting out. So tough-love yes, but you still have to question your own motives and what you need.

An important question I've found for me is to ask "Am I taking this personally?" and if the answer is yes, then I know I've been lying to myself for a while.

The most curious thing over "abuse" from others is that when you know someone is hurting, you don't have to take 99% of what a person does personally, BUT then the 1% sneaks up unexpected, so this means you can't excuse inaction just because you still have another cheek to turn.

Oops, maybe I've done a "Polly" and probably wrote more than the LW did too!

Anyway, I'm not 100% against just letting go of a friend after a proper escalation warnings of violated boundaries. I just think that's the boring answer, but it depend on what you need to learn.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Letter Writer: "I have a good friend who used to light up my life but now drains my life force."

Who talks like this?

It sounds like she's a victim looking for an explanation. Once she has the explanation (Polly regurgitated a full plate of pop psychology), now what? If she wants the healthy "radish" friendship, something has to change -- her expectations of Mercury, or Mercury herself.

So many cliches apply here, but the bottom line is: LW can't make Mercury's choice for her. She can empathize, cajole, beg or lead an intervention, but Mercury is driving the bus until she's institutionalized.

Perhaps this is why LW's "life force" has been drained, Obi Wan? Now we know the value of knowing. Mercury has her experience, and LW has hers. What's next?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @September 6, 2015 at 7:54 AM:

"At least planning ahead was what it took for me to stand up to my brother when he was using drugs and in denial that his behavior was hurting others... In my case I had to legally evict my brother, and I had to enforce that and not let him stay at my house afterwards, and being homeless was what got him to go into treatment, even as he was in denial he needed it on his first of two rounds."

Sounds like it worked. What a profound act of love, and a courageous stand for your brother's greatness. Thanks for being that man.

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, Thanks for your kind words. I had help, thank goodness.

On "drains my life force", that's sort of a common new agey expression "energy vampire" or "psychic vampire", promoted by Judith Orloff and others. There's surely some truth, but also a potential confusion where you can blame others for your reaction, as if someone else has to be bad to explain when you don't feel good.

...then there are those who leave you feeling stressed out. Or guilty. Or exhausted down to your very last molecule. I call them energy vampires, and obnoxious or meek, they come in all forms. The sob sister, for one, always considers herself the victim. The world is always against her, and she'll recount every horrible thing that has happened to her, wallowing in every perceived slight. The charmer is a constant talker or joke-teller who has to be the center of attention. The blamer, on the other hand, doles out endless servings of guilt. And then there's the drama queen, the co-worker who claims she almost died from a high fever or the neighbor who lives in extremes of emotion—life is unbelievably good or horrifically bad.

No matter which type of energy vampire you're dealing with, you're allowed to walk away. Many of us find this really hard to do. We're afraid of being thought of as impolite; we don't want to offend people. But there are plenty of ways to remove yourself from a killing conversation. When leaving isn't an option, you can still maintain your energy level by making a few minor adjustments.
Setting boundaries is another way of protecting yourself; you draw a line saying, for instance, "This is what I can do for you, and this is what I can't." You don't have to convince the vampire of the rightness of your stance. Getting defensive simply adds to the negative charge of the encounter. You want to remain neutral. When someone starts pushing your buttons, and you start sizzling inside, you've got to make the decision not to react.