[Happy first birthday, Mommy! Thank you to all my readers and question askers, I probably wouldn’t write a damn thing without you and I love you.]
I have a very good friend who lately seems to exclusively want to spend time with me when she’s in crisis or needs something. I feel like I don’t get my friend for the good/fun times anymore, only the intense/upset/hard times, in which we spend the entire time deeply processing her life, which makes me feel wise, intimately trustworthy, and pleasantly feminist, but also used and jealous of her more casual friends. I feel like rolling my eyes and avoiding her because I absolutely know what’s coming when she reaches out to me to hang out, which then makes me feel mean and sad and wonder if maybe I’m not actually fun to have around for the fun times, etc!
Since it’s become routine for me to always be in selfless therapist mode with her, I feel that I can’t or shouldn’t voice this frustration, or talk about hard things I’m experiencing in the face of what’s she’s going through. But obviously my frustrations are valid and this is causing problems in our friendship! How can I let her in on the problem without a) making her feel even worse b) sounding like an asshole and c) skirting around the actual problem, which is the imbalance of support, not the giving of support itself. How can we advocate for better treatment of ourselves and for respect of the exhausting nature of one-sided emotional labor?
It’s unfathomable to me, but some people just don’t have anxiety about how much space they’re taking up. They don’t worry about being a burden to others just by existing, which is actually wonderful and I wish everyone felt that way. But we don’t, and people like that – that is, people who don’t wait for permission to speak – often don’t realize that other people are waiting to be asked. Your friend may fall into this category. She may go on and on about herself and just assume that if you had anything you wanted to say, well, you’d just go ahead and say it. Maybe your friend is just extremely self absorbed! Maybe she’s not very observant and doesn’t realize how much of the conversation she’s taking up with her woes and tragedy and how little she asks you about your emotional state! Maybe she does notice and just doesn’t give a shit! No matter what is going on or how much understanding you have for the situation, an imbalance of emotional labor is draining, disheartening, and often just hurts your damn feelings.
You have to talk to your friend. There’s no way around it. You can’t just pull back from the friendship and expect her to know why. You also can’t expect her to wake up one day and realize how much she’s hurting and exhausting you. You have to help her get there, and you do it by talking. I don’t know what you should say, or the best way to bring it up. I don’t know how she’s gonna take it, if she’ll be mad or hurt. I don’t know if a letter would suffice or face to face would be best. All of that is your work. What I know is that the only way to advocate for better treatment of ourselves is to…advocate for better treatment of ourselves. And she may think you’re being an asshole. You may actually sound like an asshole! And you may make her feel bad! Like really, really bad! But, hey, conflict sometimes just makes people feel bad. Pointing out to someone that they are not perfect and sometimes just downright not good makes people feel bad. Finding out that someone has been annoyed by them or hurt by them for a long time sometimes makes people feel really, really bad. But it is not your job to make people feel good when the cost is you feeling bad. I’ll say that again: it is not your job to make people feel good when the cost is you feeling bad. You are so much more than your ability to make a person feel good.
It probably never feels this way for either party, but when a friend asks that another friend change for the better what they are really doing is showing how much they value that friendship. It may create conflict, but in the end you are showing trust and faith in your friend. When you say, “Hey, this hurts my feelings, this bugs me, I need to you to stop,” you are also saying, “You and this friendship matter enough to me that I’m willing to go through the discomfort of conflict to come out the other side, where our friendship will be stronger and more loving.” Waiting until you’ve had enough and can’t stand her anymore because you’re too scared to confront her may feel like you are valuing her by sparing her feelings, but what you’re really doing is putting an expiration date on the friendship, which is the day you just can’t take it anymore. And if you confront her gently with all this, and she’s defensive and hurt and never comes around, then turn away and don’t look back because being a good friend should never come at the expense of your mental health. You deserve more. You deserve an army of love and support at your back at all hours of the day and night. And, friend, you do deserve to have some damn fun. Never give the gift of you to someone who would make you doubt that.