You Are So Much More Than Your Ability To Make A Person Feel Good

[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.]

Dear Mommy,

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.

Love, Mommy

Conflict Does Not Mean Something Is Broken

Dear Mommy,

Lately I’ve had a weird sense of resentment towards two of my best friends. I love them dearly, and they’ve never done me wrong, but I find I am irritated with them a lot for no good reason. Like, little things are making me more annoyed than they should. I’m starting to feel a sense of distance from them because of this. How can I spend time with them with this irritation at the back of my mind?

Friendship is kind of a funny thing. “Our bodies force us to have physical reactions that involve making sounds and expelling air when we hear the same joke. Let’s put our bodies in the same place sometimes!” There are lots of different kinds of friendships: true soulmate friends, friend with benefits, friendships of convenience, friends who feel like family. Sometimes you connect with people for no discernible reason, sometimes you share the same interests, sometimes you don’t really like each other but you have years of accumulated shared experience that sort of makes you friends by default. Sometimes you choose your friends. Sometimes you don’t. Friends are crucial. Friends are fun. Friends are supportive. And, sometimes, friends are annoying.

It could be useful for you to try to pinpoint where your irritation with your friends is coming from. Try to notice patterns or specific things that annoy you. Is it a particular thing these friends are doing, a particular way they interact with you? A specific subject they want to talk about a lot that just doesn’t jive with you? Is is it environment specific? Do they annoy you when you’re around certain people? Try to answer these questions as honestly as possible, and then figure out if it’s something you can talk to them about. If it is, sit ’em down and be real. I don’t recommend starting with, “Hey you’re annoying the fuck out of me lately!” But do be honest, and tell them what’s bothering you. I know confrontation can be extremely hard, and I think it’s easy to assume if there is conflict that something is broken. With romantic relationships and family members, there seems to be an understanding that you’re going to be mad at or annoyed with each other some of the time. With platonic friends, conflict feels scarier for some reason. Maybe it’s because there is less of an explicit commitment. I’ve been in a few situations lately where I’ve confronted friends. Everything worked out fine, but it sent me into something of a personal crisis. “Am I a good friend? Should I be 100% okay with everything my friends do, even if they upset me? If their actions bother me, is it my job to be ~chill~ and try to stuff that annoyance/hurt/anger down?” After many nights of tortured soul searching, I realized the answer to all of those questions is a resounding HELL NO. I want my friendships to be strong, and they can’t be strong if I’m over here with daggers in my eyes because Sheryl just told a group of strangers at the bar the story where I peed my pants at the mall, AGAIN. Cut it out, Sheryl! That is MY story to tell and I WILL NOT push my feelings down inside! Look at it this way: your confrontation is your explicit commitment. It’s your way of saying, “I care enough about this friendship to bring this up, to explore this painful and scary uncharted territory with you, and try to find a solution. You are worth it.” If you let it all sit within you, the annoyance might grow until the friendship can’t be saved.

But what if you can’t pinpoint what’s annoying you? What if there is no pattern? What if you’re being annoyed by things that you recognize you shouldn’t really be annoyed by, AKA it’s more of a problem with YOU than THEM? What if you’re getting annoyed by little things that trigger you for reasons you can’t name and it would make you sound and feel like an uptight ASSHOLE if you ever brought them up? There is a pretty clear-cut path to peace here. You need space, my friend. You are spending entirely too much time with these people! Get away from them for a little while! Cut down on your hangout time, or impose a two-week or three-week or month-long break from them. This is a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do! Tell them you’ve been feeling anti-social lately, or just be real and say you need some space. This will allow you some breathing room and time to think about what is getting you down. When everything is up close, it’s hard to see the problems clearly. With space and time away from your friends, you might gain some clarity on what exactly is annoying you and where it’s coming from. Maybe you’ll see that you’ve grown in many different ways since your friendships started and some of your friends’ values no longer align with your own. Maybe you’ll see that it’s your friends that have changed and certain parts of your personality just aren’t that compatible anymore. If that’s the case, and this is something you want to do, it is totally and completely okay to decide not to be friends with people anymore. Friendship is not compulsory, and you never have to be friends with anyone that doesn’t bring you joy. This doesn’t mean you can be an asshole to whoever you want, but you do have every right to stop being friends with people you don’t want to be friends with anymore. You don’t have to keep people in your life just because they’ve been there for a long time.

That said, let me re-iterate that conflict does not mean something is broken. Just because you don’t see eye to eye right now doesn’t mean you never will. Just because you are growing apart doesn’t mean you will never grow back together. Just because things aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you need to cut off any ties. Certain friends play certain roles in your life, and it is okay for those friends’ roles to change over time. It’s really important for us to see that friendship is fluid. It is completely normal to feel like you don’t connect with someone anymore, even when nothing has happened. It is totally okay to be irritated and annoyed with people you love, even for petty ass reasons. It is completely normal to feel distant with your best friends. If you stick with it, you may find that you start connecting again or that the distance between you closes naturally on its own. You and your friends are just humans, flawed and beautiful like all of us. Relationships ebb and flow, closeness becomes distance and then closeness again. There is pain and beauty in every wave. Ride it out. Or don’t.

Love, Mommy

Your Life Is Yours, Part Two

Dear Mommy,

All my friends from high school are getting engaged and having kids. I can’t help but feel bad about it even though I KNOW that’s not what I want. How can I keep from feeling down about it?

Hello again. I’m sure that, after reading my entry last week in which I said I would give you two concrete pieces of advice, you have felt a radical change come over you and your problem is halfway to being completely, 100% solved! All you are missing is part two and, lucky for you, it’s here! You no doubt remember that my first piece of advice from last week was to do a little work on your relationship with you by making a list of some good moments in your life. I’m sure you have integrated this into your daily routine and you are feeling more loved and beautiful than ever. The second thing I want you to do may take a little more time. It’s a long game and it can be hard, but don’t give up! I believe in you.

To recap: you already know that you don’t want to be married and you don’t want a baby, but you want to feel loved and like you belong (as we all do!). Besides your relationship with yourself, I can think of another extremely important, loving, and special relationship that is not a spouse or spawn: friends! My second piece of advice is to start investing very heavily into the relationships you already have, or want to have. I’ve been known to say, when I get very drunk, “I want to text everyone I love and tell them how much I love them!” I have very vivid memories of that instinct, and also of carrying it out and feeling embarrassed the next day. (I also tend to do that in person, so if you were at my New Year’s Eve party and I accosted you in the doorway and made you feel uncomfortable but also very loved, well…I’m sorry and you’re welcome!) This is exactly the type of thing you need to do, though maybe leave out the drunkenness. If there is someone you love, text them right now and tell them! An obvious choice is a best friend, but I’d suggest also sending one to someone more peripheral in your life that you do truly love but want to be closer to. These declarations of love can take the form of a novella about your appreciation of the specific qualities that you admire in your friend. They can take the form of a simple “I love you!” out of the blue. They can take the form of, “I saw this movie and it made me think of you!” or “I think you’d really love this book/podcast/TV show I’m reading/listening to/watching.” The key is to let your friend know that you are loving them or thinking about them when they are not around. I think this is such an important way to show love to people! It is active and intentional and, like most important things, a little scary to do. It makes you a little vulnerable, but all you’re really doing is making your loved one feel known, which is such an incredible way to feel. And I’m fairly certain you will find that once you start to send the love out, you will start to get it back. It may take a while, but it’ll happen. Maybe not with everyone, but it also doesn’t have to benefit you in that specific way to be worthwhile. When I send out love, I just start to feel more love in general – how could that ever be a waste of time? And I have found that when people feel sure about their place in your heart, they are willing to be more vulnerable with you, they are happy to be there for you when you need them, they are more honest and at-ease with you, and they share the love they have to give with you. That is a recipe for supportive, loving, committed companionship with endless room for growth, which is exactly what you need to cultivate.

Your life is beautiful, and it is your own. And yeah, I know, it’s soooo easy for me to say that to you when I’m not inside your body, inside your life, when you’re up at 3AM feeling more lonely than anyone on the planet has ever felt, when you’re walking home from the grocery store alone carrying the heaviest bags anyone has ever carried and wishing someone was there to take one, or when you’re at work and you’re the most exhausted you’ve ever been and nothing feels right. I haven’t been there in your life or your body at those moments, but I have in mine. I have them too, and so does your friend from high school who just had a beautiful baby. And so does your cousin who just got engaged. It’s tempting to look at other people’s lives and imagine that they have exactly what it is that you’re missing in your own, but I promise you that you know people who wish they had your life or your job or your apartment or your group of friends. Try to appreciate you and your life for exactly what it is. Try to bring love and a sense of belonging into it by aspiring to healthy, long-lasting, fulfilling relationships that aren’t with significant others or offspring. I’m positive that you can think of a million more genius ways to do this than just the two I’ve mentioned here.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote: a few summers ago, one of my professors in college died very unexpectedly. She was a teacher who was extremely loved, with a large and devoted following of students. I attended her funeral, and the church was packed. At one point in the eulogy, the pastor asked us to raise our hands if we knew exactly how my teacher felt about us. Hundreds of hands went up. I remember being amazed at the kind of legacy my teacher was leaving behind, one in which love is spread around generously, and given so freely. One in which empathy, honesty, and kindness are radical acts and vulnerability is strength. That’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind, and I vowed that I would try really hard to be the kind of person whose loved ones were always sure how much I cared for them, through my actions and my words. What kind of lives, what kind of world, could we build with this as our goal? Try to find out.

Love, Mommy