I have a friend that I think I might be outgrowing, and I feel terrible because she's going through a legitimately tough time – a breakup, the death of a loved one, a long-distance move. But throughout these events her reactions have been really hard for me to stomach. I've been going to counseling for a while, working through my own depressive feelings and thoughts. Through cognitive behavioral therapy I'm learning a lot: to see happiness as a choice that can be reinforced by certain behaviors, to create space around my negative emotions, to manage my expectations, and to create healthy boundaries. And I guess that's what's so hard about our friendship right now: she is mirroring the behaviors and thought-habits I'm trying to kick. I want to feel more empathetic, but the past handful of times we've seen each other, I find myself crawling out of my skin. I see that she is engaging in a cycle of victim-thinking and really intense anger. I want to be a supportive friend, and I try to react to her pain in an understanding way, but she responds to everything I say with more anger. She wants a commiserater and I'm trying hard not to view the world that way for myself. I don't agree with her perspective on things (and maybe as a friend I don't have to) but it takes me a while to recover from spending time with her; I am shaken and angry myself for hours. How long do I keep this going in the service of "being a good friend" when it feels destructive to my mental health? – Worried I'm a Fair-Weather Friend
I love therapy; I love getting it, I love counseling others, and I love the potential payoff of working hard on oneself to change, grow, and become a better person. Its limitation is that it doesn’t replace real life experience, though. So while you may have gotten to a new place with some old and negative patterns in your thinking, that doesn’t mean that your life automatically reflects those internal changes, or that you’ve been able to practice embodying them in trying times. The life you built before you were all healed up is still ticking, and the friendships that once resonated with you still need your attention. I know it’s hard, but this is really just a great opening to put all your hard work and understanding of healthy boundaries into practice.
If this friend of yours is stuck in a self-pitying rut, you don’t need to stay there with her. Be supportive in whatever ways you can, but stick to the boundaries you need in order to not get sucked dry. It’s on you to hold your own boundaries.
Your friend is going through what sounds like a spectacularly awful time. I don’t want to encourage you to suck up your needs and feelings to take care of hers, but bailing on her is not a great option either. Have you considered asking her what kind of support she wants? It may be that she just needs someone to listen to her and not try to make anything better. Oftentimes when shit gets deep we don’t want advice, we just need a person to see our struggles and acknowledge how hard it is. If you have a hard time tolerating her pain, that’s a good thing to look at in yourself. When you can’t empathize, showing compassion is a skill worth having.
If this friend of yours is stuck in a self-pitying rut, you don’t need to stay there with her. Be supportive in whatever ways you can, but stick to the boundaries you need in order to not get sucked dry. It’s on you to hold your own boundaries, WIFWF. This is a great (albeit unpleasant) opportunity to see where another person ends and you begin, and to better manage your emotional expectations in real time. Don’t count on your pal to be OK right now, or for her to come to the same revelations as you have. It’s possible that no matter what you do, you’ve outgrown this friendship, but I encourage you to rise to the occasion to be there for a friend and to embody all you’ve learned in therapy. Being able to create space around your negative emotions kicked up by other people’s crap is an invaluable ability. Getting healthy doesn’t empower you to only consort with happy people. Confront the things you are trying to outgrow so that you can truly outgrow them.
The Mission’s resident advisor gets booked months in advance by San Franciscans seeking help with all kinds of relationship issues. So we asked Jessica if she’d come on board to do a weekly advice column, Truth Talk, for The Bold Italic. If you have a burning question for Truth Talk with Jessica Lanyadoo, you can post your question anonymously here or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check back on Wednesdays to see if she has an answer for you.