I have a friend who is in constant misery. She is constantly complaining about her life and how bad everything is. When she has no misery of her own, she wraps herself up in other people’s misery. She is constantly overanalyzing everyone (i.e., what did they mean by that? They must think this? They did this b/c of this?, etc.). She even analyzes herself, but it gets her nowhere. She continually asks me to help her, and I try but b/c of her sensitivity, I sugarcoat my responses to try to make her feel better. Even if I give her suggestions on how to handle things, there are always reasons why they won’t work. I’ve told her that she needs professional help, but she becomes very angry with me and proceeds to tell me all of my problems and how mean I am to her. She also gives me guilt trips if I do anything without her (i.e., you went out w/this person, but you never do anything with me. You hurt me all the time b/c you don’t answer the phone, etc., etc. etc.) I feel horrible because I can no longer commiserate with her and every time she calls I become extremely agitated and then guilt ridden. I feel as though I will scream if she tells me one more time about her “bad luck.” I feel she causes it. I’ve been pushed to tell her as much, but not very tactfully. Even when I try to tell her things tactfully, she becomes angry with me. Now I’m going on and on. Anyway, last weekend I told her that I did not want to go out on Saturday. She ended up going out with one of my friends from work who has become a mutual friend. While she was out, she called my home 7 times and even went to the extent of using someone else’s phone to trick me into answering. My stance on this was that I told her I was not going out, and I did not want to answer the phone to be corralled into coming out. I became extremely irritated by the 7th call and decided to confront her the next day. I called her in the a.m. and told her that I did not appreciate the 7 phone calls and thought we should discuss the matter b/c she made me very angry. She immediately went into how mean I am to her and that she just wanted me to talk to her, yadda, yadda, yadda. We ended the phone call sort of okay. I thought. Then she called me back and told me that my friend she went out w/the night before would take her ticked to a show we were going to in a few weeks. I blew up. I know I shouldn’t have, but I told her that, that was stupid and she is just trying to make me feel guilty because she wants to see the show and just b/c we had an argument, she can no longer go. I also ended the phone conversation by telling her that she is a great person and that she has a lot of assets but she needs to let go of her misery because it’s driving me crazy. She told me she didn’t know what I was talking about and got off the phone. I got an e-mail the next day telling me how many times I hurt her and that I throw things in her face, etc. I don’t feel I can continue this friendship so I never e-mailed back, but I feel bad that I actually feel good about my decision knowing she is probably miserable. Did I do the right thing? Is there any way I can help her w/o draining myself? Your advice is greatly appreciated, and I hope I didn’t run on too much. I’m asking you b/c I don’t want to annoy everyone by talking about this situation on and on (like she does to me). Thank you!
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A therapist I know uses this image to explain how to handle your situation. Picture a dumbbell (no – not your friend! but rather the thing that weight lifters use to strengthen their arms and upper bodies). Now picture your friend holding the dumbbell. Now picture your friend tossing the dumbbell through the air right at you. What is your reaction? Most people try to catch the dumbbell when it is tossed their way. Only thing wrong with this solution is that the dumbbell is rather heavy and when you catch it, it weighs you down. Your friend’s habit of being miserable makes her heavy like a dumbbell. When you two get together, you receive her misery as though she is tossing it to you. You catch it and get weighed down. Here is a possible solution to your problem: The next time that your friend tries to toss her misery your way, simply don’t catch it. You don’t need to go away from her, or avoid her on the phone or anything like that. You just need not to catch her misery when she throws it at you. This means that no matter what she says to you, you don’t need to feel guilty if you don’t respond to it. Just listen to her and don’t feel you need to get agitated or whatever. Her misery is her own and not yours. Your not needing to feel guilty or otherwise agitated when your friend tries to make you share her misery will keep you open to feeling compassion for what is surely a miserable existence. Your friend is likely to get unnerved if you don’t catch her misery. She is likely to start believing that you don’t care about her. This won’t be true of course (you’ll be able to care a whole lot more for her if you don’t take her misery on), but just the same, it is likely that she’ll try to get a familiar reaction out of you by heaping more and more misery your way. Continue to not feel the need to catch that misery. Instead just let it fall to the floor. Your friend probably could benefit from professional help inasmuch as there are many therapists out there who are good at helping people become less negative. And you can suggest to your friend that seeing a therapist might be helpful. But just as you don’t have to catch her misery, she doesn’t have to catch your suggestions. You can love and enjoy her just the same if you learn when to be selectively non-enmeshed for your mutual good.