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I’ve spent the past five or so years trying to turn a new leaf—spiritually, physically, and mentally. My closest group of friends have been with me through it all—a nervous breakdown, being financially broke, a broken heart—and because of it, I am the one deemed the most resilient. In turn, I’ve become the group’s life-coach. When I’m not helping them grapple with which (first world problem) career moves to make, a new perspective on a troubling situation, or their relationship problems, I’m surrounded by their clouds of negativity, complaining, and general entitlement.
I want to be around people who “get it” and spend time together as a celebration. Even my current complaints about the situation seem to be of no avail. It’s one thing to lean on each other for advice, and another to spend all of our time dwelling in individual problems.
I love these people, and there are years attached, but is it time to say goodbye? Or is this how most friendships go? —X
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, you’ve worked so hard already and above all, your enormous effort is something to be proud of. As someone who has spent several years trying to change yourself for the better, you can surely understand the time and patience this kind of shift takes. Hard as it may be, this means viewing your issue from an objective perspective and making a few considerations about your own behavior as well.
Let’s talk about these “clouds of negativity” your friends are bringing into your world. When people reach their boiling point—and it sounds like you have—the tiniest of scraps of conflict can turn into gaping, irritated wounds. You’ve lost patience with your friends right now, so I imagine most of their behavior is driving you up the freaking wall.
Take a minute to pinpoint what exactly makes up their “clouds of negativity.” Are they being mean-spirited? Catty? Are they focused on a singular issue—like a bad job or a break-up—and just won’t shut up about it? Or, is it more that they carry a certain, bad attitude along with every problem and always seem to be fending off some new disaster?
What you need to figure out is whether or not your annoyance with their behavior has gained momentum over time, or whether this is unusual behavior. If a friend keeps harping on about a singular issue, maybe they really are just going through a bad time and you need to wait it out, however aggravating their constant complaining may be. On the other hand, if you’re finding that every time you get together it’s all, “The world is ending! How could this be happening to me?!” then this calls for some deeper consideration and discussion.
In my mid-20s, I was suffering from extreme anxiety and depression—I was on the verge of a breakdown, living in my parents’ home after some life plans didn’t pan out, with absolutely zero of my relationships working on any level. So, I dragged my ass to therapy every week for the next three years. While this allowed light to reach the far corners of my mind where nothing but darkness had been hiding—which felt FANTASTIC—it also came hand in hand with some terrible discoveries. I figured out that there were people who were more comfortable around me when I was less happy with myself, and I had to let those people go. Inadvertently, I’d slipped into the role of the One Who Is Always a Mess. Where others had become the Life Coaches. Neither role is a good one, especially when they’re thrive on codependency.
Playing a prescribed role—or defaulting into a character—doesn’t allow for a lot of change in relationships. It sounds like you’ve taken on the role of Life Coach and you’re still playing the part, possibly because it’s easiest for you to do so in order to keep everyone from dwelling on their problems excessively. (It’s also easy for people to use one another as emotional dumping grounds without realizing it because “that’s what friends are for,” as they say.)
This really is how most longtime friend groups function—groups tend to form a pack mentality where individual needs are sacrificed. Think about your one friend who is always “the Mom” or “the Dad” of the bunch—they either love or hate having to organize everything all the time, but they can be counted on to plan the next group vacation. No one ever feels the need to truly address their joking hints, or take their complaints about being the bearer of responsibility seriously... because when it’s needed again, they’re always there and willing to take on the role.
Sometimes when it comes to group dynamics, you need to disrupt the default order. It’s possible that you’ve been playing into your role subconsciously, and can behave differently in order to discourage others from only seeing you as an advisor. Try saying: “I love you and am happy to talk about this, but can’t give you any further advice beyond what I already have, pal.” Or, “I wish I could help, but sometimes it is difficult to give advice when I don’t have an answer for you.”
Have a truly honest conversation with your friends, especially when your relationship is in a rut. These conversations might not be pleasant. If you leave grease over an open flame, eventually it’s going to catch fire—and right now you’ve left the skillet on the stove, the burner’s cranked all the way up, and that baby’s about to blow. You’ve got a backlog of events and slights that you’re ready to bring to the table, and, chances are, your friends aren’t going to take too kindly to this type of candid conversation. They’re going to get defensive. They’re going to drag up some of your shit. It could get real messy.
However, if you’re already at the point where you might call the whole thing quits, what have you got to lose? You’ve known these friends a long time. The problem with knowing one another for years is that you’ve had the chance to annoy the crap out of one another. The gift of knowing one another for years is your friends have seen you through some of your worst moments and stuck it out. Any relationship worth its salt is going to encounter some bumps in the road. Even if you wind up in a screaming match, or saying a regrettable thing or two (or five), there’s a good chance it’s worth the battle.
If you make a final stand and find yourself feeling the same way—if you really don’t believe there’s been any strides towards understanding – then you also need to be honest with yourself and admit it’s time to say goodbye.
I can say from experience that people with anxiety or depression are also unaware just how much of that they are projecting onto their other relationships. In the depths of a depression, people can’t see anything but how insanely terrible they’re feeling. It’s incredibly difficult to be present for anyone when you’re suffering. It’s tough to listen to friends. It’s so much easier to reiterate all the anxious thoughts that have been running through your mind all day—out loud to another person—without realizing that you’ve just monopolized an entire conversation. You think this would lend itself to understanding when these circumstances befall others, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes our attitudes can trend more towards, “Ew, please don’t contaminate my new clean, positive lifestyle with your gross negativity,” as opposed to, “I know exactly how you’re feeling, let me help you.” This is understandable, but it’s also important to be able to recognize selfish behavior in yourself with equal clarity as you do in your friends.
When you start to turn a new leaf, you have to understand that it’s a lifelong process. You never reach a plateau where you won’t need to work on yourself. (Unless you’re the Buddha.) You don’t have to be obsessive about it, but it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself a couple questions every now and then. “How am I doing? Why am I acting this way? Do I want to change again?” It’s easy to get completely high off of your own achievement of zen, but try to stay a little grounded. Remember to stay grateful and humble that there were other people who once put up with your shit.
Are you being the type of friend you want to be? Are you being kind? The way you talk about your friends does concern me a little. You say they helped you recover from a broken heart, but in the same breath you turn around and claim you’re always helping them figure out who to dump. You call them “entitled” and refer to their “first world problems.” You say you want to “spend time together as a celebration” and that’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s also a tall order because sometimes life just sucks.
There’s an explicit reason why you’re considered the most resilient of the bunch. So, is it possible your friends turn to you in times of trouble because they feel you’ll be the most empathetic? Maybe they know you’ve handled some tough shit and they trust your advice? Could it actually be a compliment and testament to how far you’ve come that they seek you out when they’re in need?
Introspection aside, it’s clear you need some space right now. Take a step back in order to be able to evaluate the situation and get your thoughts in order.
Taking space from friends could be as simple as taking a month apart. Maybe you’ll choose to only see this group of friends in certain situations, like social settings, where it’s not as easy to get slammed with the full force of Serious Life Talks. Maybe you just don’t think about any of this for a little while and clear your mind. Focus on what makes you feel positive and see if you wind up missing your friends.
Taking some time for yourself is essential to figure out how you want to move forward, and whether or not the future holds a reconciliation or a goodbye. Space will allow you to honor all the years you’ve spent together and your new self that might no longer need these attachments. Sometimes it’s easy to get entangled in the lives of your friends, and in the groupthink that comes with it—just walk away for a bit.
If you do choose to let these friendships go, try not to burn any bridges. Don’t give dramatic declarations, or text messages announcing the end of your friendship, or gossip about what went down with you to other friends. Try leaving the door open. After all, you’ve changed and are looking for mental peace. It’s possible that some of the friends you’re clashing with will change, too. If nothing else, give them the benefit of the doubt and allow them the opportunity to come back into your life one day when you’re both ready.
Lindsay Hood is a writer living in Seattle. She tweets at @LindsH.