Imbalance in friendships

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Raffles
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Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

Hey, y'all. This is sort of long post, and I'm not sure if it belongs here because it doesn't relate to sexual or romantic relationships, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

One of my friends opened up to me about something something traumatic that they went through last year, and I've been supporting them through that. It's honestly a lot of work because they're in between therapists right now, and I'm sort of serving as a stand-in. They've also started asking me about school stuff, and it sort of feels like I'm keeping track of their entire life for them. However, I've sort of come to realize that I've been acting as their therapist for almost our entire relationship (2/3ish years). While this is the most extreme example, my other friends come to me for advice on things like school, dating, and other issues. I've jokingly called myself the therapist friend, but it's kind of true. I want to be there for my friends, but it's honestly started to feel less like friendship and more like unpaid emotional labor.

My friends have offered to be there for me, but I really can't lean on them for support. Part of that is that it's just how I was raised to be extremely independent (going to my parents for help was pretty discouraged), but the other part is that I can't in good conscience lean on them when I know what they're going through. Whenever I share something with my friends other than good news, I feel really guilty. It feels good to get it out, but I usually try not to because I know it's a lot to hear and process when everyone is already going through something of their own. I think the only person I'd feel comfortable talking to is an actual therapist because they are literally paid to do that (which I can't do right now for health insurance, financial, and personal reasons).

I'm literally horrible at setting boundaries because of poor experiences with boundary setting with my family in the past. It's given me the impression that setting boundaries is useless because people will continue to do whatever until you just get over it. I probably won't do anything now since we will all graduate soon and not be as in touch which will help, but I'd like to have more equal friendships in the future. Any advice?
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Emily N »

Hey Raffles! Questions about relationships of all kinds are welcome here! I’m sorry to hear you are struggling with feeling like the “therapist” in your friend group, that can require a lot of emotional energy! It’s wonderful that you care for your friends and that they feel comfortable coming to you, but it sounds like it’s coming to the detriment of your own wellbeing rather than being a source of growth for the friendship.

There are a few things that came to my mind when I read your post, and you touched on all of them somewhat! First, I just want to check in to see if these are friendships that you enjoy/feel valued in/feel supported in (there’s no right answer, just an opportunity to think about what you want in your friendships).

It can be really difficult to share personal and often heavy things with people, especially if you didn’t grow up with other people who do this. Do you want to be able to share more with your friends? Do you think it would help make the friendships feel more emotionally balanced if you were also able to find emotional support in them? If so, we could walk through some ideas of how to start small if you want! I also want to encourage you not to feel guilty sharing hard things with friends, especially when they have explicitly told you they want to be there for you too. This is easier said than done, I know!

You also mentioned that you would only really feel comfortable talking to a therapist - is this something you are interested in?

I also think you’re absolutely right, that no matter what, setting some boundaries with your friends is super important! That might just start with a gentle conversation that involves something like “I know you have been struggling with trauma, and I love that you trust me to talk about it with. I really care about you, but I also don’t always have the emotional bandwidth to support you the way you need to be supported.” Do you have any in mind already that you think would be helpful?
Raffles
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

Sorry for the long paragraphs and post ahead.

I'm not really sure what I want out of these specific friendships, but I've learned from previous friendships that it's better to keep my personal struggles out of it. This means I don't really give them a chance to support me besides the regular stuff like stress about schoolwork or complaining about a professor, but I try to keep that to a minimum as well. I don't want to be a source of negativity because I know it's hard for me to stop once I start.

In terms of balance, I'm not sure what would help. I don't think sharing with them is quite the answer because I don't think I should share specifically to feel like the scales are balanced, if that makes sense. I'm not sure I'd like to share more with my friends, but I do feel an odd sense of envy when others are able to talk about what's bothering them and I feel like I can't.

On the other hand, I don't feel like I can ethically share anything deeper or more difficult than the everyday stuff. I have a lot of concerns that sharing any more could become toxic and then I'm the one making them into therapists. It makes me very anxious to think about opening up because I don't want to hurt other people or get hurt. That's definitely something that's happened in previous friendships of mine.

I know people say that they're there for me because they're supposed to, but I don't really trust it. I've had people say that in the past. When I've opened up, it's just too much (which is completely understandable). I had something sort of bad happen last year and I did tell my close friends a quick summary. It wasn't for emotional sharing purposes, it was so they would understand if I wasn't up for hanging out as much or responding to texts as quickly.

I've been thinking about the kind of relationships I'd like to have in the future, and I think I'd really like to have a partner. I'm ace (and maybe aro?), so I'm not sure if this would be a typical romantic relationship or a QPR, but I would like to be able to open up about some of it especially in the context of such a close partnership. I think I'll probably really struggle to find the balance between not completely shutting them out and not ending up co-dependent/too entangled with my issues. I'll have to find a distance to maintain so they don't end up too deep in my personal issues.

Speaking of boundaries, I'm really worried what will happen if I'm not there for my friend. They've mentioned to me that they've developed some substance use issues. I never want them to feel like they're alone and have no one they can talk to so they turn to more destructive coping mechanisms. I think I might have a conversation with them after they find a new therapist and are receiving appropriate care.

As for finding a therapist for myself, I'm not against therapy per se, just very cautious. I've spoken to two different guidance counselors in high school and three different therapists in college, and gotten slightly more discouraged each time. While therapists are the only people I can morally justify talking to about my feelings, I'm not in any rush to find one and start. I'm finishing up school right now, so I won't have the financial means/healthcare/time to really process stuff until I settle down after graduation.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Siân »

Hi Raffles,

You've spoken a lot in this post about leaning on your friends being a moral issue. Can you tell me a bit more about that? To me, the act of opening up and sharing our vulnerable selves with our friends is an act of real trust, and I feel honoured when they feel safe enough to do that with me. It's a form of intimacy and a way of deepening friendships. Sure, it shouldn't be the ONLY kind of interaction that you have but if people are asking you to open up to them perhaps it's okay to believe them when they say it's what they want? It's not about making your relationship transactional in a "well I gave you 2.4 hours of emotional labour so now I need you to repay me with 2.4 hours of emotional labour" way, but more about mutual support and recognition. And sometimes, listening to other people's problems is a great distraction from your own!

You mentioned being worried about what will happen to your friend if you're not there. Would it help if you knew they had other resources they could reach out to if needed? If so, you could combine the gentle boundary setting that Emily suggested with a bit of safety planning, if that's something you have energy for and would allow you to feel less guilt and fear about not always being the person they turn to. I can share some resources if that's of interest?

Do you want to talk about what's discouraged you about the therapists you've spoken to in the past? Perhaps we can help you make a plan for finding someone who is a good fit when you're ready.
Raffles
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I think this mentality probably comes from I was raised. When I asked for help with small things, my parents often said "I'm supposed to let you fail," so I've become very independent even with big things. My failures and issues are my own, and they shouldn't become someone else's problems. Unless, of course, that person is literally being paid to do emotional labor and help people with their problems.

The few times I tried to open up about things to friends, it's gone one of three ways. The first way is that they dismiss it as not an issue. The second way is to overreact and make the situation sound worse than it is. The third way is when they get visibly uncomfortable so I drop it and we never talk about it again. These reactions have all come from people who've said that I can talk to them. I've realized that people think that they're ready to hear a lot more than they think they are or are taken by surprise by how deep some of my problems are.

As for my friend, I've been helping them to find resources (hotlines, online/on campus support, and therapists locally). They seemed appreciative and said that they would definitely use some of them. I just get the feeling now that if they text me, it's because one of the other resources are not available or accessible in that moment.

My counseling in high school was very awkward because I couldn't really talk about my issues due to mandatory reporting laws. I very strongly did not want my family to know or to be involved (and still don't), so I couldn't really talk about what was going on without them finding out. I was in the same situation when I sought counseling my first year of college so I couldn't open up.

Most recently, I was put into counseling through the university because someone I knew died semi-suddenly. It was towards the end of last school year, so we didn't actually talk about it. The counselor spent the first two sessions taking background information and asking me about what my coping strategies were, and then the last session he suggested that I follow up elsewhere when I got home for summer. He would often only use 15-20 minutes of our hour. When I found a therapist over summer, I just really didn't click with her. I felt like she wasn't really listening, and I felt like she was judging my family a lot so I stopped after the first session.

All of these experiences have made me very reluctant to start therapy any time soon, and it sort of feels like the positive therapy experience is something that's made up for fiction.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Mo »

While it is possible to have positive experiences with therapists, it's not always easy for any one person to find a therapist whose approach and general vibe is a good match for them. Not every therapeutic approach will work for everyone and some therapists are more flexible than others. It definitely sounds like your therapy experiences have not been great, I'm especially frustrated on your behalf about the therapist who wouldn't even use your full session time. It makes a lot of sense that you'd be reluctant to try therapy any time soon! One thing that might help, if you do decide to pursue it in the future, is doing a little reading on different therapeutic approaches and looking for a doctor who specializes in one that feels like it might be a good fit.

I don't want to downplay how frustrating it can be to go through the process of finding and trying out a few different therapists to find someone who works well with you; it absolutely can be a pain to go through that. I do think it can be worth it, though, if you wind up with someone who can help. Just something to keep in mind for whenever you do feel up for it, if that time comes.

I'm glad you've been able to help your friend find some other resources, and I hope they're able to lean on them a bit more. I'm curious, though: do you feel like your friendship mostly revolves around them asking you for support, right now? Or are you able to engage on other levels and enjoy casual or fun time together as well?
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I'd say that even before their traumatic event, our relationship was 75%+ them asking me for help. Now it's pretty much all our relationship is. We do a few fun friend things together, but it's pretty unbalanced. I didn't realize this until recently, and it's been a weird thing to come to terms with. I am concerned that they've become a bit codependent on me and what will happen when we graduate. I'm not sure how I'll easy them through that transition and how to avoid similar situations in the future.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi Raffles,

It sounds like this friendship has relied on you putting a lot of effort into supporting them for quite awhile. That's not always a bad thing, especially in the short term, but as you've discovered it can be really draining over time.

When you think about graduating and this friend, what happens when you think about focusing your energy on your own transition out of college rather than putting a ton of energy towards theirs? What's sort of your gut response to that idea? If this friendship showed no signs of changing, is it one you'd want to stay in?

I want to point you towards friend of Scarleteen, Captain Awkward. She writes a lot about friendship and boundaries, and how to change on the dynamics of a friendship that aren't working for you. I'm including a few links here that might help, including one on boundaries that might help you see these kinds of situations coming in the future by floating what I think of as "test boundaries;" moments were you set a limit with a friend about something low stakes to see how it goes: https://captainawkward.com/2019/06/20/1 ... es-school/, https://captainawkward.com/2019/06/08/1 ... s-anymore/.
Raffles
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

The examples in those articles sound pretty extreme, and I'm definitely not there. I think I've also done my friend a bit of a disservice by making it sound worse than it is. In most respects, they are pretty good about boundaries. They know I'm pretty introverted, so they always respect my "nos" when it comes to social gatherings and never pressures me about it. I guess that's sort of the problem, though, that the only interactions we have are the "therapeutic" ones because I turn down the other invites. That's on me for not creating time and space to have a relationship outside of our other conversations, so I am definitely equally to blame in how our relationship has evolved.

I understand the advice on Captain Awkward, but I think I just have a different world-view. I think that, while autonomy is important, it feels wrong to just be able to do what is best for me without worrying about the other person. I don't exist in isolation, and everything I do will affect someone else whether I want it to or not. I view it as my responsibility to minimize harm when and where I can.

This is all to say yes, I have thought about what my own transition will be like, but I can't think about that without also considering how it will affect all of my current relationships (not just that one friend). I moved out of state for college, so I do have some experience with navigating that. If I'm honest, I do think that our relationship will fizzle out in terms of the day-to-day conversations, but I fully expect that my friend will text me every so often with her latest crisis. I don't necessarily look forward to that, but I don't see it as something that will be so detrimental to my life that I can justify setting one of those really firm boundaries in the Captain Awkward article.

For context, I've seen this friend go through romantic and platonic break ups, and they have very deep abandonment issues. Break ups make them feel like they are personally a horrible person and don't deserve love, and I really don't want to be the reason that they feel like that no matter what they do. I'm not convinced there's a way to me to set that boundary and not also make them feel abandoned, even if it's "I care about you deeply, but I don't want our relationship to revolve solely around your difficult experiences."
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Sam W »

One of the great things about boundaries is that you get to decide them for yourself, so if your friend texting you in the future when you're in a crisis is something you're okay with and ready to help with, even with those feelings it creates, that's a choice you get to make, even if it's not the choice someone else would.

You mention that you tend to turn down their other requests for interactions that are more social and less therapeutic. Do you tend to turn them down more than you'd turn down invitations from other friends? Or do you tend to turn down more social invitations from friends in general?
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I'm pretty introverted and I'm a very active member of my club so that tends to eat up a lot of my social energy. Accepting last minute plans is really difficult for me, but I do make an effort to do social things that are planned out in advance, like attending a back-to-school dinner or things like that.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Emily N »

I can understand that completely - it can take a lot of energy to join social things, especially if you’re not feeling prepared. It’s valid to take time for yourself to recharge, and choose to do the activities you are most excited for or already planned.

I wonder also if there are activities you can do with your friend that would feel therapeutic to both of you? Something like taking a walk, or having crafts or art time? If you don’t want to talk, you could suggest listening to music or an audiobook with them. Another idea I had, is if you want to have more conversations with your friend that you lead, but you don’t feel comfortable sharing more personal or emotional things, you could ask them to set up a time to talk about something new you learned and want to share, or something exciting happening in your life. Is that of interest at all?
Raffles
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I really appreciate the suggestions, but I'm not sure if I can apply them to this specific relationship. This sounds completely awful, but I don't think I want to spend more time with this friend than I already am. Most of my classes are with them, we're in a lot of the same group chats, so I end up interacting with this person for several hours a day most days of the week. I know that sounds terrible, like I'm just sort of giving up on this friendship, but I don't think I have it in me to dedicate the amount of time and energy it would take to set aside extra time to spend with them on top of classes and supporting them. I've got some other friends who I don't spend a lot of time with, and I would rather use my remaining social energy to interact with them.

As for other conversations, I do make it a point to text my friends (not just this one) about the little good or funny things that happen in my daily life. It's my way of spreading joy and reminding my friends to notice the little things.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Carly »

Hey Raffles -- I'm coming in a little late to this conversation, but I just wanted to chime in and say that nothing you've said here sounds terrible. I don't you're giving up on the friendship at all, in fact I think it shows how much you do care about this friend because you're being very thoughtful about it. I admire how honest you are able to be with yourself about your ability to continue supporting your friend at this level.
Raffles
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

Hello, everyone.

Just a small update from me. The good news is that my friend has not texted me as a hotline for a good month or so. The bad news is that we will be texting about normal everyday things, and then they'll say something like, "lol nothing matters, gonna hit the dab pen before class," and I have absolutely no idea how to respond to that. The first time I just let it go, but it happened again today. Next time they do it, I think I'm going to try to say "I'm here to support you, but hearing about your substance use makes me uncomfortable." I'm worried about coming off as judgey about their coping mechanisms and pushing them away (thus making the substance use worse).

Thoughts? Is that an appropriate response?
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi Raffles,

I'm glad to hear there's been a break in the using you as a hotline, since that was causing you quite a bit of frustration and stress!

I think the way you've phrased that boundary around discussions of substance use is good. It doesn't come across like you're judging this friend for substance use, just that it's something you're not comfortable talking about. The more you focus on the fact this is about you and your boundaries, the less likely it is that they'll feel this is you saying "you're a terrible person because you do this."
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I can't seem to catch a break lately. I've got another friend that's been using me as her stress/venting relief. She's been very stressed out about school and work, and I completely understand that. However, she is also my manager and sort of (unintentionally) made things worse for me by reporting a minor work place incident. I can't tell her because a) she's my friend b) she's my manager and c) she's already super stressed out and overthinks everything. I've been doing a good job of putting aside my own feelings to support her over text, but I'm probably going to have to interact with her in person soon and I don't know how to not be upset.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Sofi »

Hi Raffles,
Hmm that is tough. It's not good that you can't talk to her honestly about it because she's your manager, it doesn't seem fair because she is also your friend (and you should be able to tell her, friend OR manager, if she did something that made things worse for you). Most importantly, you shouldn't have to put your feelings aside completely to support someone--sure, you should be there for them and validate their feelings and give them your full attention in the moments when you have the emotional capacity to do so; but if their venting or something else they're doing is affecting you, you should also be able to express that to them. Just because your friend is going through a tough time doesn't mean you don't also have your own feelings you need to work through, you know?
How do you think she would react if you talk to her about it in person and tell her how you're feeling?
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

I think she'd feel incredibly guilty and feel like she can't speak to me anymore about anything that's bothering her which I don't want. She worries enough about work as it is without my telling her that she's made my situation a lot more awkward and uncomfortable. I think she also genuinely believes that she did the right thing and that it was her duty to do what she did.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Sofi »

If you feel like you can move past it because you know she didn't mean to hurt you or make it an uncomfortable situation for you, then you don't HAVE to talk to her. But if you feel this is bothering you a lot, then like I said, it's okay and important for you to express your feelings and let her know that she shouldn't feel guilty BUT that you feel this way. Part of friendship is seeing each other's perspective on things and being able to work out tough situations together with good communication.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by Raffles »

A few updates.

I spoke to my friend/manager about how her report made things difficult for me personally. She sort of apologized to me, but explained that it was her job. It was clear that she was sorry that her actions had a negative impact on me, but it was clear that she wasn't really going to change her actions in the future. It was awkward for a few days, but she's gone back to messaging me about her school stress, so that's... good I guess?

On a positive(?) note, I had a moment where I opened up to a friend about some of the things that have been going on in my life. They took it really well, and we had a good talk. They actually thanked me for trusting them enough and asked if there was anything they could do. I can honestly say that I don't know what to do with that. I'm glad that they want to help, but I really don't know how to trust that and actually benefit from the support if that makes sense. I'm still stuck trying to get over feeling guilty that I've burdened them with my personal problems.
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Re: Imbalance in friendships

Unread post by coralvh1 »

Hey there,
I agree that it's a good sign that your friend/manager apologized and is back to talking about other things. Moving forward, it might be helpful to try to set a boundary to separate work life and personal life. That might look like agreeing to mutually understand that what goes on at work is not related to your friendship and vice versa.

It's great that you were able to talk to a friend and open up a bit. It can be hard to trust someone enough to lean on them for support, but it might be beneficial in the long run. It sounds like this person is very willing to support you, especially since they thanked you for trusting them! You definitely don't have to completely lean on this person, but maybe it would be helpful to have more conversations like the one you mentioned with each other. Sometimes just having someone to listen can be a great form of support.
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