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Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Sun Mar 15, 2020 9:03 am
by Bubbles
Hi again Scarleteen. I haven't been here in a while but I really need advice with something? I should give some background first. I'm sorry if this is a bit long.

Last time I was here I talked a bit about how I struggle a lot with depression/self-harm and anxiety. I've been in therapy for over 2 years now and not had an awful lot of progress, but one thing we found is part of the problem is my lack of any real social support. I went through all of 2009-2019 without any friends so I'm trying to work on that now. I've struggled to build any social relationships beyond shallow acquaintances that usually just make me feel drained and get that 'lonely in a crowd' feeling.

But now since I've changed universities I joined a club and over last year/this year have managed to connect a bit with 3 people which is really cool. It's the first time in a decade I feel like I might have actual friends (I'm an introvert so I don't need many). But it's not as simple as that.

My anxiety is really bad around people, and it gets worse the more I care about the person. I think it's because it matters more to me what they think or something? And because I'm more scared of losing them. So often around these 3 people it can be hard to connect with them because of that anxiety because it gets in the way. I've opened up to all of them about it (Somewhat) so they understand. Sometimes it gets really bad and I have a complete breakdown and end up thinking they hate me when they don't respond to my messages for a couple days. Then I ask them if they still like me, which I think makes them feel a bit awkward but they say they're still my friends so that's something. They're a fairly progressive group of people which helps. :) But I think this still puts strain on our friendships. I know with depression you're supposed to reach out to friends but I think I might do that too much and push them away. One of these 3 people (I'll call her 'M') used to respond to my messages within a day but now she takes almost a week to do so. She mentioned once that it can be a bit emotionally taxing to talk about heavier stuff. I try my best to manage it but my depression is quite bad so I find it hard not to seem upset most of the time, sometimes the sadness just sort of 'leaks out' when I'm trying to talk about more fun stuff, it's hard. One of my other 3 friends, I'll call him 'A', has hinted at the same thing but was kind about it too, and both 'M' and 'A' still talk to me just... not as much as before. I think our friendship is stable but I worry about it sometimes that I might push them away. I'm trying to organize a picnic with them soon, that might be nice.

My third friend is who my question is mostly about though, I'll call her 'K'. I've only known her for a year just like the other two, and we haven't hung out an awful lot (But still hung out a couple times and talked a fair bit in person and over text). I know we *were* on good terms (She invited me to her birthday party last year) and we went out hiking just the two of us 2 months ago which was nice. But she sees more of my anxiety than the other two do. And it's gradually getting harder to talk to her. She's also less responsive to my messages now. A while ago I mentioned she was my best friend and she got distant after that and didn't want me to feel that way about her because she felt it was a lot of pressure. I talked about how I didn't expect her to feel the same way since she has people she's known for longer and I didn't mind and things got a bit better after that but she's still slightly more distant than before. Probably also because I'm so uncontrollably anxious around her.

The reason for that is because I developed feelings for her sometime last year and well... it's caused my oversensitive social anxiety to skyrocket out of control and it keeps getting worse. It's the first time I've truly had genuinely serious feelings for someone. So my question is about what to do here. I'm not sure if I should tell her how I feel.

Based on how she's a bit more distant I doubt she would have feelings for me too, but I can't be totally sure. I think if I told her how I feel then I'd feel less anxious because I wouldn't have to hide it from her or ever worry about if she has feelings for me too or not because... I would know, so maybe it would help our friendship. But on the other hand, I'm worried it will make us even more distant. She's only at uni for this year and then she graduates. 'M' thinks that if I tell 'K' I like her, that 'K' and I will probably be distant for a little while afterwards and well... I don't feel like I can afford to lose a friend with how my mental health is, and how hard it's been to make even 3 friends in like 10 years. If we drift apart now then she might not be at uni long enough for our friendship to recover. I really like 'K' a lot and don't want to lose her as a friend, but if I don't tell her about my feelings... it's really hard to be around her with all my anxiety. It's harder to be myself. And also it means I have this worry weighing me down all the time interfering with my life, which is bad now that I'm starting up uni again this month.

So I'm not sure if I should tell 'K' how I feel or not. I really love being ultra-honest and vulnerable with friends, it's a new thing I've started. I sort of hold myself to never telling a lie or hiding anything, even small stuff, or acting in a way that's not fully 'me' (If I can). Sometimes it means they know about my difficult mental health stuff but it also lets me be myself which I really struggle with and has helped me connect with these people and let them see the real me. Not telling 'K' that I like her is the only time I've ever really done the opposite with one of these friends: not being entirely open about something.

Do you have any advice? About literally anything at all. All comments/advice is welcome, I'm quite lost and scared.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Sun Mar 15, 2020 4:16 pm
by rubyted
Hi, Bubbles! Glad to hear that you're back and seeking support for some of your anxiety in your friendships.

I'm wondering what your therapist has to say about all of this and what advice they're giving you in this trying time. You mentioned that you've made a lot of progress with them, so it might be valuable to get their input too!

I want to validate that it makes sense to care what other people think of you - I don't know anyone who doesn't care at least a little bit - and to be feeling some stress about learning how to manage boundaries within friendships for the first time in what sounds like a long time. It's awesome that you're allowing yourself to feel the discomfort of even entertaining relationships with people instead of avoiding them or isolating yourself! That being said, this sounds painful for you to be so concerned with the behaviors of other people.

I'm sure you know this, but I'll just say it here: we can't control what other people do. We can't control how quickly they respond to us, or if they respond at all. We can't always know the intentions of others or what kind of past they're coming from, and so many of us struggle with figuring out how to communicate our needs. Sometimes people communicate through pulling away instead of being clear about what they need or what they can offer in a friendship, which can be really frustrating. All we can do is work on understanding why things are so triggering for us and how to manage feelings of panic, desperation, and anxiety when things aren't going the way we want them to.

I'll go through my thoughts on the friends as you mention them!
About "M" and "A" - you mentioned that they've both let you know that sometimes they don't have the capacity to talk with you about "heavier" things like your depressive or anxious thoughts. This doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong with you or with them but can be a neutral fact that they might not be able to meet your needs in that particular way in that friendship.
I'm curious about the relationships that you mentioned before that felt "surface level" - what made them feel that way? Do you feel like going into depth with your friends about where you're at in your mental state makes your friendship more real or concrete, or makes them closer friends? What is the ideal way you would like them to respond? When they say they might not be able to talk with you about your depression, do you have another resource to process those hard feelings?

It sounds like your relationship with "K" is really weighing on you, and your intuition is probably right that she is pulling away and your friendship is becoming more distant. And that's okay! Perhaps you can work on developing a deep trust that the people who are in your life are meant to be there, even if it's for a temporary time. The people who leave your life, whether quickly or over a longer stretch of time, are meant to leave. If a friendship becomes more distant than it used to be, it's because you aren't supposed to be close friends with that person. A relationship leaving your life means there's more space for the people who will stick around to show up, physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.
This isn't just self-soothing on the surface or in the moment, but working on becoming really deeply accepting of whatever is happening in your relationships. It sounds like you're concerned that the more you hold on, the more people will pull away, and that may be true in some situations. The more you can allow people to come and go in your life, the less you will feel like it's a really, really big deal if some people can't be as close to you as you'd like.
This is something I'm working on all the time, and that I probably will be forever. Every relationship I have, every trigger, becomes a doorway into more healing, more communicating, and a more sustainable relationship.

If you want to tell "K" how you feel and think that might help you manage the anxiety you have around her, I support that! But you might want to work on a kind of rehearsal beforehand - go through all the possible ways she could respond and have an honest talk with yourself about how they would feel. What would you do or want if she had feelings for you too? If she said she just wanted to be friends? If she said she wasn't sure, or needed some space to think about it? If she didn't respond at all?

I think becoming okay and centered in yourself with any response could be helpful to manage the uncertainty of what could come of you telling her the truth. I'm always a proponent for transparency and honesty, but I know that can feel really scary at times because it requires letting go of control of others and only taking responsibility for yourself.

How does that all settle with you? I know I asked a lot, but hope this prompts some opening up and getting curious. I'm also wondering if online friendships are something that you pursue, or if you use any online platforms to find some support?

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Sun Mar 15, 2020 9:16 pm
by Bubbles
Oh, I actually said I have *not* made a lot of progress with therapy. My therapist doesn't have a whole lot to say about it. She doesn't think I should just let my friendships slip away because they mean so much to me. She says even though people may find it harder to hang out sometimes (Like after graduating uni) they can still be friends it just takes a bit more work to actively stay in contact which gave me hope.

I get what you're saying about how some people come and go but I'd really like to have a few lasting friendships where we can become close over time. My past social connections never really evolved into what I would call friendships because I was never that close with those people. I never felt like I could be myself with them, they were not very caring/empathetic, and I couldn't talk to them about anything of depth, mostly just tv shows and games, school etc. Nothing else. I didn't feel like we ever connected as people. I suppose they also lacked maturity and honesty.

I can't be sure what's different about these 3 people I'm friends with now. All I know is that I feel more myself around them, accepted, and understood. I can't explain why, I've tried before but I don't know. We just connect better somehow. I like them more and feel better with them.

Online friends don't really work for me. If I have social connections that aren't very close they just make me feel really drained and irritable. I need a sort of closeness I think, that I personally never find online.

I don't want to lose 'K' as a friend. I don't need to think about what would happen if I tell her about my feelings and she likes me too. She won't, nobody ever would. So when I find out she doesn't like me, that'll be hard but right now I just want to figure out if that's what's best for my friendship with her or if it would only make things worse?

It's easy to say I could just focus on other people but I can't stress enough how hard it is for me to make friends, even when I put myself out there and meet so many people (Which I hate doing). I won't find another that I like as much as her for a very long time and I don't want to be alone again.

As for 'M' and 'A', I don't mind that I can't always talk to them about my mental state. I just don't want them to associate talking to me, with talking about that stuff. I don't want them to avoid my messages even when I'm talking about light-hearted stuff because they think talking to me will be heavy or something. I just want to be able to talk to them more.

I don't want to believe that my becoming more distant with these people sometimes means we're not meant to be friends. Even 'M' said friendships have waxing and waning phases where things get quiet or then pick up again. And all social relationships require a bit of work to keep healthy. I can't survive being alone again, I can't lose these friends. I like these people a lot.

I hope that answers any questions.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2020 7:35 am
by Sam W
Hi Bubbles,

With K, you're ultimately going to be the best judge of what effect telling her your feelings is likely to have. If you think telling her would result in her putting more distance between you and that's not something you want to risk, then it may be best to just try to ride these feelings out.

With 'M' and 'A,' have you tried to shift the balance of talking about heavier things and lighter things since you had those conversations? If so, have you noticed any change? And have you spoken with either of them about the fact that you miss talking with them?

I also want to ask how much work you and your therapist have done around the pattern of your brain jumping to the worst case scenario and seeing it as very final (no one would ever like you back, if you lost these three friends you will never find new ones). I don't want to dismiss you feelings, and obviously you're the expert on the patterns in your own life. But that kind of thinking is really common with anxiety, and can seriously take a toll on you, so it might be something worth discussing with a therapist.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2020 10:23 am
by Bubbles
Hi Sam,

If telling K about my feelings would make her more distant, wouldn't that imply that she would want to be more distant if she knew I had feelings for her? In other words, if that's the case, then the only reason she's not more distant already is just because she doesn't know the truth? Doesn't that mean that my friendship with her would be surviving based on a lie if I didn't tell her? That doesn't seem healthy or honest.

I haven't had much of a chance to shift the balance of lighter and heavier things with M and A. We don't see each other much because it's been the holidays and now I thought that'd change with uni starting back up but... my uni closed for the semester with the coronavirus so that didn't work out. When I message them they take like a week to reply unless it seems like it's urgent and that I really need to talk, in which case of course the conversation will be heavy. I do still think they consider me friends though; when A does reply, he writes quite a lot. And I suggested recently arranging a picnic with M, K, and anyone else they wanted to invite, and M thought it was a great idea and she encouraged me to start a group chat. She was supportive of that which was nice, and said she was on-board, but K never responded. That was nearly 2 weeks ago. But M doesn't think I need to be worried because K never saw the message and she doesn't go on Facebook much, plus apparently she had some stuff she was dealing with not long ago but I'm not sure what. But I've still seen K online a few times so I do wonder if she's avoiding replying for some reason, but I don't know.

I haven't explicitly said to M and A that I miss talking to them. I don't want to seem confrontational though or like I'm mad at them for taking days to reply, or come across as if I feel entitled to their attention or anything.

As for the anxious thoughts, I have discussed them with my therapist. Nothing has helped, and even she sometimes admits she's not sure how to help me. I've exhausted all the options like switching therapists, medications, lifestyle changes, and tried most forms of psychotherapy. There are still always more things left to try but I haven't really gotten anywhere so it's not looking promising. All therapists I've seen have suggested this will probably be long-term. I think I'll just have to live like this for most of my life (Or at least many more years) which is a thought that scares me but I'll keep trying stuff anyway since there's a chance things can still get better, somehow.

Surprisingly the thing that helps my mental health more than anything is being around close friends, but as you know, that's been hard lately.

Thank you for helping me again by the way.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2020 10:47 am
by Sam W
With K, it doesn't necessarily mean the friendship is based on a lie, unless the only reason you're remaining friends with K is in hopes of starting a romantic relationship. Too, there are plenty of friendships in which one person develops a crush and rides it out. Or where one person develops feelings, confesses them, and there's a bit of awkwardness and distance that eventually goes away, and the friendship goes back to how it was prior to the confession. The hard thing is that there's no perfect solution to your feelings for K. Both telling and not telling her your feelings carries some risks, and it's up to you to decide which ones you want to take.

With M and A, since it sounds like you're good friends, I think it's within bounds to say that you miss talking with them, or that you'd like to figure out ways to keep in touch more consistently. It's not demanding attention, it's more that you're expressing something you're hoping for from the friendship, and giving them a chance to know how you're feeling.

It can be hard when anxiety is so deeply stubborn and unresponsive to treatment. I encouraged you to follow that plan of continuing to work on it. Too, it can sometimes help to narrow down the portion of anxiety you want to treat at any given time. Even if it's unlikely to go away entirely, sometimes you and a therapist can drill down on one particular type of unhelpful thought pattern and make some headway in addressing it.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2020 11:29 am
by Bubbles
That's definitely not the reason I'm trying to remain friends with K. She's really cool and I feel like I can relate to her more than nearly anyone I've ever met. If we were really good friends, I totally would be fine if she never had feelings for me. I spend more time worrying about the health of our friendship than whether or not she'd ever like me as more than a friend. I think the anxiety brought on by my feelings for her do a lot of harm to our friendship though so I kind of feel like it might be best to talk to her about it. But I guess there are counter arguments for that too, like how it might make us more distant for a while and, since university has been postponed, we probably won't see each other in person for a while; our friendship might struggle to survive all that. I know you said I have to judge what the right decision is, but this is one of the hardest decisions I've made in my life. It would feel so good to just be honest and open about everything and tell her how I feel. It'd suck to never know and possibly regret not finding out forever... and if she did like me back that would be so cool haha, nobody has ever liked me before. It's not likely that she would but there's still a chance. I think I'd like to tell her?

I'm running out of time to decide: she has a music gig coming up on Friday (If coronavirus doesn't cancel it...) and that might be the last time I get to see her for a while, unless we organize to meet up... but I don't know if that'll work with how infrequent her message responses are.

Thank you for your input about M and A. I think I'll try to communicate to them that I'd like to talk with them more if this goes on much longer. Maybe if K never responds to the picnic suggestion I could leave her out and just invite M and A instead?

I think with treatment we're probably focusing more on my depression than anything, particularly about how it's largely caused/made worse by my loneliness and lack of strong social connections. Unfortunately that's not something that is 100% in my control to fix. This is actually part of why I'm so scared of losing these friends. Making social connections is super hard for me, especially in the early stages where you're not really all that close because I don't feel very satisfied with how distant that is. It's taken me a year to get where I am and it's been so hard, and maybe I could make more friends if I lost these ones but honestly I just don't want to go through all that again or lose these people who I've gotten close-ish to. (Or closer than I've been with anyone else at least) I feel like this is the key to my mental health issues. I feel like having good friendships would give me the strength/support to live on with anxiety even if it never goes away from treatment.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 7:18 am
by Sam W
Telling her sounds like a really sound option, if only because worrying about this seems like it's causing a spike in your anxiety. One of the benefits of telling someone about your romantic feelings for them is that you have an answer. Even if it's not a great answer, it does cut down on the anxiety from the "what if" spiral.

Yep, I'd say that if M and A are responsive to invitations to socialize, but K isn't, it's okay to do things with just the three of you.

It sounds like you've done a lot of work in therapy identifying your needs, which is great. Since it sounds like social connection is a big factor for you, I encourage you to keep working with your therapist on how to create and foster those friendships, even through the rough patches.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 7:25 am
by Bubbles
Thanks Sam, you've helped a lot. :)

If I tell K about my feelings for her, do you know how I can go about keeping our friendship in-tact in the process and the time afterwards? (Assuming she doesn't feel the same way about me)

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 7:37 am
by Sam W
You're welcome!

That depends a bit on her exact feelings and what you're each comfortable with, but there are a few common ways that goes. One is that both people bounce back pretty quickly from any feelings of awkwardness and continue the friendship as usual. Other times, it's best to give each other a little space after the one person turns the other down. That allows both people to feel their feelings about the whole thing without accidentally making the other person uncomfortable or hurt. Then you gradually re-establish contact, and see how the friendship goes from there.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 7:47 am
by Bubbles
That makes sense. Do you think that's something I could ask her about, after I tell her how I feel about her? How she thinks we should proceed with our friendship at that point? Also is it likely she won't want to be friends afterwards? I'm a little worried about that.

Also, you've probably been asked this question a thousand times before but... I've never had a conversation with anyone about how I have romantic feelings for them. How do I know what to say to her, or how to say it, or what to talk about specifically when opening up to her about this? It's just that it's probably a conversation I'll only be able to have with her once and I don't want to miss anything or mess anything up.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 8:26 am
by Sam W
I think you could bring that up during the conversation if you want to, although I'd be prepared for one or both of you to decide you'd rather have time to think about any new boundaries and maybe draw them in a later conversation. Sadly, I really can't predict how likely she is to want a certain outcome. You're actually in the best place to do that, because you know her and you know the existing dynamics of your friendship.

When it comes to how to have this conversation, the best advice I can give is to be honest and straightforward about how you're feeling and why you're telling her, and then give her space to respond. If you're worried about saying exactly the right thing, it can help to write out what you want to say ahead of time. That gives you a chance to figure out how you want to put things, and can help you feel more prepared going into the conversation. If you're seeing your therapist regularly, you can also use that space to practice this conversation and reacting to certain outcomes.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 9:39 am
by Bubbles
I'm not sure I do know the dynamics of our friendship. Our friendship has taken a lot of twists and turns and I can never figure out why, I don't even know how to describe how confusing it is. When I think things are going well, she suddenly doesn't respond to my messages for 2 weeks, and sometimes when I think things are going badly she suggests hanging out one on one on an hours-log hiking trip. And she's barely ever online so we don't really get to talk about it. It's wreaked havoc on my anxiety. But like I said she hasn't talked to me in 2 weeks and I have no idea why. I'm preparing for the worst when she finds out I like her.

I'll be honest about everything when I tell her then, thank you. Especially since if she doesn't want to be friends afterwards then it might be my last chance to talk to her. I don't want to be bottling up any feelings anymore, I feel like I do best in friendships when everything is out in the open and honest. It just feels nice to not have to keep a secret. And if she never wants to talk to me again, well... at least I'll know, like you said. I'll ask her how she thinks we should proceed afterwards.

Can I update you on what happens after I've talked to her this Friday? It'd be nice to be able to talk to someone about it if it doesn't end well, which I feel like is likely to happen.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 4:43 pm
by Mo
You can absolutely give us an update! We'd be happy to talk about how you're feeling after that conversation, no matter how it goes.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 6:17 pm
by Bubbles
That event she was playing at on Friday has been cancelled because of Covid-19 so now I don't know how I'm going to tell her. I won't see her at uni either because in-person classes have been closed for the semester too, along with all clubs... I really, really want to tell her how I feel, this is causing me so much anxiety it's hard to function but I don't know how I can tell her now.

Re: Navigating Romantic Feelings and Friendships with Anxiety

Posted: Thu Mar 19, 2020 10:46 am
by Amanda F.
Hi Bubbles,

I think the other volunteers in the thread have already given you some pretty good advice about how you could go about talking to your friend, which I think still applies even though you may not see her in person due to COVID-19 changing things up. And I think that's also something important to consider - we're all in the midst of some really big changes out in the world, and that's mostly likely adding to stress and anxiety even in ways we may not be aware of.

This isn't the last chance you have to talk to her; social distancing isn't going to last forever. That said, it may go on for at least a few months. How are you talking to your friends these days? Are you keeping in touch virtually?

What others have said about being honest and open, and then giving K some time and space to respond, sounds like a good approach to me. We don't - can't - know how K will feel about you sharing your feelings with her, but you could feel good about getting those feelings out there, at least.

Would you feel comfortable telling her over text or video chat? Or, on the other hand, do you think it might be helpful to hold off and focus on adjusting to our somewhat new way of life?

If you decide you want to tell her over text, would you like to brainstorm some things you could say that would honor your feelings and also give her space and time?