Ask Polly: Are My Friends Using Me?

Photo: Wim Werrelman/NIS/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

Since you’re an advice columnist yourself, you might relate to my problem.

On Sunday I went for lunch with a friend. We’re hanging out, hooray! We spent the afternoon discussing a complicated romance situation with a creepy former boss, and the problems she’s facing in her new job. She kept telling me how happy she was that I was there, because neither of these are topics she feels she can discuss with her boyfriend.

On Tuesday a work colleague I know well invited me for a drink. We’re hanging out, hooray! It turns out he was killing time before meeting his girlfriend for dinner. In the bar he complained about a complicated work problem he has never once mentioned in the office. And then he told me how happy he was to get to talk about it with someone who understands, because his girlfriend doesn’t.

Tonight I am going to a friend’s house for the weekend. We’re hanging out, hooray! Except I’ve discovered she has asked me around because her wife has been self-harming again and thinks my outside perspective might help her to stop, or at least cut back for the sake of their kids.

The penny’s dropped. I have somehow become (as New Girl put it) the emotional fluffer to almost my entire friendship circle. They come to me when they have problems they cannot discuss with their partners, or problems other people cannot solve, and otherwise I’m ignored. More evidence? I recently texted a dozen people with news of a spare ticket to a very cool sold-out event I knew they’d be interested in. Only four bothered replying; only one bothered asking how I was. Or the out-of-town friend who got in touch last minute, asking to stay with me for a weekend, as someone else had flaked on her. She took me out to lunch before she left, but she’s ignored all messages since. How do I fall for this every damn time? Why do I think, At last! Here is the cool friendship I have been waiting for! instead of cynically wondering what they want from me?

I’m an office manager; once, a boss told me that I was part of the overheads to her and what she liked best about me was the fact that I don’t need external validation to be happy. That comes from a miserable, suicidal childhood with unloving parents who kept dropping me into abusive/bullying situations and then sabotaging my attempts to rescue myself. I got divorced a few years ago because when my ex-husband was diagnosed with an incurable illness he turned abusive. My dating life since then has been a complete disaster because I only seem to be attracting people who want to take my strength and confidence for themselves. I’ve accepted these bad dates as par for the course until the right person comes along, but I’m horrified to realize that the people I thought were my friends are treating me in the same way. I am very fully capable of excellent self-care, so when I say to someone that I’m feeling low and their response is to send me a worksheet about the importance of showering and breakfast, am I supposed to feel better with that patronizing bullshit? Where is the actual care from other people? Where are my friends?

Short of moving to a desert island, what can I do about this?

Thank you.

The Fool

Dear the Fool,

That sound you hear is 100,000 readers sighing in unison. We can relate. Most of us have been through this a few times. We’ve felt like this precious tap of emotional support that’s turned on and turned off at someone else’s convenience. This is the reward we get for being good listeners, a skill we picked up at a young age because our parents were abusive or they were narcissists or they were just not that great at listening but they liked to talk A LOT. But it’s not just that: We’re good listeners and we give good advice because we learned to intellectualize and compartmentalize our emotions at a very early age. Instead of feeling our feelings and trusting that the world would be okay with that, we shoved our feelings aside and applied our big brains to solving psychological mind-puzzles. Now we listen to other people’s feelings and analyze them and write about the feeling of feelings instead. WE DON’T FEEL, WE WORK COMPLICATED MIND-PUZZLES ABOUT FEELINGS INSTEAD.

So many of us do this! We feel proud because we’re good at this! We take pleasure in our skills at working complicated mind-puzzles instead of feeling our feelings. It’s only after years of doing this, and being surrounded by friends because of it, that we slow down and notice something: These so-called “friends” don’t answer the phone when we call. When we say, “I feel sad,” they shy away. They don’t reciprocate. They can’t even imagine reciprocating.

But if you tell one of these people directly that they don’t give you what you need, they’ll flip out on you, because they DO give some things to other people. They just don’t give people EXACTLY WHAT THEY NEED WHEN THEY NEED IT.

Um … Because we’re the only people who do that.

We think it’s normal to drop everything in order to give other people what they need. We think it’s selfish to do otherwise. We think it’s myopic and strange and aggressive and unkind to take care of yourself instead of taking care of someone else, no matter who the other person is and what they want and how many times a week/month/year they want it.

At this point you probably think I’m merely conjuring that old trope of WOMEN WHO LOVE TOO MUCH. You probably don’t relate to those kinds of people. I know I don’t. I always thought that kind of woman was some sad sack who gave and gave and gave without taking. No one would define me that way! I’m super-selfish!

See how easy it is to see yourself as selfish? That’s part of the problem! That’s why you listen so much and give so much! Because no matter how much you give to other people, no matter how much you set your own needs aside and clear the decks and apply the FULL FORCE OF YOUR BIG MIND to their troubles, guess what? You still imagine that you’re a selfish fucker underneath it all.

WHO TAUGHT YOU THAT? Your parents taught you that. Mine did, too. Mine really didn’t mean to! They did it by accident! But that’s how I operate. I’m always giving more and more because I know that I’m in deep, deep debt. I owe people more love and attention. What do I deserve, you might ask? NOTHING. I DESERVE NOTHING.

I’ll bet you know what I mean by that. I’ll bet 100,000 readers know what I mean by that. We know it at a gut level. We don’t need to call ourselves PEOPLE WHO GIVE TOO MUCH to know it. We operate under these assumptions every single goddamn day.

Here’s what we do too much of: Listen until our ears bleed. Feel guilty for getting off the phone, finally. Here’s what we almost never do: ASK FOR EXACTLY WHAT WE WANT.

It’s not a small thing to ask for exactly what you want. You are at the beginning of this long process. You just noticed. Now you’re tempted to test out this theory of yours. You’re starting to ask for stuff, and people are starting to flat-out ignore you. Here’s part of the reason why: You’re attracted to people who are attracted to strength and hate weakness. Or maybe you were that way in the old days and these are old friends. Either way, many of these people aren’t people who can give you what you need. Maybe they don’t ALL need to go, but adjust your expectations. They are not that flexible or that generous.

But also: You’re bad at asking for EXACTLY what you want. You still assume that you’re too selfish, underneath it all. You still assume that other people really SHOULD come first. So you are a little shaky on the asking-for-things front. You beat around the bush. You hint. You ask for something but you don’t make it clear that it’s important to you. Your friends say things like I NEED YOU RIGHT NOW! But you don’t do that. You resent that, so you wouldn’t dare do it. But you don’t make it clear how MUCH you need someone else, because you’re worried that will sound weak, and you think of yourself as strong.

I want to challenge you to stop thinking of yourself as stronger than other people. That might sound paradoxical. You are strong and it’s good to be strong, no doubt. But I want you to try on weakness and need for size. You are lonely right now. You feel isolated. You don’t just feel ANGRY, which is your emotion of choice. YOU FEEL SAD. YOU FEEL DISAPPOINTED. YOU FEEL LIKE THIS SHOULDN’T BE ABOUT YOU, BUT IT IS ABOUT YOU. YOU WANT TO SNAP OUT OF THIS, BUT YOU CAN’T!

Feel sad. Feel weak. Pick up the phone and say, “I’m sad. I feel needy.” Cry a little if you need to. Tolerate the awkwardness.

If you need to lay it out for them, lay it out. “Here’s the thing. I need YOU now. Maybe I’m overcorrecting by being extra weak and sad. SO BE IT. I need for you to show up for me and listen to me ramble about this. I need support. You don’t have to say the perfect thing, but I want you to keep me company through this. I want you to show me that you can be a friend, too, even when it’s fucking awkward.”

People won’t like this. And a lot of people — your friends and also voices on the radio and people on Twitter and everywhere else — they will tell you to stop it. JUST STOP IT. You’re navel-gazing. You aren’t important. You’re being selfish. You should be taking care of other people, not yourself. This is absurd. Why don’t you stop whining? Why don’t you get it together?

But weakness is going to show you how to feel your feelings. You won’t be strong, truly strong, until you learn how to do that. And look, you won’t be a TRULY good friend until you do it, either. Solving mind-puzzles isn’t REALLY being a friend.

Solving mind-puzzles is fun. I like it. But it’s not living. Living is something else.

When you show up and you take in where someone is and you care without simply grappling for some “right” answer, that forges a connection. When you have a connection that’s real, the other person naturally wants to give back to you as a friend.

This will be hard to hear: You and I don’t always forge connections that are real. Thanks to the tangled mess of our histories, thanks to the ways we’ve overcompensated, we don’t always connect. We SEEM to connect, but 90 percent of the time we aren’t really connecting.

We have to work harder. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions, and that we haven’t worked so fucking hard already. I mean, it’s a MOTHERFUCKER that we have to work harder, after all of our hard work, right?

But we do. Our sensitive overthinking has led us to be the strongest, wisest, most generous in some ways, and yet we haven’t arrived yet because we are sleepwalking in other ways, falling back on our old tricks with intellectualizing, when we should be feeling our way in the dark.

Feel your way, Fool. Ask people for what you need. Ask with anger and ask with humility. When you get it wrong, forgive yourself and ask again. Don’t be a good friend anymore. Just show up, and ask that others show up for you. Find your connection. Ask honest questions. And feel what you feel without shame.

But first and foremost: Care for yourself. That’s why people tell you that. Not because you don’t know how to take a shower, have breakfast, get a massage. Because you don’t know how to love yourself deeply and give yourself some space to be selfish and let yourself off the hook and ASK FOR EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT. As annoying as your friends are, they can sense this about you. They know that you deny yourself these things. You don’t even know that about yourself!

God, do I get it. That sound is 100,000 readers, sighing along. It’s hard. It’s so hard to really know yourself, and feel your feelings without shame. It’s so fucking hard. This fucked-up world full of fucked-up people is a testament to how hard it is.

Let’s keep trying, Fool. We are ALL fools. Look around you. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, either. Do you feel that? We’re connected. We’re with you. Let’s keep trying.


Ask Polly: Are My Friends Using Me?