Five years ago, I was on top of the world. I was 33, happily married to a lovely man, and had recently had a series of huge career wins in a challenging field that I loved. Then things started to unravel: my company went bankrupt, evaporating most of my personal net worth with it. I started a new company, but it’s been a miserable trench warfare experience that I’m hating every minute of, and — much more significantly than any of the money/career stuff — my wonderful husband was suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that involves a particularly long and grueling treatment path and some very high mortality rates.
I’m heartbroken on so many levels. I thought my husband was the man I’d grow old with, perhaps start a family with, and now, even if he survives this disease, the reality is that he is permanently physically and psychologically damaged and nothing about how I envisioned our lives together is ever going to be the same. And to add to that, my career has gone from being something I was passionate about to feeling like a poorly paid prison with no escape plan.
But that’s just context and not exactly why I’m writing. My problem is that these misfortunes have been the catalyst for me to realize that I’m caught in a lifelong rut in my close friend and family relationships, one that is no longer working for me. I’m suddenly aware that (with the notable exception of my husband), most of the people I’m close to are best summed up as charming and fun and generally lovely, but also extremely self-absorbed and overly-sensitive to perceived slights. Most are only capable of getting along with someone who is willing to act as a supporting character in the drama of their lives. This has deep and obvious roots in my childhood that are not worth detailing here, but the net result is that without exactly meaning to make this the standard, I have become known as the friend you call when you need a wing woman, or someone to patiently listen to you vent for way too long about the petty but maddening problem you’re having with your boyfriend or your job or your landlord. And up till now I wouldn’t necessarily say it was all bad — the truth is that because I am shy, introspective, and inherently risk-averse, there’s some symbiosis in friendships with charismatic, impulsive extroverts who let me be part of their orbit but out of the spotlight, and until recently I was more or less content with that give and take.
This year my husband had a very ominous relapse that we’re still actively dealing with (making his prognosis more frightening than ever and adding a lot of additional burden for me as his main caretaker), work has continued to get more awful than I thought possible (and exiting right now would be prohibitively difficult and costly), and suddenly I’m finding I just don’t have it in me to play the role these people want me to play for them. I think that I’ll scream the next time Friend A calls me when I’m running on four hours of sleep, just worked a 16-hour day, and am now in the middle of trying cook dinner for my sick husband, because she “really needs to vent” about how the stereo in the new luxury car that she just purchased isn’t working and the dealership isn’t responding fast enough. Or the next time I tell Friend B that due to everything else I’m juggling, I can only squeeze in an hour for the catch-up coffee she’s insisting we need to have, and then she shows up 50 minutes late because she “just couldn’t decide what to wear!” I could give so many more examples, but you get the point. All three of my closest friends, as well as multiple members of my family, consistently behave with a total disregard for the life crisis I’m going through — seemingly believing that their behavior counts as thoughtful because they occasionally pause their self-involved monologues with an aside like “oh, of course, I’m sure this all sounds really petty to you, you’re dealing with so much, you poor thing!” — barely giving me an instant to interject before resuming The Sorrowful Tale of How My Hairdresser Made My Highlights Too Chunky Even Though I Specifically Said I Wanted More of a Subtle Ombré Look: A One-Woman Show in Three Parts.
Frustration aside, I love all of these people. I don’t want to cut them out of my life; if anything, right now I need friends and family more than ever because this is a very lonely and scary time for me. But it seems like every time I try to withdraw a bit from providing my customary level of supportiveness and ask for a little more consideration of my needs, they respond by being extremely melodramatically wounded and it blows up into something that I’m somehow expected to apologize for, even though all I did was try to very gently set some boundaries because I’m completely tapped out right now. I don’t have it in me to be everyone’s rock anymore, but I’m also desperately afraid of losing all the people close to me by upending the dynamic that is starting to feel like a core condition of these relationships. I’m not even sure what I want; I don’t expect their entire personalities — or mine — to change overnight. I guess I just want them to understand that at least temporarily, I need permission to say — preferably without me having to do too much emotional labor to figure out the most perfectly diplomatic and uncritical way possible to word it — that I lack the emotional reserves to be deeply engaged and sympathetic when they want to vent at length about minor daily frustrations, or to force a smile and brush it off when someone who claims to care about what I’m going through is being incredibly inconsiderate of my time, or to generally be the grown-up who is supposed to help them sort out their lives when frankly I can’t even handle my own life. And of course it would be nice to try to change this pattern long term, maybe make some new friends on more equal footing, but realistically right now I’m not in a position to put myself out there and build new relationships given that I have negative spare time and am a complete emotional wreck.
What should I do?
No More Girl Friday
The only thing you can do is ask for exactly what you want. I know that’s not how you are or who you are. But you have to try something new now. Your old ways of doing things won’t work anymore.
I have a friend who had cancer last year. It was the earliest possible stage and she’s much better now, but it was scary and terrible for months, and chemo was pure hell for her. I really wanted to see her, to make meals for her, and to talk to her on the phone a lot. But what she wanted from me was very specific: She wanted me to make her laugh with funny, sometimes morbid texts. She wanted me to send her terrible photos of the Chalazion cyst on my eyelid, which made me look like a witch. She didn’t want to read about her cancer, but she was comforted when I read about it, digested the information, and fed her tiny optimistic bits, like a mother bird. I also helped her find an oncologist before we even knew she had cancer. My sister is a cancer surgeon so that part was easy, plus I’d read a lot about how important it is, in her situation, to find a doctor who’s experienced enough to properly stage the tumor during surgery and choose the right course of treatment.
All of this sounds like me saying, “I was the greatest friend!” But the point is, it was easy to be a good friend to her, because she was incredibly clear with me about what she did and didn’t want. It’s true that I kept letting her know that I was committed, that I loved her like crazy, and that I would do anything for her. She trusted that. But she was very good about explaining how hard things were for her, and about asking for what she wanted. She wanted help finding a doctor, and she wanted texts, but she didn’t want to talk on the phone that much, and she didn’t want me to visit when she was sick from chemo. Most of all, she definitely did NOT want me to yammer on about whatever trivial everyday non-cancerous shit was happening with me. She let me know this by saying, “I can’t right now” or “I don’t have the bandwidth for this” or even “That sounds rough, but I need to vomit” and also “Send me photos of your hideous cyst again.”
If she hadn’t been clear with me, and I had visited her and she had acted annoyed the whole time, that would’ve been worse for both of us. If I had thought “I’ll entertain her with trivia!” and she had grimaced and tried to laugh and I had still left with a sinking feeling that I’d disappointed her, that would’ve sucked a lot. Instead, she made it very easy for me, by letting me know precisely what she did and didn’t need.
I wish I could be more like her. I’m terrible at asking for what I need. But my advice to you is still to tell your friends what you need in very specific terms.
I know that sounds impossible at the moment. And the truth is that some people are better at this than others. When I ask for stuff, I tend to sound like a lunatic or an asshole. Lately I feel like I’ve developed this compensatory mincing, fucked-up, TMI approach to situations that feel difficult. I send long texts and emails. I talk too much. But even as I lay everything out in ways that I trick myself into believing are helpful, the truth is that I would probably consider these things Way Too Much and Chafing and Go the Fuck Away and Leave Me in Peace if I had to deal with me. Recognizing that really makes me question my approach. Because even when I try to clarify, to be generous, to backtrack, to make room for what the other person needs, communication-wise, it all adds up to “What the fuck are you even trying to do, lady?” I am going to great lengths to say exactly what I want, yet the other person is often suspicious THAT I’M NOT SAYING WHAT I REALLY WANT, or that I’m being manipulative, or that I’m conflicted.
Well, I am conflicted, motherfuckers! I’m conflicted about every fucking thing under the sun. GET TO KNOW ME, I want to say. Is anyone even paying attention? Sometimes it feels like we’re all looking through mirrored sunglasses with the mirrors facing inward instead of outward.
Obviously, a lot depends on what kind of friend we’re talking about. Even though you say your friends are all alike, I’m sure there are important variations. Some charming, self-involved friends behave recklessly around the clock, but if you make your needs clear, they’ll let you know that they love you and they’re committed to helping you. People like this sometimes do more to help than you think they will, they just need for you to be BLEEDING OUT ON THE FLOOR (or to act like you are) in order for them to wake up and take action. Other charming, self-involved friends seem more helpful and mild-mannered from day to day, and they might be open to doing things for you — bringing you a meal, feeding your cats — but they don’t want to get dragged into the details of your troubles. The more you go into the fine print, the more confused and panicked they get. They imagine that you’re manipulating them or being histrionic, just because you’re using lots of words! Maybe they think you make everything too complicated. Maybe they’re helpful but have no patience or have an empathy chip missing. Either way, they need concrete asks. Finally, there are charming, self-involved friends who can’t be pushed to help, listen, adjust, nothing. In fact, they get weird when you fail to appreciate their fun hair-salon stories WHILE YOU’RE SOFTLY CRYING AND STRUGGLING TO MAKE DINNER FOR YOUR SICK HUSBAND.
So think about your friends and family. Think about who volunteered to host the bridal shower and who didn’t host but did all of the work when the host slacked off. Think about who shows up and how. Think about who never, ever shows up. Think about who gets you and loves you for who you are, and think about who looks like they’re sucking on lemons every time you open your mouth. All selfish-seeming friends are not alike, and many of them are worth keeping. It’s important to honor other people’s strengths AND their weaknesses, so you don’t blame one shitty friend’s unbelievable callousness on a whole room full of regular, mundanely annoying friends, and you give the sneakily loyal friends some credit for what they CAN offer, in spite of their flaws.
My problem is that I have an immature expectation that all of my friends should be able to do ALL OF THE THINGS. Rather than adjusting to reality, I try to explain myself, as if their understanding of me will change everything. Instead, I want to become the kind of person who says, quite simply, “I can’t do this today” or “I need your help” or “Maybe we could trade off with hosting.” Do people ever say that shit and get away with it? Why do I assume that I could never get away with it?
And what does it mean to “get away with” being a human being with needs and desires of your own? Because as long as we’re talking about how to understand our friends’ real needs, we also have to address OUR needs. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of a social situation and ask myself, “What am I doing here? Have I ever enjoyed this? Why do I always act like this works for me when it doesn’t?” Are we doing our friends a favor by tolerating social situations that suck for us? Don’t they leave feeling weird and guilty and uncomfortable? How is that good for them or us?
The problem is, it’s hard to take stock of these things until the shit starts hitting the fan. And there’s nothing worse than finding yourself in a nightmarish corridor of your life, only to discover that you’re surrounded by charming motherfuckers who can’t possibly prioritize your real-life crisis above their highlighting-calibration disasters and luxury-car-stereo catastrophes. And that’s not to mention the classic no-shows who hear about something heavy you’re dealing with and promptly disappear — no check-ins, no “hey how is X managing these days?,” no offers of help, no faint expressions of concern, nothing. A lot of people are repelled by bad fortune. They act like it’s contagious. At the very moment when they should be dropping everything to show up, they disappear instead. (Not to be confused with people who hate complicated talk, but show up with flowers and foodstuffs the second they know you’re having a hard time.)
But I really don’t want to limit our discussion of your situation to the careless monsters and disappearing dickheads of the world. Because even when someone drives over with a baked casserole the second they get the bad news, there are smaller disappointments that accumulate into an even bleaker friendship picture. Personally, I go through phases where I’m extremely grateful and accepting of all of my friends, and then I unexpectedly find myself amazed at how weirdly shitty most people can be. I try not to linger in that space, but you know what? The nicest people can be so fucking thoughtless sometimes. Even when you have friends who aren’t swimming in money and trivial perceived tragedies, even when you’ve resigned yourself to being The One Who Listens with certain friends, there are just a million and one ways that people end up taking advantage of whatever goods and services you’ve fallen into the habit of providing.
So beyond learning to say, “Hey, this won’t work for me” and “I need a lot of support and don’t have much to give at the moment” (without apologizing for it!), I think it’s also useful to audit your default friendship habits. Do you check in before the other person? Do you do the inviting? Do you host a lot without reciprocation? Do you bite your tongue and say nothing when someone steps on your toes? Often, a person who gets irritated at other people’s oversensitivity wouldn’t dream of voicing their own needs, so they begrudge others the right to do so. Maybe you’re infuriated at your friends for standing up for their needs partially because you refuse to do so yourself. It helps to ask yourself what rights you feel you have in any given friendship. What if it were okay to express how you feel about how things went, in a neutral way, without identifying someone who crossed you? What if your emotional reaction to an event were worthy of discussion, even when no one messed up or at least didn’t mean to step on toes? What if you could start a conversation by saying, “Your hair story was funny, but unfortunately I’m in a place where people’s small frustrations make me feel unaccountably angry.” Or maybe that’s the overexplaining version. Maybe the shorter version is: “I can’t do this right now.
What I like about my friend is that she simply states what she can and can’t do, without making it sound like a moral failure on her part or mine. “I’m annoyed by your lack of empathy” or “I feel like I can’t count on you” (the way I would probably put it) is replaced with “I need a ton of empathy right now,” and “I am really in hell, it’s indescribable, I can’t even talk on the phone” and “If you want to order Thai and listen to me cry, I’m all in, but I can’t meet you out for dinner.” Saying these things is very hard if you basically never consider your real needs or dare to imagine a world full of friends who would actually do something concrete to help you out. But I think it’s time you started to imagine these things.
Because the healthiest people I know are exceptionally direct, and no one seems to resent them for it. What if we could say, “I want this, but I don’t want that ” without weaving a negative interpretation of our bad friend into the picture? That harsh interpretation — along with the fact that we bite our tongues, wait way too long to speak up, and finally lose our shit over something small — is all about guilt and shame. We think we don’t have a right to want anything, and we end up hating other people for not giving us that right. But all we have to do is honor ourselves and honor our desires — calmly, without apology.
Many of us feel like we’ll lose friends immediately upon opening our mouths to ask for what we want. And yet, the people I know who do this appear to have tons of devoted friends. Why? Because people LOVE to know where they stand with other people. My friend who asked me for specific things when she was sick still expresses her gratitude for that stuff, months later. It’s easy to feel devoted to someone who appreciates what you do for them, but also accepts you for who you are.
So that’s my advice to you: Speak up. Maybe you’ll lose a few friends. I lost a few friends the last time I went through a weird friendship reckoning phase, and I don’t regret losing them at all. Because some of my friends fought to keep our friendships, others didn’t. It’s hard to miss friends who can’t be bothered to explain a thing or try harder. Their silence and absence speak volumes. They weren’t really there in the first place. What’s to miss?
Even if you’re finally convinced that it would be better to speak up, you’ll probably still struggle to ask for what you want. So let me just leave you (and me, and everyone else) with this: You deserve friends who care, and show it. You deserve friends who can adjust to you, instead of you always adjusting to them. You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. You deserve friends who can see you clearly, who know you well, who love you for exactly who you are, warts and all. As my 9-year-old said to me when I was lamenting being a difficult person yesterday, “No one is perfect. If you didn’t have bad things about you, you wouldn’t be nearly as great.” It made me cry, because I write that in my column regularly, but I have a hard time not feeling like I’m the one person who needs to be flawless and generous and good all of the fucking time, without fail.
And even though I’m trying to be more direct these days, I deserve to be a little flinty and overwrought and oversensitive every now and then, too. So do you, especially now, at the hardest time in your life. You show up for your friends, so you deserve friends who’ll do the same for you. Believe that in your heart before you say a word. Asking for exactly what you need doesn’t make you unlovable — quite the opposite. Most people find it easy to honor those who honor themselves. It’s time to start honoring yourself. You deserve it.
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