Ask the grumpies: How to deal with a needy friend

Taylor asks:

I have a long-time friend/acquaintance with a lot of social anxiety. Sometimes it comes out in small ways like saying of herself “I’m so stupid”, constantly seeking affirmation, projecting her desires onto me because she is feeling insecure about them. Sometimes it comes out in big ways like breaking down randomly in the middle of a conversation because she’s feeling socially isolated.

I am fine comforting her once and a while, but I don’t want to be her counselor. And sometimes I just don’t have the spoons to decode what she is saying vs. meaning, even in casual conversation. Is there a tactful way to signal I don’t want to be a pillar of emotional support? Or that I need a break without further exasperating her anxiety?

Captain Awkward says you can restate your boundaries.  Or you can try somewhat ghosting.  The somewhat ghosting may exasperate her anxiety, but as Captain Awkward would probably note, that’s kind of on her.  If you look up “African Violet” in the CA archives you’ll get all her ending friendship posts.  Not that you want to end the friendship, you just want it to be less needy.

With me, I’ve been in that situation I think three times… and the first two times the needy friend ended up breaking it off with me after they’d fixed themselves up a bit and I guess no longer needed me (the third time we had moved away and I kind of ghosted on email because I had had a baby and just couldn’t anymore).  Nowadays I see the red flags and avoid without getting involved instead of trying to help, because, as you say, I don’t have the spoons.  And I’m not sure I ever was much help, but who knows.  It’s amazing how nice it is not to have people around who are always emotionally draining.  (Note:  it’s different with people who are there for me too– there’s a big difference between people who are always taking and those who are actual friends.)

So I dunno, I mean, I would recommend counseling to her because her problems are more than you can handle and then back off.  (Note, friend #2 broke it off with me because her counselor told her to.  I was, apparently, causing her too much stress.  And after I got over the initial sadness of losing a friend I’d cared about… I realized I no longer had all that stress she was causing me.)

If it’s just stuff like “I’m so stupid”, we recommend the negativity jar.  But it sounds like there’s a lot more going on that simple tricks like that aren’t going to be able to fix.

Disclaimer:  We are NOT counselors of any kind, and even if we were, we would not feel comfortable giving armchair advice.  Talk to professionals and introspect before making important emotional decisions.

Ok, grumpy nation, who has better advice for Taylor?

10 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How to deal with a needy friend”

  1. Omdg Says:

    Having been on both sides of this, the person who is using you to complain to may well dislike that she’s doing this almost as you dislike being on the receiving end of it. You can try gradually ghosting, or you can change the subject when she starts wallowing. Perhaps, “no you’re not stupid. Can we talk about something else, like [other subject]? How’s [going for you]?” It really depends on how much you value the relationship.

  2. jjiraffe Says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot: why do needy friends suck so many people dry? I definitely have had experiences like this, and many other people I know have too.

    I think there is a media stereotype about what it means to be a good friend, if you are a woman. That stereotype, perpetuated in shows like “Sex and the City,” and classic movies like “Sleepless in Seattle,” showcase friends who serve as sassy comediennes, sounding boards, therapists, matchmakers, babysitters, and style consultants to the “star” with little reciprocity provided to them. I think this stereotype subtly affects our perceptions of how to “be” a friend, as well as what we deserve from our friends.

    (Sidenote: I just watched “The Incredible Jessica Jones” – very enjoyable – and they subverted the “sassy best friend” role by making the supporting character white, while the main character was African American, which was really fun and great, and we need more of that in TV and movies. Still, this role highlighted that being a BFF in a romantic comedy is exhausting and one-sided. The friend really does “serve” a role in these movies.)

    But the truth is being a friend doesn’t mean you should serve someone as someone’s unpaid therapist. The therapist profession needs its members to study many years in specialized studies for good reason!

    Having friends is not a necessity that everyone “deserves” because they breathe air. Friends don’t “serve” a purpose in our life. Having even one friend is a gift and a privilege, and we should treat each friend we have with respect. We should have friends in our lives because we engage in reciprocal relationships that bring joy, but aren’t exhausting and drain us bloodless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting to have friendships like this. In fact, this should be the model.

    If your friend is treating you like an unpaid therapist, you should recommend she get a real one. If she doesn’t accept that answer, it’s totally fine to exit. It’s your life too.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    I think there is no truly tactful way to say “I can’t be your shoulder to cry on all the time,” if by tactful we mean saying it in a way that won’t make the person feel bad. A person like this feels bad, period, ended, all the time, no matter what you say. (And based on personal experience I would venture to suggest that sometimes people *enjoy* feeling bad and deliberately amplify it by announcing it and making scenes about it. They are often seeking, not solutions for their Issues, but validation for their Feelings. This is not to say that anxiety is not a real thing that someone may be trying to address … just that I’ve seen a lot of the other thing.)

    So whatever you (OP) say can’t be composed based on *your* anxiety about making her feel bad. It needs to be based on clarity. And the clarity needs to be based on what YOU need.

    As noted above, we need different things from different friends at different times. What does OP need from this friend? The fact that it’s qualified as friend/acquaintance tells me this is a relationship that already has some distance.

    • Sandy L Says:

      I have been burned by this and also felt used when I only ever got the “down” version of a friend. The up version went to other people who didn’t/couldn’t tolerate the down persona. Being there is almost never reciprocated because no matter what you are going through at the time, they are going through more and don’t have anything to give.

      I have outgrew most of my codependent relationships once I had kids because it wasn’t always Possible to drop everything anymore and the relationships grew apart naturally.

      I did have honest heart to hearts with these individuals too. For example, although I like being a reliable rock that’s not the only thing I am. I definitely think some of the fault iwas on me because I am that person people go to when life hits rock bottom. I needed the feel needed due to my own Insecurities and am so glad that this is not a regular part of my day anymore. It was hard to cut loose from that persona but I am in a better place now because of it.

      I suggest being honest without being cruel…set boundaries. Schedule a time you can commit to..or spend time with the person in a way that doesn’t involve talking like going to a movie or taking an aerobics class.

      Good luck.

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I was always there for people when they needed rescue or a shoulder but it was totally one-sided. I’ve worked on not being the friend of foul weather over the years because I didn’t realize that I had wrongly equated being used with being a valued friend. Now I am happy to be the recipient of woes for a small circle of close friends because I know they can and will do the same for me, and I gently disengage from people who are only woe by not proactively checking on them as I would a closer friend, and suggesting that they seek therapy is phrased with kindness and care, or gently pushing them to discuss it with said therapist if they already have one.

    “That sounds really frustrating, did you make a note of it to remember to discuss with your therapist?” works relatively well, so does “I’m sorry to hear that.” with no follow-up, or “I wish I knew what would help you here.”

  5. Taylor Says:

    Thanks everyone for the advice! I submitted this question a few months ago, so I have some updates that I can share as well.

    At the time I wrote in, my relationship with this friend was in a period of flux. We were hanging out a lot, much more than we had before. During that time I realized that maybe I didn’t want to be as close to this person as I had previously thought. This made me feel uneasy– was I a bad person for not wanting to be the confidante friend? But, at the same time, nothing I said seemed to help bring her comfort, even temporarily, and I wasn’t emotionally invested enough in the friendship to try and chip through her wall of anxiety and depression.

    Ultimately I ended up somewhat ghosting my friend. This came up in a pretty natural way: we hung out less, I became more glib in texts/email. We’re still on good terms but, obviously, more distant. Part of me still feels a little bad for not trying to help her more. If I am being honest with myself, though, I don’t think the friendship would have survived if I kept acting as her emotional support. At the end of the day, I am satisfied with my decision and believe it was the right one at least for my own mental health.


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