What Lies Beneath: Divine Guidance

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Dear Lisa,

I’ve been avoiding a friend’s phone calls because I feel like she’s very negative and self absorbed. We live in the same community. Our sons are friendly, go to the same school, and play sports together. I picked up the phone yesterday without checking my caller ID. Unfortunately, for me, it was this “friend.” She immediately started complaining about the boys’ sports coach. I’d heard all of this before, so I lost it and told her she should speak to him directly about her concerns.

I don’t want to be the recipient of all of her worries and negative energy. I believe she tries to work me up and I end up feeling just as angry, upset, or anxious as she does, while she seems to benefit from dumping everything on me. I don’t feel like I chose this friendship; rather, I feel as if she calls me incessantly and that I’m just a dumping ground for all of her woes. What should I do?—LL, Manhattan

Dear LL,

When I was in graduate school, my supervisor warned me about patients who lived only to dump their frustration, anger, and disappointment upon the therapist. My supervisor surmised that these “help-rejecting complainers,” would benefit more from talking to a tape recorder then a living, breathing therapist. At least, he would joke, the tape recorder could contain all the complaints, and still remain calm, focused, and able to do its job. Like the tape recorder client, your friend seems unaware of the effect she has on you.

We can’t help but have our moods and outlooks influenced by others. Our social interactions add up and impact our feelings about the day—good or bad, stressful or easy, rewarding or frustrating. Spending time with friends who uplift and inspire, listen and support, leaves us feeling vastly different from spending time with those who drain us.

Dr. Jan Yager, a sociologist who has studied friendship for more than two decades, is the author of When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You. Dr. Yager warns of six types of “toxic” friends, including the self-absorbed type whose idea of a conversation is a non-stop monologue about herself.

To help you decide the future of the friendship, consider employing the following questions and strategies, which are adapted from Dr.Yager’s book:

1) Ask your friend if she is aware that she talks a lot about herself and her problems;

2) Gently suggest that she might benefit from learning to relax, to enjoy more of the moment, to tolerate silence;

3) Tell her that you feel like her dumping ground. Remind her that it would be nice if she asked questions about you and your life too.

Of course, these suggestions require your courage and commitment to understanding and possibly bettering the friendship. The tone of your letter suggests that you may not be interested in taking these steps. However, we’re all connected to each other in subtle and obvious ways. Before you throw away your friend, a little self-exploration on your part is useful. Since your buttons are being strongly pushed, there may be some areas you can work on in yourself.

Begin by asking yourself if your friend adds any value to your life. Sometimes when we’re angry or annoyed, it’s easy to see only the dark side of people. This side, given the closeness and intimacy of friendships, will inevitably present itself. How we handle it determines the fate of all of our relationships. Do we shut down, emphasize our differences, and use anger and self righteousness as forms of defense? If we do, we may find ourselves only having superficial interactions with others as we are busy protecting ourselves from their toxic energy. In addition, different people play different roles in our lives. Not everyone is part of your inner circle. That’s okay. Rather then thinking about this friend as a keeper or a tosser, you may decide that she falls somewhere in the, “Hi how are you and I hope all is well” category. She may be the “friend” you bump into in the grocery store and talk about the weather, the shortage of low-fat cream cheese, or the great bread on aisle three.

Learning how to manage your discomfort and how to choose empowering strategies are keys to intimacy—even the more superficial kind—and to negotiating healthy and rewarding relationships with others.

I’m also curious about your statement that you did not choose the friendship. How was it chosen for you? If your sons were the conduit, is this all you have in common? Ask yourself what created the intimacy between you in the beginning. I doubt she started the friendship by making it exclusively about her and her problems. Many women rely on their friends to be good listeners to all sorts of feelings, not just the positive ones. Your reaction to her fears—as if they have the power to become your own—is quite strong. This may be a call to you for better boundaries. You can remind yourself that you and she are separate people, each with your own challenges and joys. Most likely, she’s doing the best she can. If you have any problem-solving wisdom to share, try being helpful instead of “losing it” with her. This strategy may make you feel empowered and emphasize the space between you, so you feel safer and separate from her worries.

It’s also important for you to reflect on how you handle your own worries and anxiety. Are you able to turn to others for support, or do you put pressure on yourself to always be positive and appear like you have it all together? Do you come away from other interactions feeling dumped on and anxious? If so, you may be what Dr. Elaine Aron terms a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In her national bestseller, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Dr. Aron describes HSPs as easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input. They’re highly sensitive to other people and frequently find others’ moods to be contagious. Interactions with others wind them up a bit more than other less sensitive types.

The underlying question here is really the only one that’s important for you or for anyone in a similar situation. It is: what can you learn about yourself through this experience? I think on some level you understand this as you can easily distance yourself from this friend by changing the subject, taking another call, telling her it’s not a good time to talk, or gently suggesting that she share her feelings with the coach. Your extreme reaction to her worries is worth you thinking about. We all need a soft place to fall at times. By offering that to yourself first, and easing up on your expectations of how others are supposed to be, you may find that you want to offer others a shoulder or an ear, but only as it feels good to you.

November Problem

I’m a survivor of sexual abuse, rape, and physical abuse. I’ve been in treatment for fourteen years with the same therapist. Over the last two years, we’ve been struggling with the same issue. An even bigger issue is I moved and my therapist is far away from my new home. I need to either stick it out with her, or find a new therapist closer to home.

We had a good solid foundation and I was devastated when my therapist lost her job and we resorted to phone appointments. I felt like it “pulled the rug out from under my feet,” as not being able to see her triggered my abandonment issues even more. I struggle week after week with this and it has caused so much anxiety. A fresh view would be helpful.—CD, South Dakota

Divine Guidance is published monthly. Each column features a real question from a reader, and we invite other readers to respond with their thoughts and insights by posting comments. If you would like to have your advice to this question featured in Divine Guidance, please send a short response to the editor at Since we are unable to post every response, Lisa will choose which responses are featured.

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