Ask Polly: How Do I Help My Selfish, Depressed Friend?

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Photo: D. Parer & E. Parer-Cook/Corbis

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Dear Polly,

I have a good friend who used to light up my life but now drains my life force. We are both weird girls, radishes even, if I can flatter myself. We are not beloved by all (or even most) and we are unapologetically into the things we are into. We have fun together and, for the first year or so, our friendship felt balanced and healthy.

But that's all changed. This friend, let's call her Mercury, has become very depressed over the past year. At some point, she stopped sharing her true feelings with me. Anything I do that isn't centered around her, she takes personally. Some examples: She texted me angrily when I posted a photo on Instagram of me out with a different friend. When her plans are disrupted, she either throws a tantrum or pretends she doesn't care, only to erupt about it later. She's cut off several shared friends because they didn't want to talk about the minutiae of her work problems over happy hour. She hoards resentment and holds me accountable for hurts I didn't know I caused. The list goes on.

Polly, the long and short of it is that she is being a bad friend. I know she is depressed — her work life sucks, she desperately wants a boyfriend but judges all prospects harshly, and is unsure of her future. I've been there and empathize deeply. Another friend told me to cut Mercury off because she is self-centered and makes everything about her; I replied that she is so depressed that she interprets everything as an insult. I believe this to be true.

But I don't know if I can take it anymore. She ignores any advice I give her, and even lashes out at me for pushing back against her crazy. She is controlling and demanding. She sends nasty texts out of the blue and then tries to backtrack on them when I confront her. And largely, she avoids confrontation altogether, leaving me obsessing over whether she's upset with me and how I want to deal with it. (See: This letter.)

Mercury needs a best friend, and I can't be that friend to her. I can't sit and listen to all her problems and validate her feelings. I'm not that kind of person. I want friendships that light me up and force me to grow and become a better person, and I want to be that kind of friend. But when I am that friend to her, she lashes out. I don't know how many more times I can let her off the hook and forgive her when she is unwilling or unable to do the same for me.

Part of me wants to end the friendship, but I don't know if I can. Please help, Polly. What should I do? How can I save myself without hurting her?

Sincerely,

The Best Worst Friend


Dear TBWF,

I'm a big fan of long-term friend loyalty. And I'm a big believer in talking things out. I've always had faith that you can sit down with an old friend, air your grievances, and come away feeling more committed to the friendship. In general, I think friends give up on each other too easily, before they have a chance to listen and be understood.

But at some point I think we're all forced to accept that some people are just too selfish to tolerate. It's not just that they never give back the same attention and understanding that you give them. It's not just that they blame you every single time you step a millimeter outside of the highly subjective boundaries of what they personally consider acceptable behavior. It's not just that, when you do push them to listen or support you a little, they almost immediately shift the focus back to their own problems. It's not even that they become defensive when you dare to suggest a new path or new perspective, or that they take every suggestion as such a personal insult that they feel the need to lash out with personal insults of their own in response. All of these things are irritating, mind you. But the worst part is their total lack of gratitude.

Extremely self-centered motherfuckers lack gratitude. They appreciate nothing. This is true not only because they encounter your existence as a separate human being with a separate brain and separate opinions as deeply offensive, but also because when you're doing your real job in their eyes — nodding along, saying "Yes, yes, you're right," validating their experiences — you are about as valuable and as precious to them as the wallpaper. You are incidental. Anyone in the world could be on the other end of the phone, as far as they're concerned. Ever notice how your friend can't remember if she told you something already? Ever notice how, if you say, "Yes, we talked about this yesterday," she still doesn't remember, and she STILL wants to retrace that well-trodden ground all over again?

You are irrelevant. By putting aside time and energy and giving your friend your full attention and biting your tongue so as to avoid being reprimanded for your separate-human-being-ness, you're just another object in the room. You interrupt your day; you put your work aside; you stay up late to talk; you are concerned, you try hard to help. But you earn zero credits. In fact, all you can do is earn more marks against your name, accumulated since the very start of your friendship.

This is true because your friend is threatened by intimacy itself. The more you prove that you're willing to help, that you're willing to be there when she feels vulnerable, that you're willing to love and support her no matter what, THE MORE SHE RESENTS YOU. She unloads on you and then you become a reflection of her weakness, and your very existence is an uncomfortable reminder that she's weak.

And when you say, "I care about our friendship and I love you and I'm worried about you"? You're an asshole because in her twisted mind, your very direct statement of love is condescending and implies that she depends on you (which isn't fair somehow). Does she ever say anything kind to you? Do you ever hear, "Thanks for talking this out with me, it really helped"? No. You are invisible. You are loyal to a corrupt state. You are sentimental about an amnesiac.

Life is too short for shitty narcissistic friends. It's too bad, because they're often some of the smartest, most entertaining radishes around. But you can't let that pull you back in. Because if you can't ever give your shitty friend enough, if you can't assert healthy boundaries, if you can't lean on her and you can't spend time with her and you can't even exist in the world, separate from her, without drawing her ire? Well then, WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT?

You can't talk it over with her. She considers it your duty to take care of her, regardless of the rewards or punishments involved. She doesn't understand give and take. She needs you, and you're an asshole if you don't comply. Even so, she doesn't necessarily CARE ABOUT YOU. 

The sad thing is, if you had a narcissist for a parent, it's natural to come to the rescue regardless of how much you get back. Narcissists tug at your heart. You pity them, which is pretty condescending, but you also want to save them.

You know that scene in The Sopranos where James Gandolfini is waiting for the ducks to come back to his swimming pool? You know that scene in The Great Santini where Robert Duvall pushes his kid around and the kid lashes out and Duvall is all alone? Nothing breaks my heart more than an entitled narcissist, feeling lonely and isolated. It crushes me. HOW DOES THAT MAKE SENSE? How can I walk around feeling sorry for the delusional, overbearing assholes of the world?

When you grow up in the company of someone with a severe personality disorder and you love that person in spite of everything, you feel haunted by a need to protect that person from reality. This is the very definition of unhealthy, but it's such a powerful force in so many of our lives.

I mention this for a reason: You have to unearth and examine your motivations for blindly serving this shitty friend. It's not just the fact that she's a radish. There's something else. Maybe her woes remind you that you're relatively happy, and that feels good. Maybe you're too easily controlled by guilt. Maybe you want to REALLY MATTER to someone out there, and at least when someone calls you and notices what you do on Instagram all the time, it's clear that she's invested in you.

Or is she just obsessed with anyone she can blame for her own troubling emotions? Are you maybe confusing her fixation on you with genuine concern, her anger with love, her competitiveness with real affection?

You have to dig deep and figure out why you've chosen to play this role as protector to this terrible woman, not only so you can avoid doing it again, but so you understand yourself a little better. There's joy in knowing the forces that act on you. It gives you a better picture of your emotional landscape. You should know what's going on, because these forces don't change all that quickly. And these things aren't all bad, in spite of our culture's obsession with flushing out all toxic echoes of the past. Being a grounded person means being able to reflect soulfully on your history and examine the strange, melancholy forces at play in your life. Understanding your sorrows, your compulsions, and your unexplained sympathies can make you feel more alive and present to the things you love.

But don't let your newfound understanding of these forces make you feel guilty. Humility and rigorous self-interrogation shouldn't keep you chained to a careless, selfish friend forever. Life is too short for that.

Absolve yourself of guilt over this woman. Tell her to see a therapist. Then let her go for good. I know it's so hard to do that. It will haunt you. Find ways to turn that haunted feeling into something beautiful, by helping someone else. Help someone who can see you, who can hear you, who can love you without feeling compromised by that love. Help someone who wants your help, who's grateful for your help, who isn't afraid to say so. Imagine that!

Polly

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