Carolyn Hax: Time to stop helping friend with meltdowns

August 4, 2013 

Dear Carolyn: I have a friend who has a meltdown about twice or three times a week. I’ve become her go-to person because we are in the same profession. I’ve reviewed cover letters, job applications, prepared her for interviews, given her career advice, and been her shoulder to cry on whenever she feels like the demands of our profession are crushing her. When I was going through this myself, I didn’t have anyone to turn to.

But what has been happening in the last two years is bonkers. She calls or texts me at all hours, even 3 a.m. Recently, she repeatedly called and texted while I was at a business dinner, and then threatened to quit grad school/her job when I couldn’t pick up.

I have had both long and short conversations with this friend to encourage her to reach out to other people who can provide support when I cannot. I’ve also tried to set up boundaries. But whenever I am unavailable, she says, “You’re the only person I can talk to!” And then, because I care about her and because I feel guilty, I end up in her long, drawn-out venting sessions.

During one of her recent meltdowns, I wasn’t able to pick up the phone. It turned out she did actually have a legitimate cause for panic — she was stranded somewhere. She resolved the issue by the time I played the voice mail, though.

As I said, I’ve already had conversations with her. I also get why she is stressed out, and don’t want to be an additional source of stress for my friend.

But I want/need the unreasonable behavior to stop. Please help!

BURNED-OUT FRIEND

What happened when you were in her position and “didn’t have anyone to turn to”? You apparently found a way out of your career crisis.

What happened to her when she got in a jam and you didn’t answer her call? She figured it out, and she’s no longer stranded.

What happened when you selflessly made your career expertise and crying shoulder available to her 24-7 for two years running? Over a hundred meltdowns a year.

I feel it is your duty to stop helping your friend.

Specifically, to stop rewarding her with your attention and friendship each time she decides to wallow instead of getting tough or resourceful.

Since the hard part usually isn’t whether to extract yourself, but instead how to do it, here’s a suggested template. It’s not as hard as your guilt would suggest:

(1) Tell her it’s clear to you that you’re not helping her; time is blue-faced with its effort to prove that to both of you. If she doesn’t agree with you, tough. This is about changing what you do, not about changing what she thinks.

(2) Offer two possibilities. The first is that the solution is within her, and has been all along, and your involvement has only interfered with her coping process, which includes identifying, cultivating and drawing on her own resources.

The second is that the career stress is merely a symptom of an underlying, diagnosable problem, for which you are also not the answer — and possibly again a well-meaning obstacle in the path to one. Suggest a full physical and mental health screening, just in case.

Point out that, either way, her being able to vent to you means she doesn’t take other, more productive steps. Say you believe she will come to her answer, whatever it is, a lot sooner when you withdraw your crying-shoulder and both start trusting her strength.

Then, for the love of whineless sleep, end the call whenever she starts venting. “Remember, I’m not doing this anymore.”

And why is it more important for you to be good to her than for her to be good to you? While we’re here, whose definition of “good” are you using — yours, or one taught to you by someone who didn’t know what a boundary was, or didn’t want you to find out?

It’s clear you have a good heart. It’s OK for you to be one of the people who benefits from that.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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