Dear Carolyn: I have a friend who has a meltdown about twice or three times a week. Ive become her go-to person because we are in the same profession. Ive 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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. Ive also tried to set up boundaries. But whenever I am unavailable, she says, Youre 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 wasnt 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, Ive already had conversations with her. I also get why she is stressed out, and dont want to be an additional source of stress for my friend.
But I want/need the unreasonable behavior to stop. Please help!
What happened when you were in her position and didnt 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 didnt answer her call? She figured it out, and shes 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 isnt whether to extract yourself, but instead how to do it, heres a suggested template. Its not as hard as your guilt would suggest:
(1) Tell her its clear to you that youre not helping her; time is blue-faced with its effort to prove that to both of you. If she doesnt 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 doesnt 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, Im 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 were here, whose definition of good are you using yours, or one taught to you by someone who didnt know what a boundary was, or didnt want you to find out?
Its clear you have a good heart. Its OK for you to be one of the people who benefits from that.
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