We all have boundaries. But some of us are ashamed of those boundaries or afraid to assert them because we don’t know how people will react. It’s a reasonable fear. I asserted boundaries with a landlord and ended up kicked out. It happens.
But some of us just can’t work ourselves up to saying, “I’m not comfortable with that,” or “I need some alone time.” Instead, these people create extensions of themselves–dogs or relationships or the looming threat of a breakdown or illness that never happens–that do the hard work of boundary-setting for them.
From my paternal grandmother to several long-time friends, a lot of people in my life have fit this profile. The problem with it is that once someone says, “I can’t hang out with you because I need to take care of my dog,” (who is perfectly healthy and has several loving caregivers) or “I can’t go to Toastmasters and make new friends because it might cause a nervous breakdown,” and they say it in all seriousness–yet still identify as your friend–you’ve got some tough calls to make.
One thing I’ve learned is that you have to do some probing to distinguish between the struggling friend and the controlling friend. There are those with anxiety or depressive disorders who really do want to engage with the world and connect with you–but need to take it one step at a time. Then, there’s folks who have a diagnosed disorder–or invent one–but will only socialize with you on their terms, on their own turf, while doing their preferred activities and discussing their life.
There is no negotiation and no consideration for your own tastes, comfort, or budget. The dog or the disorder or the relationship is then used as a means to make the narcissism socially acceptable. Make no mistake, there is no room for you in this sort of friendship.
Eventually you will either be steamrolled into submission or jettisoned when you try to assert yourself.
Once you’ve figured out which type your friend fits–and it’s easy to do: simply be honest about your own availability and preferences–my next recommendation if the person fits the more narcissistic type is to run.
Fucking race away from that stick of dynamite. The flame is inching closer every nanosecond. Because I guarantee you that unless you get a kick out of this personality type, it will all blow up in your face. One day or another. Boom.
See, I made some serious mistakes with this personality in the past. I thought I could help them. I thought I could build up their confidence and show them the world was nothing to withdraw from–that there was even joy, beauty, new friends yet to be discovered. But I’ve done this gig with at least six different people, and I can tell you they don’t want our help.
They don’t want our help because their system works. As long as they can find people who are easily controlled and willing to subvert their own wants and needs for their friends, it works beautifully. In fact, I learned that being a pushover was central to their definitions of a friend. The moment I expressed needs separate from one ex-friend (I had other commitments–which she knew about–on a night she wanted me to bus three hours and go to her favorite bar with her), she demanded, “What the hell sort of friend are you?”
So. Seriously, folks. Don’t do what I did. Don’t be a pushover. Don’t try to rescue, heal, or otherwise fix people. We each have to do that for ourselves.
Next time you invite a friend to something that matters to you or tell a friend about a rough patch you’re going through, and she or he says, “But my dog really needs a bath,” and then you never hear another word about what you brought up and they won’t let you get a word in edgewise while they talk for 20 minutes straight about their dog, you need to do some probing. And then recognize it’s your job to choose good friends and set healthy boundaries with them.
2 thoughts on “The Friends Who Can’t Be Bothered to Engage with the World”
For almost two decades now I have lived as what you would call a loaner. Isolated by the majestic wilderness that surrounds me but still with an unlocked door to both my cabin and my friendship. However I have found a few interpersonal relationships that I not only greatly appreciate but would defend with my life. You may want to step back a bit and allow room for we who prefer alone time but cherish a true friend.
Wise advice, Pete. I think that’s exactly been my struggle: to distinguish between those who expect to be accommodated but without reciprocating–and those who are simply looking for polite ways to set boundaries around their cherished independence. It’s a distinction I expect to continue learning for a long while, and stepping back is always a good place to start. 😉