Tackling a friend's bad behaviour is never easy - but we owe it to them to try.
I have a friend who will act like the whole world is against them if anyone suggests they've done something bad or even disagrees with them. They will then ice everyone out for hours and make their presence as uncomfortable as possible in social situations. This can be caused by such things as their flatmates asking them to clean up their messes, or us choosing a different place to eat than they suggested.
Obviously this makes it difficult to approach them about it. What can we do?
The Hurt Locker
Dear Hurt Locker,
I keep thinking that surely the way to approach friendship is not to reduce our interactions to tentative templates using painstakingly exact and oddly formal language (the original viral meme, “I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis”, is more out of office reply than a way to talk to someone in your life who needs you). We should instead aim to foster interpersonal connections robust enough to withstand low level conflict or confrontation from time to time. This will include clumsy language and bringing problems up at imperfect moments.
There are rules in friendships, even or especially if they’re unspoken, and relationships with people are a negotiation. But interacting with others isn’t about two people following a script, with the guarantee that if you say your lines right the other person will too.
Most people are, to varying degrees, difficult and annoying and these templates don’t take that into account as being normal, human and broadly speaking, fine. The majority of the time we will find the people we’ve chosen as friends delightful (or at least pleasant) to be around, which makes maintaining friendships pretty easy for the most part. But being very annoying sometimes shouldn’t necessarily preclude a person from meaningful friendships!
It is of course up to you to decide whether on balance someone is worth keeping in your life - friendship is a give and take up to the point where it’s not worth it for one or both of you. If this person constantly acts in ways which don’t treat you, someone also worthy of care and respect, with much decency then it’s ok to make the choice to walk away from your relationship with them. But, if your email implies, this person is a friend you want to keep, then part of being a good mate is calling people on their bullshit, even though that’s an objectively hard conversation to have. That way they have the chance to make amends for their behaviour, and it becomes clear to them how you would like to be treated (sometimes this seems obvious but isn’t).
This person sounds like they’re being a bit of a nightmare, but there are a million possible reasons for that, probably all stemming from their own insecurities (people comfortable in themselves don’t tend to freak out when their friends suggest somewhere else to eat). I would suggest talking to them one on one, and framing things constructively. Tell them you value them for x,y and z reasons, but that some of their behaviour makes you feel upset or uncomfortable and ask them why they think they respond that way.
Try, where you can, to focus on letting them know how it makes you feel, rather than framing the issue as being how they are as bad or wrong, and offer solutions rather than focusing too much on past instances (for example: “Do you think in future if we suggest somewhere else to eat you could try to take that in stride? It makes me feel really bad when you ice me out over something so small and I’d like to feel I’m allowed to have an opinion too.”). You don’t have to baby them entirely, but if they’re prone to overreacting then it does seem necessary to treat them a little gently at first if the outcome you want is a more functional and enjoyable version of your friendship.
It’s entirely possible that your willingness to be upfront could serve as an important first step to a healthier friendship. When people worry they aren’t cared for, they act out. Telling someone you see their flaws and want to be their friend anyway is a powerful confirmation they are cared for, and can relax a little. Hopefully their behaviour improves as a result.
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