Q: I keep running into the same issue with my best friend of five years. (She’s also my maid of honor at my upcoming wedding.) We’re both empaths — most of my friends are — and we’re both in therapy working on how to cope with that. I have severe anxiety that impacts my physical health, so one of the empath-related issues I’m working on is not following through with plans when I need to take time alone. My friend claims she understands this but my actions severely impact her mood. Example: We’ll make tentative plans to get together, I’ll feel too sick to follow through, and then she’s in a negative emotional spiral for days. The final straw came when she called me late this past Friday night — just once, with no subsequent voice mail, text message, or follow-up call. On Monday morning, I sent her a text message asking how her weekend was and got an icy reply. Evidently, something happened to her on Friday, she called me for support, and my failure to return her call left her feeling very upset. I apologized for the accidental trigger and tried to lay down some protocols for reaching out in an emergency situation (leave me a voice mail and send a follow-up text) so I know it’s urgent. She hasn’t replied. I’m really frustrated. She has a lot of baggage around being shamed for being emotional, so I try to be careful not to invalidate her feelings, but I don’t know if that’s even making a difference. We’ve had several conflicts over the last year, always triggered by something I did or said, almost always accidentally, that caused her to “take a step back.” She insists she understands I’m doing my best to be a good friend while also working through my own emotional shit. But that’s not the sense I’m getting. I’m feeling increasingly like it’s impossible to be a human being AND her friend. Until recently, I had zero emotional boundaries and made myself available to her at a moment’s notice to help shoulder her emotional burden. But now that I’m trying to be more conservative with my abundance and take better care of myself, it seems like all I do is hurt her. What the fuck do I do? I’ve tried to be open-minded and patient with her dramatic mood swings, but she seems unable to give me the benefit of the doubt, which I always try to give her. This rocky ground between us is adding more stress to the whole wedding situation. (You’re supposed to be able to rely on your maid of honor, right?) This thing we have is not sustainable as it is, although I love her deeply. Help me figure this out?
– Emotions Making Personal Affection Too Hard
Being so attuned to other people’s emotional states that you feel their pain — being an empath — sounds exhausting. But Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist in private practice, isn’t convinced your empath superpowers are the problem here.
“EMPATH’s moods seem overly dependent on what the other person does,” said Gottlieb. “That’s not being ‘an empath.’ Most people are empathetic, which isn’t the same as what these two are doing. They’re drowning in each other’s feelings. This is what pop culture might call codependency, and what in therapy we’d call an attachment issue.”
From your letter, EMPATH, it sounds like you might be ready to detach from your friend — you mentioned a final straw and described the relationship as not sustainable — and detaching would resolve this attachment issue.
“This feels less like a friendship and more like a psychodrama where they’re each playing out their respective issues,” said Gottlieb. “A friendship isn’t about solving another person’s emotional issues or being the container for them. It isn’t about being devastated by another person’s feelings or boundaries. It should be a mutually fulfilling relationship, not being co-therapists to each other. In a strong friendship, each person can handle her own emotions rather than relying on the friend to regulate them for her.”
Gottlieb started writing an advice column because, unlike psychotherapists, advice columnists are supposed to tell people what to do. I’m guessing your therapist mostly asks questions and gently nudges, EMPATH, but since Gottlieb has her advice-columnist hat on today and not her psychotherapist hat, I asked her to tell you what to do.
“She should act more like a friend than a therapist/caretaker,” said Gottlieb. “She shouldn’t treat her friend or herself as if they’re too fragile to handle basic communication or boundaries. And they should both be working out their issues with their respective therapists, not with each other.”
And if you decide to keep this woman in your life (and your wedding party), EMPATH, you’ll both have to work on — sigh — your communication skills.
“Right now, they don’t seem to know how to communicate directly with each other,” said Gottlieb. “It’s either an icy text or complaining to outside parties about each other. But when it comes to how they interact with each other, they’re so careful, as if one or both might break if they simply said, ‘Hey, I really care about you and I know sometimes you want to talk about stuff, but sometimes it feels like too much and maybe something you can talk to your therapist about.’”
Lori Gottlieb’s new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
, is a New York Times
best seller. Follow her on Twitter @LoriGottlieb1