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How to Deal With Energy-Sucking Friends

Especially when you can’t “just ditch them”

07.12.17
Collage by Ana Tellez

Hi MR. How do I deal with an energy-sucking friend? I love her. She is someone who I consider to be one of my best friends since high school! But she requires so much attention. She’s so dramatic. Sometimes I feel like we’re dating because she gets mad if I don’t answer my phone, or if I’ve been busy for a few weeks and can’t hang out. When we do hang out, it’s often a one-way dialogue where I sit and listen to her boy problems. She’s a great person and a good friend when push comes to shove. Like I know if I needed her she’d be there. But she is so exhausting. What do I do? (And please don’t say “cut her out of your life!” like everyone else.)

A truth of life is that some very good friends suck. They suck the energy right out of your body, mind and soul no matter their loyalty nor your joint history nor their humor, which can feel like a crap thing to admit. Aren’t good friends meant to energize? Shouldn’t best friends replenish empty emotional wells? Is a friend even a friend if they don’t fill you all the way up?

Yes, yes, and in theory, yes, but another truth of life is that friendship isn’t that black and white.

First thing’s first: If your friend is in any way abusive or routinely puts you in unsafe/uncomfortable situations, then she is a toxic force in your life, and it’s then that I’d tell you to “cut her out.” If it turns out you don’t like your friend at all (because she’s annoying, or because [insert other vague, hard-to-pinpoint descriptors]) then maybe she isn’t actually your friend? Evaluate this part and we can talk later if need be.

But if a true friend’s only friendship flaw is that she drains you, cutting off her supply to the well may not be the answer that revives you — not if this is someone who also brings you joy. If this friendship, albeit a sometimes tiring one, is mutual in respect and love; if there are giant chunks of this person that not only reassure you why it is you like her but also make you feel inherently understood and comforted and happy, hold on tight. I believe that you can keep the exhausting humans in your life so long as they are true friends, but you have to manage your time with them and around them. You have to set boundaries. This is a fun thing my therapist and I are working on right now!

Setting boundaries means getting really clear about what you need. What do you need to make this friendship feel like an equal partnership rather than a one-woman climb up a steep hill with a whiny human backpack asking for dating advice she’s going to ignore anyway? More alone time? More independence? To be less “on the clock” for your friend’s every whim? Then try to understand what it is about her that exhausts you. Is it the endless phone calls about her problems? Is it her incessant complaining? Her habitual gossiping? Does she get upset with you for not giving her enough attention? Identify these things, decide where your comfort zones are versus what sets you off, and then, before she begins another round of emotional straw-sucking, lay out what you can and cannot handle. It doesn’t have to be so heavy; she doesn’t have to know the rude inner workings of your brain. Here’s what she can know:

– That you love her.

– That you care about her.

– The things you love talking to her about.

– That you’d love to talk about literally any other topic with her besides X — not because you don’t love or care about her, but because friendship is about respecting wants and needs, and these are yours, and you’re trying to find mutual ground.

If it’s not the topic that drains you but the amount of time she requires, give her the friendship equivalent of office hours and stick to them. Let her know that you’re a better friend when you’re otherwise rested, clear-headed and decompressed and then, this is the hardest part, do not give in. Don’t answer the phone if you don’t want to. Texts are not ticking bombs waiting to be detonated — they can go unanswered. Don’t engage when she’s in “a mood” and you’re feeling passive aggressive.

The kind of friend you’re meant to keep will understand, even if it’s an “eventually” situation. Be patient. Sometimes friendships need a software update. You can charge your battery while you’re waiting.

Ask us questions by emailing write@manrepeller.com with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or leave yours in the comments.

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  • Lindsay D

    Love your advice…UM can we talk more about boundaries! I too am learning to set them and would love to hear about how all the other ladies do!!!

    • Amelia Diamond

      yes i just made a note!

  • Hayley

    Really great advice, Amelia. Thanks for sharing this and answering this person’s question!

  • Adrianna

    I’m very introverted, so I always found it difficult to maintain these types of friendships. It helps to have a reason to leave when you’re getting burnt out, as opposed to committing to open-ended plans.

    “When we do hang out, it’s often a one-way dialogue where I sit and listen to her boy problems.”

    I would try to organize more activities, such as kayaking. (Or hiking, but it might not be fun to listen to boy problems while you’re climbing a mountain.) We spend our early twenties sitting around and chatting over drinks, and then wonder why we’re all hyper-focused on our problems. It sounds like your friend needs a more productive way to rest, or at least take her mind off of what she’s perceiving to be a huge problem.

    https://qz.com/1012585/the-best-weekend-activities-are-most-likely-not-the-ones-youre-currently-doing/

    • Amelia Diamond

      love the activities idea!

    • gracesface

      “We spend our early twenties sitting around and chatting over drinks, and then wonder why we’re all hyper-focused on our problems.” – you 100% correct! Good reminder to get out and try something new with my pals.

    • sara_math

      wow, it’s like a decade of my life suddenly makes sense now

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    I enjoyed reading this, and completely agree about setting boundaries-though I feel that often in life, the term friend is severely overused. Energy suckers aren’t real friends. That doesn’t mean that they must be eliminated from our energy spheres completely, as it’s possible to care for and like a person with these tendencies, but it’s important to know where one stands and give attention accordingly. In my own experience, there’s not much return on the energy given to these types of “friends,” and they often aren’t as easily available for the problems of others, as they expect everyone to be of their own. Again, it doesn’t make them bad people, and everyone should be treated with a level of kindness, but life is far too precious (and short) to waste more energy than necessary on anyone who can’t offer the same in return.

  • Madeline C

    Yes, Amelia!!!! “Setting boundaries means getting really clear about what you need.” rings so true for me. One day I realized that you have to treat the most meaningful friend relationships in your life like “real” (basically nonpassive) relationships. I feel like when you are younger relationships just kind of “are.” They exist because of a mutual love or interest or just because they always have. But then as you get older and your lives start to change, you have to be willing to talk about the relationship itself with each other. It’s a living thing that two people are participating in, and you are allowed to ask for things you want/need. The only thing is you have to be super willing to hear what they have to say too. Once you open the door it is often pretty apparent they have had some things on their side that they feel and have kept to them self. You have to look at yourself with a critical eye which IS SO GOSH DANG HARD but ultimately rewarding. It’s also tough to get good at expressing your feelings in a way that don’t sound accusatory, but instead feel like they are coming from a place of love for the relationship. I am still currently on this journey and struggle with it all the time but am continuing to realize as I grow up how rewarding it is. My friends are legitimately the best people I know, and part of being a better friend to them is not keeping things bottled up that will ultimately strain the relationship.

  • Alexandra Queiroz

    I’m purposedly writing this comment before reading what Amelia wrote (which I will do, right after this.) Dear reader who sent the question: are you absolutely sure this person is your friend?? Because it might not be the case… It really doesn’t seem so, according to your description of the situation. I’ve been in a very similar position, just like most people, I assume. What usually happens is that, one day, the so-called friend behaves in a certain way that makes us see things clearly for the first time and we’re left wondering how come we didn’t see that sooner.
    People like that are not “bad”. And nobody is perfect, so I’m not here to judge. But they’re not really capable of being a friend simply because they can’t. They’re sick and need professional help. Please, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be mean, not at all. I know how serious and how sad it is and I really hope you figure out a way to help your friend but also stop enabling a relationship that is not healthy. Good luck! 💖

  • Lorraine Yu

    This. This piece of advice is what I need.

  • DesertKat

    It isn’t a friendship if you’re keeping up appearances of a relationship just so someone will be around for you “when push comes to shove” or for the days you choose to tolerate someone. However, this advice is bonkers great for coworkers you have to weekend about with occasionally but don’t want to make your full-time friends!

  • Replace ‘girlfriend’ with ‘husband’. Thanks, this helps.

  • This is such good advice Amelia! Creating boundaries are on you, not the other person. Applause!

    http://www.shessobright.com