Letter about absorbing emotions, bad boundaries and having friends whose progress is at a different stage than mine

31st of May 2020

Dear reader

This week I have felt how difficult for me it is to be there for friends who are at a different stage in working with themselves. I hate that. I want to be good at it and I think I was good at it. And that has lead me to think that being good at it is somehow important to who I am and who I want to be. And that is something I’ll need to work on, because the way I used to define that isn’t working for me.
I’m beginning to feel resentful at the people who are not working on the things that are absolutely necessary for my own growing. Like stopping negative self-talk. I’m never going to get better at accepting myself and liking myself, if I allow myself to think and say bad things about myself. And like most people I know I can say things to myself that I would never allow anyone else to say or that I wouldn’t even think about others. So the last few years I have been making an effort to not allow that kind of thinking. And I feel better. It’s not over and done. But it’s an amazing work in progress that makes a real difference.
And then it gets tough to listen to my friends saying awful things to themselves. Like calling their feelings and reactions stupid. Instead of owning whatever it is they think is stupid. I still haven’t heard it them do, say or express something stupid, they are just being human and having feelings.
The problem for me is that when I hear it I have two reactions. Reaction one is to do the same I do with my own negative self-talk and that is banishing it. Calling out and making it clear that that kind of talk isn’t allowed. But that isn’t what my friends want to hear. They are not working on this the same way I am, and I do not feel like that response will be seen as helpful. And I have to remember that. I have to remember their mindset and how I used to have it too. And that is hard to do, because in a way it puts me right back where I started, I am so strongly reminded of all the things I am working hard to get away from. And in a way it hurts. It peels back all my progress and asks me to throw it a way just for a moment, so I won’t have an overreaction to my friend calling herself stupid.

Another friend once compared it to trying to quit an addiction but only having friends who are also addicts. I have no such experience and don’t know if it’s an acceptable comparison. But it feels so true. And it’s not just negative self-talk. It’s being in abusive relationships, having bad or no boundaries, problems with parents and so on.
I know we are all doing things on our own terms and that none of us can be expected to grow and make progress on someone else’s timetable. But I feel lonely and lost in my own experience. I feel like I cannot share the good experiences I have and I worry asking my friends to completely stop their negative self-talk in front of me is too much to ask. Even if my boundary really is there and I think it would help all of us.

It’s hard watching people care about not having good boundaries and getting hurt over and over again, it’s hard trying to give advice and be kind and patient with them (and I know they need kindness and patience, and a few pointers about where to start), when every time this comes up I get a huge emotional setback.

I know how much I cannot push them or force anything. This is growth. It happens when they are ready and when there is room in their life to work on this. I can point them in the right direction, but I cannot do any more. And trying to do anything else will very likely backfire and make things worse. I know this. I’ve been there. And it wasn’t even that long ago.
I just don’t know how to empathise and care and meet them where they are, without (temporarily) erasing all my own progress to stop myself from shouting at them. And me wanting to shout at them isn’t about them. It’s because I feel like I just did this, and just found the right path, and just got away from that mindset that was killing me. And here they are, bringing it all back, asking me to look back, and all I want to do is move forward.

I probably need a boundary about helping people in this situation. Because I might be a few steps ahead of my friends in this, but I have not reached any kind of destination. And I also feel too much when I talk to them about their problems. I get to invested. It’s like I have no off switch, no boundaries. I feel like a sponge, absorbing all the pain and worry. And I’ve always had a saviour complex, I want to save everyone, I want to heal all the hurting, I feel the need to fix everything, apparently especially the things that aren’t mine to fix. And it takes an active effort to disengage and not take on everything in the world as my problem. That’s the main reason I don’t watch the news. I can’t handle knowing how broken the world is and how little I can do to fix it.

When a friend calls and need help, advice, a listening ear, I want to be there. And I don’t want to do that by halves. So I do. I listen and I care and I am in this with them (as much as possible). But when I put down the phone, or send them home, those feelings are stuck in my body for days. Sometimes weeks or months. Worry and pain. And I walk around with the situation on my mind trying to problems solve it all. I have to remind myself this isn’t mine to carry. I am not helping anyone by not letting it go. And I can push the thought away. With force and by intentionally letting them go when they pop up. But the way my body holds on to the feelings is harder to work on. I just feel too much. Too much that isn’t mine to feel and that makes my life harder. I have to remind myself over and over that these feelings, this thing that happens in my body, it’s not about me, it’s not mine to carry. I’ve gotten better at doing other things right after such a call. So I release the things I feel as soon as possible. But I need better boundaries about that kind of calls. I need better boundaries in general.

I want to be there for my friends. I want to support them. I want to make sure they have what I didn’t have and don’t have, the things that would have helped me or the things I still feel I need. I try to be that for them. But for a few of them I feel like the on-call therapist, the only life line. And as much as I cannot stop myself from being the supportive advisor, I need a change. This isn’t working for me. Especially because the people who do this the most cannot offer me what I need in return. It feels one-sided and like I am giving more than I have. None of my needs are being met, except my need to be needed, and at this point in my life I would prefer to that to go both ways. And I would prefer to not drain myself and to not have to undo my own progress again and again to have that.

For some reason I feel like I am ungrateful and like I am being unfair and unkind to these people. They are caring and kind and it’s not their fault that what they have to give doesn’t fit with what I need. And I feel lonely and expendable. And here are people who I care about, who care about me, who want to spend time with me and who needs something I can provide and they ask me for it. So why do I still walk away feeling like none of my needs are being met? Why do I feel so fundamentally incompatible with people this warm and kind and who want to give? What is it I am looking for?

My first priority about this is figuring out how to not absorb all those feelings from others. Then I probably need some conversations about what I need and how to make room for that too. I know I have really bad boundaries, but I am working on it.

I am not entirely sure how to finish this letter. Except to say thank you for your time.