I had the opportunity earlier this week to try changing my usual pattern of reacting to something that would normally trigger a real emotional breakdown. While I don’t think I completely broke my usual pattern, I did manage to take enough baby steps in the right direction to experience a real benefit from the new approach, including avoiding the usual meltdown.
The precipitating event, as is often the case with these kinds of things, was a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but it was something that seemed to question something important about the way I see myself. The essence of the event was that I found out that one of my dearest friends was going through a really difficult time because of some things that had happened to her, but although I had talked to her frequently over the course of this situation unfolding for her, she had kept it hidden from me because she felt like she couldn’t talk to me about her troubles because I had such a bad week myself.
I was devastated. Because I place such a high value on being present for and supporting those that are dear to me, the fact that she felt like she couldn’t share this challenge with me made me doubt one of the few things that I’ve always seen as a core strength of mine. It also shook the foundations of some of the changes I’ve been trying to make in how I live my life.
As usual, my inner monsters went nuts. Here’s a sample of what they had to say to me: “What a horrible friend you are if you make people feel like they can’t depend on you if you are having any less than a perfect day!” “You are so self-centered to have let people know that you were having a hard time!” “Even worse, how incredibly selfish of you to have let this person do anything to support you when you know her life is not perfect.” “You don’t deserve to have any friends!” “I hope you learned your lesson and will never share your struggles or ask for help ever again!”
I admit that first night was an incredibly restless one filled with shame, regret, anger, and hurt. My mind spun in circles trying to determine where I’d gone wrong and how I could ever make myself good enough to ever be worthy of having a real friend ever again.
Fortunately by morning, I was worn out enough for my observer-self‘s voice to finally break through the angst with a few simple questions. Why is her perception more valid to me than my own self-perception? How do I know that this is really “my stuff” and not “her stuff” that has caused the problem? How do I know what is really true in this situation and what is just story? What am I going to choose to believe?
Those questions were enough to make me curious. And with the curiosity came a bit of detachment. What was true about the situation? Ultimately, the only fact in the whole thing was that she had delayed telling me about something she was going through. Everything else was story—either hers or mine.
As I looked at things with a bit more objectivity, I realized that she had never said that I made her feel like she couldn’t come talk to me when I was struggling; she just said she felt like she couldn’t. So it could be that I was doing something that made her feel that way. Or it could be that it was her own belief systems that led her to that conclusion. Or it could be a little bit of both. The truth was that she did not say.
I also realized that it could be that she just really didn’t want to share that bit of news with me, and that even if this was the case, it did not mean that I was a bad or an inferior friend. The truth is that she has every right to decide whether to share or not share any part of her life with me that she wants. As she even said when we were talking, she has enough other people supporting her that she really didn’t need my support at the time. My reaction to that is “my stuff;” it’s my codependency going into panic mode that someone I love may not need my support! In reality, it’s her decision who she wants support from and when she wants it, and I need to respect her own self-knowledge about her needs enough to honor that decision even (or maybe especially) when my co-dependent nature doesn’t like it.
Finally, I realized that even if she thought I was not a very good friend for having allowed myself to express my struggles and ask for help the week before (and I have already acknowledged that she didn’t actually say that—this was entirely my perception)—but even if she did think that—it does not make her perception of me any more valid than my perception of me. Yes, I know that I have blind spots where I can’t always see myself clearly. I also know that every one of us has blind spots and wounds that keep us from seeing those around us clearly. So even if she did happen to think that I was a bad friend, while it would make me sad that she thought that, it did not make it true. It did not mean that I don’t deserve friends or that I am a bad person.
In the spirit of curious observation, I approached another friend with whom my relationship had become rather distant over the last couple of months as I’ve struggled and asked her whether I was doing anything to make her feel like she could no longer talk to me about her struggles because I was going through hard times. Was this the reason why our connection had dwindled? I was able to listen to her feedback, including asking clarifying questions, in the role of my observer-self without getting defensive (this is not something I normally do well). Rather, I was able to listen and question out of genuine curiosity.
Ultimately, that conversation helped heal that relationship by getting things out in the open, but it also told me that while I do tend to pull inward a bit when I am struggling, I am not entirely to blame for anyone else feeling like they can’t talk to me. So I think I can do a better a job at being present to others when I’m struggling and keeping my own whining and requests for help in moderation, but some of the reticence my friend felt about talking to me was likely from her own beliefs or conditioning as well.
And so with a baby step of listening to my observer-self, a baby step of objectively looking at the questions with curiosity and detachment, a baby step of genuinely asking for feedback from someone who I had reason to suspect might not have all positive things to say, and a baby step of listening to that feedback without becoming defensive, I managed to take what was shaping up to be a real meltdown and turn it into an opportunity for self-reflection, for learning, and for mending another relationship. I also managed to avoid damaging the original relationship by over-reacting (well, not as much as I normally would) to it.
I’ve moved from my initial conclusion that I am a horrible, self-centered, greedy person who never deserves to ever have support or friendship again to a more balanced conclusion that I am a decent person who is not perfect but is learning and growing to the best of her ability. I still need to spend some more time thinking about how I can better balance asking for support for myself with making sure I am fully supportive of others, but I think I’m much better equipped to make helpful changes by having skipped the energy drain of the full meltdown process.
My goal for the next time this pattern gets triggered is to listen for the voice of my observer-self sooner in the process, so I can baby step my way into growth that much faster. Besides, I’ll be a much better support to my friend in the long run now that I’m not beating myself up any more, so this new approach is also helping me be the person I want to be as I keep baby-stepping my way on my journey. I’m making progress!