I'm not good at supporting others

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I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Hirundo Bos on Wed May 17, 2017 6:37 pm

A person I know is having some dark thoughts, and I'm one of the people in their confidence, one of the few they feel close enough to talk to. But I'm not so well equipped to be in someone's confidence like that. It tends to leave me with a lot of thoughts, emotions, and anxieties that I'm not sure how to process. Especially since I don't have a lot of people I can talk to either.

There's some background. It involves some heavy mental health stuff, so I'll put it in spoiler tags.

Spoiler:
I've know this person for quite some time. At an earlier time in my life, around a decade ago, they were at the same dark thoughts as now, only much worse. One time, they asked me out quite late in the evening for a beer or two, and since they live in my neighborhood, I said yeah, why not. But then it became a lot more than two, and I grew uncomfortable and wanted to go home. When we finally left, they were drunk out of their mind, couldn't walk straight, broke down crying in my arms, so I walked them home, where their parent was waiting, and then stayed for a few hours before it felt right to leave. I spent the next few days in a state of high anxiety, and ever since I've been uncomfortable when that person is drinking.

Then about a year later, they called me late at night. They were home alone, very drunk, feeling really low. They told me not to come over but I sensed they expected me to. So I went. Brought my mother, so I wouldn't be all alone in the situation, and the person didn't quite expect that, or like it. I stayed for hours. Went home, but on the way home their parent called, was worried, asked me to go back. This time I wasn't welcome but stayed anyway because I didn't know what else to do. When I finally got home again, it was early next morning. And some weeks after that, their own parent, now back home, asked me to come over again, kind of to prove to the person that someone cared enough to come, and I did… it wasn't as intense this time, but still it left me with the sense that I'd never really be able to relaxed, because at any time I could get an urgent call.

This time, the resulting anxiety stayed with me for at least six months. Sometimes for days in a stretch, hardly a day without.

(Short version outside of tags: Ten years ago, there were some episodes where they called me late at night in great emotional pain, and I went over to their place to help, but at quite a high emotional cost to myself.)

I was a lot younger then. I knew I had problems with functioning in some areas, but not that I had Asperger's syndrome. I didn't know specifically that I had problems with processing emotions, both other people's and my own. I also had a very vague understanding of boundaries – both other people's and my own. I sensed that they were asking for much, much more than I could give. That sense comprised the greater part of my anxiety. But I didn't know how to say no. I didn't know I even could. Rather than saying "I'm sorry about this, but I can't be the person you can call late at night, or who can turn up at a moment's notice," I considered less drastic solutions like… moving to another part of town.

Back in the present, I'm older, have a stronger sense of myself, and have managed to tell this person that, sorry, I can't be that friend. Which they say is hard to hear, but they accept it. Because – the core of their pain, their sense of isolation, is exactly that – that they don't have anyone they can call at a moment's notice. But, well. They accept it, and they've shown that they respect it. They also have another person in their confidence, a common acquaintance, with a somewhat larger capacity for it than me. I'm not really worried about late night calls.

What I am worried about… well, I'm not quite sure. I'm sorry they're in pain, and wish they weren't. It doesn't really add up in my head with the fact that I want some distance to their pain, but I do care. I'm worried about what it says about me that I can't be that person – probably not to anyone. I feel that since I can't give a lot of support, I can't ask for a lot of support either, so I feel isolated. Actually in much the same way as my friend, though the reasons I perceive are different. And I'm worried about their getting drunk in front of me – I haven't quite gotten far enough with my boundaries that I feel able to ask them not to do that. I'm worried that her dark thoughts will come up in casual conversation, because it's so hard for me to switch from social-mode to emotional care-mode in an eyeblink. This is what happened today. With our common acquaintance also present, and better able than me to respond. I'm a bit worried too that I lean too much on that common acquaintance.

And I'm quite a bit worried that I'll be thrown back into anxiety – reminded of how it was ten years ago. I probably won't, or at least not nearly as intensely, but you know. One can get quite anxious from anticipating anxiety.

Besides all that, I'm feeling very alone. Very isolated. I've felt that way for some time… as I said, we're not really in very different place, it's only that we have different narratives. They feel their isolation is because they're unlikeable, or at least unremarkable. I feel my isolation is because… I don't handle other people's emotions that well. I get just like this, just like now, when I get too close to other peoples' pain. And so it doesn't feel fair to bring other people close to mine.

I… don't really know what kind of thread this is, how to tag it… As with my other threads recently, I think I've answered most of my own questions myself, but if you see some blind spot, some advice to give, sure, it would be welcome. Mostly though, it's – as I said, I'm feeling very alone with my thoughts, and could use some kind words, verbal hugs, or just some… resonance, some sort of response from the universe.

Look at me. Even now, I'm so afraid to ask other people for support that I'm asking it from the universe instead.

I don't know. Some mental company and some words. Even if I'm not really able to reciprocate. If any of you have any to spare.
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Re: I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Enail on Wed May 17, 2017 8:06 pm

Many Jedi hugs. That sounds really stressful, having someone that you've had issues with supporting in the past looking to you for support again, but it sounds you're being very effective at recognizing your limits and speaking up about them this time. I know turning down someone in pain feels cold and heartless, but even leaving aside your own well-being (which is of course absolutely important in its own right), getting stressed or burned out helping a friend just ends up destroying the friendship, so IMO you're doing the right thing for having a sustainable friendship as well as for your own health. So yeah, way to go you, even if it doesn't feel good. Wink

Also, one thing about closeness and support - you don't always have to give it in the exact same forms you receive it in! 'Be on call for me to get drunk and talk about dark thoughts' is one kind of support, but that's not what everyone is looking for from every friend. 'Let me talk out some things that are personal in a fairly calm but tangled way to help me untangle my thinking' is support. 'Show up to event that's important to me and cheer me on' is support. 'Drag me out jogging once a week when I'm having trouble staying motivated and getting out of the house'  is support. 'Come watch movies with me without minding that my house is a mess and I'm in pyjamas' is support. People have different needs and different strengths and weaknesses, so friends might ask for and offer different things from each other. Not wanting to offer a certain kind of support doesn't mean you can't ask for that from a friend and still have a mutual and reciprocal friendship.
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Re: I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Hirundo Bos on Thu May 18, 2017 11:13 am

Thanks, Enail, for jedi hugs. I really needed some.

And also some fresh thoughts...

I think this person and I have a thing in common, in that we both see care and affection as an all-or-nothing thing. Or at least I used to, very strongly, and the emotional imprint from that time remains. And we both attach a lot of significance to that scenario, where you drop everything at a moments notice, and spare no cost, to help out a loved one in need... I've mentioned that exact scenario at least once on the forums before, and that exact scenario came up in the conversation yesterday. It becomes a symbol. To my friend, a symbol of whether they are worthy of care and affection at all. To me, a symbol of whether I am capable of care and affection at all.

Being able to help people, being able to give of myself, has been so important for me for my entire life. Like, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. When I started studying Psychology, I wanted to become a therapist. When I examine my sexual fantasies, quite many of them are about providing for someone else's needs. When people ask me for favors that are actually within my reach, I feel so happy, grateful, fulfilled. Whenever I stop to remember that I'm working with mental health, but from a more managable distance, I'm so happy I tear up. Every time. I'm doing it now.

But this need to help people, not being able to feel whole without it, impairs my ability to give actual help, because... it becomes so much about me, about my own fullfilment, I risk objectifying the people I try to help. Become insensitive to their actual needs, their agency, their boundaries. This is a risk with every kind of desire to help, and I've been aware of it in myself for years...

Add to that, that I have a weakened theory of mind. It makes it even harder to understand people's actual needs. And that I have a black-and-white, all-or-nothing way of thought. I must EITHER be able to give everything, OR I'm not really a giving person at all.

I'm looking back even further in my life, to a... really unhealthy relationship I was in, back around the turn of the century. (Or millenium, if you prefer.) I'm adding spoiler tags again, because it involves again some heavy mental health stuff, and also some toxic behavior on my part.

Spoiler:
I haven't talked about it here before. And I kinda want to apologize to people here who maybe thought I was better than this. But I did some really harmful things back then, acted in some toxic ways. And I suspect my unhealthy conception of helpfulness, my desire to "fix" other people, and my all-or-nothing approach, were big parts of it.

I bring it up now partly because... one reason I keep people at a distance, is probably because I don't want to get anywhere near acting that way again. And partly because... my current friend's mental health issues are similar to those of my former partner. I don't respond to them the same toxic way, like, at all. But it brings me back to my own state of mind back then. It brings back all the anxiety, depression, and frustration of twenty-year-old me.

An untagged version: My friend's dark thoughts feed into my own personal darkness, in some very specific ways.

I've written... quite a lot now. Maybe too much. I again don't know if there are any good questions here, or at least any I haven't answered myself...

but yeah. Looking around for other ways I could help. Things I could do for others and do well. You gave some pretty good examples, Enail. Almost every example would be things I could do, and be happy to do. As long as I had a firm sense of boundaries, at least, both those of others and of my own. A sense of what kind of help they were okay with, and a sense that if I needed to, I could say no.
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Re: I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Hirundo Bos on Fri May 19, 2017 7:22 am

A day and a half after drunken dark thougts, and anxiety levels still a bit above normal. Not raging, searing, top of the scale, bunt enough to disturb sleep and appetite. As a reaction to dark thoughts alone, it seems a bit out of proportion. And it's about more than just not being good at support (my thread naming skills are somewhat lacking). 

It could be about how it happened, how the situation changed from beer with friend to dark thoughts so fast. A sense that I'm not so secure about myself and my own boundaries after all. Or it could be I'm thrown ten years back in time. Or twenty. With all those years so present in my mind, I'm getting confused about who I am here, today.

I'm... thinking strongly now about finding a new therapist when my current one retires, which she is in the process of doing. Before this, I saw her retirement as a good occasion to check out how I'm doing on my own, but all these thoughts... and my own strong sense of isolation before this, makes me think I still have some stuff I must work out.

The process of searching for a therapist, write an application letter, figure out where to send it, hope for a good match, takes a bit of energy. But it's less daunting now than last time... and writing applications, in particular, that's what I do on my job...

But some second thoughts: I've been in therapy for close to ten years now, with this current one for the last six. Is it a risk it's become a habit to lean on, rather than a medical need? Is that even a thing? I don't know... again, reading through this thread, I think there's at least some stuff inside me that still needs sorting out.
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Re: I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Werel on Thu May 25, 2017 7:39 pm

Really belatedly, jedi hugs, Hirundo. If still needed. I think we have some fairly different circumstances and personal traits, but I also really empathize with the situation and mindset you're talking about.

It seems like there are a couple of main threads running through this, and they're threads I've spent a lot of time thinking about, so I'll just put a bunch of words here in case any of them are useful:

1) Types of support and what they mean to you: I've been in your shoes, or near to it, and I think you are smart to be questioning whether that type of all-or-nothing caring is the only real kind of caring. When I was younger, like high school/early college age, I had a friend who also placed a lot of importance on that kind of intense, all-consuming, anything-any-time emotional availability you're describing as symbolic of "real" and "worthy" friendship. It wasn't totally their fault for asking for it--I also placed symbolic importance on being able to provide that level of support. To prove I was kind, or loyal, or warmhearted, or something, as well as because I cared about them a lot and seeing them in so much pain hurt. I wanted to be the kind of person who was able and willing to give that much (and didn't understand yet that no one, not even most parents, can really do that). And it made me miserable to try and do it, because teenagers aren't even really able to take care of themselves, much less some other person who's in near-constant crisis mode. After a while, we drifted apart without my having to overtly draw a line on providing that kind of support (one of the advantages of being pretty young, sometimes crappy relationships just wither naturally), which is good, because I think I would have doubted myself too much to enforce the necessary boundaries at that age. Which is where I think you find yourself now, reluctantly? Knowing it's not reasonable, but still feeling like it's a litmus test for what kind of person you are? Able to draw the line, but doubting yourself as a result? I just wanted to second Enail in saying that there are plenty of other kinds of support you can provide which are absolutely Real and Legit and Helpful, even if they don't carry the same symbolic weight for you. Maybe do some thinking about where that symbolism comes from, and why it's stuck with you for so long (for me, part of it was just the romantic grandiosity of youth: High Drama! Showing up at midnight in the rain at their door as a Grand Gesture of Care when they Really Need You! and getting older and more realistic [and jaded] helped with that), and you might be able to come to a more nuanced and workable perspective on "caring."

2) Being wary of your own motives re: "helping": I really, really feel you on this. I've got a big streak of helper in me, and I've been probing those impulses like a hollow tooth for my whole adult life. But I think you're entirely right to draw a hard distinction between "helping" and "fixing." That took me a while to get. I know DNL talks about outcome independence in the context of cold approaches, but there's merit to it for us helper types as well: sometimes, at least for me, getting too fixated on results ("if I could just do X for them, they'd finally be able to Y!") led to some interpersonal problems when I was younger. That was more like "fixing" than "helping." For one, there's no guarantee that anything you do will lead to a good outcome for someone else. Disappointment when you "help" and "help" and nothing changes for them (it doesn't get "fixed") can lead to some nasty internal backlash. Plus, people can usually sense that disappointment, and it can make them feel even shittier when they're already down.  If instead you quit worrying about what's going to happen/what will come of your efforts to "help", and focus more on meeting someone's immediate needs, where they are, it pulls you a bit out of that results-focused mindset (and, as a bonus, makes it less about your own fulfillment, which I also wrestle with). "If I do X for them, maybe their day will be slightly better. Maybe it will make a difference in the longer term. Maybe absolutely nothing will come of it, or my offer of X will be ignored or rejected. But whatever, I think they'd at least like it if I did X, or it would fill some specific and immediate need they have, so I'll do it." Admittedly, my theory of mind is pretty decent, so I haven't had more trouble than average with mis-gauging people's needs/wants, but I think you are perceptive and considerate enough to be able to find more sustainable ways to support people which don't shred your own mental health. I don't think I phrased any of that very clearly, but... basically, I'm saying that you're onto something with the difference between "helping" and "fixing," and your introspection here is probably helping you act on those impulses much more ethically and less selfishly.

I'm not all that surprised, from what I know of you, that you had a lousy relationship experience as a result of that fixing/all-or-nothing mindset. I think I've been there too, and it doesn't make me think any less of you. It's really hard as a teen/early 20something to navigate that stuff. I've also done some stupid and shitty things because I wanted to "help," and ended up hurting people instead. But it sounds like you've learned a lot from it, and are continuing to interrogate your own actions and motives, so... um, good job, from one helper-type to another. Razz
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Re: I'm not good at supporting others

Post by Hirundo Bos on Tue May 30, 2017 9:39 am

Thank you, Werel, for hugs and helpful words. I'm a lot less anxious about this particular episode, but the general questions are still very active in my mind.

And thank you for including me among "us helper types"... where I've been thinking for so long I didn't belong... for the outside confirmation to my own suspicion that I'm not, in fact, as unhelpful a person as I thought. I just haven't understood the concept of helpfulness very well. It's underlying limitations. My own, particular limitations.

I've had fantasies lately about finding some sort of group setting where I could fit in, either platonically or romantically, where I could pull back when I needed and contribute emotionally and intellectually when I could, and by playing at my strengths I could add more to the group than I took away. There's been certain media portrayals of such groups that's touched me at a deep level, like the group consciousness in Sense8, or the group marriages in the Expanse series (particularly one in the most recent book).

I'm not quite how I acquired that drop-everything, self-sacrifice, all or nothing-mentality. I don't remember having it as a conscious ideal until that bad relationship, twenty years back, and I don't know if it originated from me or her...

I do know that already going in, I had some very confused ideas about commitment and love, especially romantic love. I tended to mistake intensity for substance, if that makes any sense. Because intensity was the only thing I knew...

for almost ten years before I got any actual relationship experience, which means since I was around eight or nine, I'd have an almost unbroken series of intense romantic crushes, one girl after another, coupled with an even more intense approach anxiety, and it was this mess that became synonymous with romance in my head.

And then, when at 18 I managed to overcome that anxiety... I had no idea what to do next. I had no idea what to feel next. I only knew it had to be intense, or it wouldn't be real. I was like that in my first relationship, which made it burn out in less than a year... and I was even more like it in my second one, the really bad one.

So there's some autism stuff again... or things that many can probably relate to, but autism makes them more pronounced... I had to puzzle together intellectually how relationships work because I didn't quite understand it intuitively, while being confused and overwhelmed by my own emotions, and prone to see things in black and white.

And popular culture doesn't exactly help... the ideal romance seems to be portrayed as that intense and all-encompassing thing. The ideal friendship and family relationship seems to be the one where people drop everything at a moments notice. As in the opening credit songs for shows like Friends ("I'll be there for you"), or Gilmore Girls ("all you have to do is call my name, and I'll be there on the next train").

And actually as I'm typing this, autocomplete seems to know exactly which phrases I'm looking for.

So... I'm not quite sure how all this fits together, or how it feeds into my present day worries about helpfulness, but at the moment, everything kind of seems to fit together, every kind of relationship and shade of intimacy and anxiety around it all. Things have been feeling very existential lately, the beginning of a sort of mid-life crisis perhaps...
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