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Dear Swipe This!
I recently got caught emailing during a long Skype call with a grieving friend. She heard me typing, hung up, and hasn’t talked to me since.
I know how terrible this sounds. But it was after 50 minutes of talking and I was being extra nice. When I had to go, I didn’t know how to get off the call. I was so busy. I had just spent two hours with my brother unexpectedly and I was facing a million deadlines.
Also, if I’m being totally honest, I did the same thing to her last year—she’s always grieving—but the difference is this time I got caught.
There have been other snags in our friendship, too. I think sometimes she believes I don’t like her. She’s a lot more comfortable leaning on others than I am, and she expects me to lean on her. She does give back—she’s not a mooch. It’s just a different setup and may be based on cultural differences.
For example, she had me come to her apartment before she left the U.S. and take ALL her stuff. I ended up throwing it out, but she thought she was giving it to me. Once she asked for something back and I’d thrown it out. It was very awkward.
In spite of our differences, I value my friend and feel very close to her. I think the real problem may be that I made friends with her before I understood myself (my need for space, etc.), so there’s been a lot of sticky retraction. She’s very tactful and sensitive in one way, and I am in another.
I’ve reached out to my friend to apologize, but she’s currently giving me the silent treatment. I know she is just stressed out and sad. But if she thinks I hate her, it may be because of her own cloud of low self-esteem. I want to break through that cloud, but I don’t know how. Part of me is afraid of putting my foot in my mouth again. I’m new to friendship. I didn’t have friends until my mid-twenties because I was very shy.
Is it better to keep reaching out so she knows I don’t hate her, or should I just leave her alone?
. . .
Dear Flawed Friend,
Technology is a bit like a magic wand. With a wave or a swipe, we can conjure a distant friend and—poof!—the oceans between us vanish and there they are! Technology’s magic can sustain bonds that distance would otherwise destroy. I believe that is a beautiful thing. But the same technology that connects us can create the dangerous illusion that we can be in more than one place at a time. In a world where so many of us work remotely, we sometimes appear to be everywhere and nowhere at once. If we have many things to do in a day, we may even be tempted to split ourselves into two or more selves to get it all done. But as you discovered with a too-loud wave of your hands across your keyboard—poof!—we can’t.
Here’s what you really do when you multitask: You toggle. You hop from one thing to the next thing and back again, often giving half of yourself to each task. Every time you clone yourself to do another task, the you who was supposed to hold down the fort at whatever post you left behind becomes a bit static-y and transparent, like a hologram sent through a weak connection.
I know you know you made a mistake. But I think instead of focusing on how you let down your friend, you might benefit from thinking about how you’ve been letting down yourself. You say in passing that you are someone who needs personal space, but in a moment when you really couldn’t talk, you stayed on the phone for nearly an hour. You say you had a million deadlines, but on the same day, you gave two hours of your attention to your brother. Both of these choices seem to have happened chaotically, beyond your control. But I believe you were in control. Because passively accepting emotional responsibility is in itself a choice. You are an active participant in your life. Even in moments when you choose to be quite passive, you are always choosing.
So why aren’t you choosing to put yourself first?
You say you are new to friendship. Are you afraid perhaps that the bonds you’ve formed are too tenuous to survive your real needs? What do you risk when you say no to the people who have encouraged you to lean on them? Are you afraid that if you take the space you really need, you will actually end up all alone?
If you let these fears get the best of you, if you never put your own needs first, you will always be in a position of feeling like you don’t have quite enough to give. You must be willing to give yourself your full, undivided attention in order to offer it to others.
Which brings me to your friend who is so comfortable demanding attention for sustained periods of time. While it may seem counter-intuitive, I think you are lucky to have found someone who is so different from you. I also believe she is lucky to have found you. When we find people who appear mismatched to us, they may have the exact ingredients we need to heal wounded parts of ourselves. Your friend is teaching you by example how to openly ask for your needs to be met, and you may be teaching her how to exercise prudence. Consciously or not, you are helping each other toward versions of yourselves that are more balanced, more in equilibrium with the world around you.
That said, you will likely always be quite different from each other. If you are to sustain a friendship, your differences will come up again and again. This is what happens when you deal with the nitty-gritty feelings of an adult emotional life shared with a friend. Things are bound to get messy. Especially when it comes to grief.
You say your friend is always grieving. This strikes me as a judgment. Simply put, everyone grieves. It just so happens that your friend grieves differently from you.
Let me make this clear: There is no right way to grieve.
Some people need time and space to be alone with their feelings. Others prefer to get lost in the beauty of art or soothing music. Still, others yearn to talk it out with dear friends who offer long hugs. But no matter how we choose to grieve, what nearly everyone needs when they reach out in grief is to see their grief reflected—we want to know that all the horribly uncomfortable things we are feeling are valid.
Whether or not you have experienced the specific grief your friend is going through, I am certain you can relate to that moment of relief when another human reflects your pain back to you. Suddenly, you feel lighter, freed by the knowledge that what you are feeling is in fact totally OK to feel. It is here where we begin to heal.
Unfortunately, because we all have such unique needs, it can be difficult to find mirrorings of our grief. Often friends and family struggle to reflect our grief back to us because they have a different way of grieving. This can be devastating. We start to wonder whether what we are feeling is “normal.” Everything feels more turbulent, unruly, and chaotic.
I’m sure you know how much it hurts to have your feelings dismissed. There are few things more painful than being told—directly or indirectly—what you feel is wrong.
You do not have to grieve in the same way as your friend to reflect her grief back to her. You simply have to be willing to listen and repeat her own feelings back to her. If this sounds robotic or inauthentic, it isn’t. When you tell someone what they’ve said, you tell them they are truly being heard. Which, as simple as it sounds, is often all they need to know.
Perhaps your friend rambled on for so long because she was grasping for that feeling of understanding. Beneath her seemingly carefree ability to express what she feels to whomever whenever, she may feel quite unsure of herself. Especially in these moments of chaotic emotion and deep grief.
If you want to salvage your friendship, I believe you absolutely can. You appear to be a reflective and insightful person and your friend seems to value you very much. But the right way to do this is to put yourself first. So, first, take care of your emails, organize your planner, take a moment to cancel anything that feels like unnecessary clutter. Give yourself time to get in touch with your own feelings. You should only reach out to your friend after you’ve put your own emotional house in order.
When you reach out to your friend again, be her reflection. Tell her what you heard her say about her pain. Tell her you understand why she’d hang up and why she’d need space. Show her that her grief—both the grief tied to your friendship and the grief she tried and failed to share with you—is truly and completely OK with you.
And, finally, share some of yourself. What are your own feelings of grief? What stresses do you carry around wondering if anyone will really ever understand? Can you risk sharing those feelings that seem too ugly or strange to insert into a friendship? You may be surprised at how capable she is of reflecting your own feelings back to you. And when she does—poof!—that’s when the real magic can happen.