Enduring A Painful Friendship

Katie Young
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Wednesday - September 21, 2005
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Have you ever had a friend who seemed to take pleasure in your pain?

Why would you even call that person a friend, you ask? Well, it happens more than you might think, as my friend Sophie found out recently.

Sophie and her friend Karen were co-workers, and had worked side by side for more than seven years. In that time they had become friends as well. They spent weekends together either going out on double dates with their respective boyfriends or just hanging out with the girls.

Sophie considered Karen to be one of her closest confidantes. As girlfriends do, Sophie was there for Karen whenever she was down and needed to talk and vice-versa - until, that is, last year when Karen started having problems with her boyfriend.

“Suddenly, it was all about her,” Sophie explains. “All day at work, on the weekends or whatever - every time we’d talk - the only thing she could talk about were her problems: she wasn’t happy in her relationship, she wasn’t happy at work, she didn’t know if she wanted to stay or go.”

Sophie says that wasn’t the biggest issue, however.

“I didn’t mind listening to Karen vent,” she says. “That’s what friends are for. But then one day, after about three months of having conversations only about her problems, I had something I wanted to talk about - something that was bothering me - but Karen turned the whole conversation back to her in less than a minute.”

Sophie started to get frustrated.

“After she finally let me get a word in and say what was bothering me - that I heard my boyfriend had cheated on me - I got this strange feeling that Karen was actually happy I was miserable. She didn’t do any of the normal friend stuff like scream about how horrible my boyfriend was and how I could do better, or swear revenge on my behalf.”

“I wish this were a less common problem,” says Thomas Cummings, a psychologist at the Waimanalo Heath Center and president-elect of the Hawaii Psychological Association. “This issue is related to low self-esteem and envy. It’s coming from a person who is going through a hard time and is unable to help anyone else because they’re in survival mode. A person in survival mode is very focused on themselves, struggling to make themselves feel better.”

Cummings says that in the case of a person who is struggling with a long-standing issue, talking to them about your own struggle may make them take some kind of pleasure in your pain if they held you in high esteem and they have low self-esteem.

“It’s an equalizing thing,” he explains. “They feel like they’re not the only one who’s going through something like this. Maybe this person is doing a comparison and is thinking she does-n’t have to feel so bad about herself because if other people are going through the same things, then she’s just human.”

The important thing to remember in a situation like this, advises Cummings, is that even though it may feel like your friend is focusing on you and is secretly happy about your pain, it’s really about focusing on his or her own problems and pain.

So it’s not about you. Now what do you do? Cummings says one option is to say something to your friend.

“Say something like, ‘The other day when I told you about my struggles, you seemed to not appreciate how painful it is for me. I’d like for you to help me focus on that.’ Or something to that effect,” he says.

But depending on your level of closeness with the person, confronting them head-on like that may make you feel uncomfortable.

If you don’t say anything, Cummings says the most common outcome in situations like this is that it limits the relationship.

“It doesn’t have to end friendships, but it does limit the emotional intimacy,” he says. “You won’t want to tell that person your problems when you’re bothered now because you’d be afraid of that reaction. That would be a natural response because you probably felt really hurt.”

This is exactly what happened in Sophie’s case. She felt so putoff by Karen’s reaction that she started to distance herself more and more from the friendship, feeling that she couldn’t bring up the issue face to face.

It made Sophie sad because she had counted Karen among those friends she could really talk to.

But she did realize that Karen was still a friend in need.

“I still try to be there for her,” says Sophie. “But it’s not the same. I don’t tell her much about what’s going on with me anymore.”

Most of us have only a few friends to whom we can open up, so count yourself lucky if you have a handful with whom you can truly share your innermost worries.

But if you have one of those friends who seem to take pleasure in your pain, remember that if you don’t say something, your friendship, as you knew it, will probably never be the same.

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