Carolyn Hax: What’s with ‘see a counselor’ vs. having some sympathy?

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I am introverted and have only a handful of friends who I have known for at least 10 years and a few for 20. I always thought we were very close.

During the worst of the pandemic, however, if I expressed even a smidgen of sadness or anger, several of them replied with: “Well, you need to see a counselor.”

I find this really hurtful. I have gone through a lot of painful life experiences with these friends, and they cannot muster a generic, “It will get better,” or something similar. Looking back, I see this is how they have been generally, but maybe I wasn’t focused on it.

It has made me wonder how I can even be friends with them. It also is making me feel as if I need to be more introverted to protect and care for myself. Which, at the same time, I know can’t be a great thing.

I don’t want to talk to them now, and I know that by not reaching out, I may also be making the problem worse. But I don’t know how to be a friend to someone when it feels as if they cannot even try to be kind. And I don’t know how I will make it without a friend.

Introverted: As tone-oblivious as this is going to sound: I am also going to urge you to talk to a therapist, if one is available to you and it is not cost prohibitive.

Here’s why: One possibility is that you do indeed have friends who aren’t willing or able to be kind to you. After decades of knowing them. If that’s the case, then that’s a lot to process, and becoming “more introverted to protect and care for myself” does not sound like a healthy coping strategy to me. It sounds lonely. Spiraling-into-ever-deepening-loneliness lonely.

The other possibility is that your friends are kind and do care about you, but something else has happened lately: 1. They are dealing with their own struggles and have nothing left to bring to yours. 2. Your struggles have increased to the point where they feel they are not qualified to help you, and, in their eyes, it’s beyond a “there, there” kind of response, so they are being honest that what you need is above their pay grade. 3. The sadness or anger you’ve expressed is the same sadness or anger you’ve shared with them over and over for years, and they’re seeing no progress, and they just can’t anymore, but they care about you and hope you will trust them enough to take the suggestion to get help. It’s also possible that some combination of these is in play here.

If any of these points is the case, then it would be a kindness to yourself and your friends to get the help of someone professionally qualified to help you with these “painful life experiences” now and going forward.

This doesn’t mean you stop counting on your friends entirely, just that you start to do so more proportionately to what they can manage.

As I said, either-or-or, I don’t know which it is, or whether it’s something else entirely, but any of the above burdens, including questions about the quality of your longtime friendships, might be lightened by talking with a pro.

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