When The Problems Are Bigger Than Your Solutions

by admin on November 20, 2013

I am part of an activity on my college campus that involves working with a group of people (about 15) extremely closely for many, many hours. As such, whether you like it or not, you get to know everyone very well. There’s a girl in our group who rather annoys me. She doesn’t act maliciously, but tends to try to cling on to people and want friendship right away, which is rather off-putting to me. I have no bad intentions toward her but have chosen to try to limit the amount of time I spend with her during our shared activity as much as reasonably possible, and do not spend time with her outside of it.

She was recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I myself have been living with symptoms of a similar illness for more than a quarter of my life. While I don’t advertise my problems, I am honest and candid about my experiences, because I believe that part of the stigma around mental illness is that it is so rarely talked about, which makes things harder for those of us affected to communicate our needs and abilities to others. She has started to seek out my advice whenever we’re together. While I sincerely wish her the best in her recovery, I feel uncomfortable because I don’t wish to be forced into intimate conversations about her personal life when I know that by doing so I am only encouraging her to seek me out more. Additionally, I’m not a counselor and taking the time to talk to her about this is emotionally draining for me. I’m happy to to talk to her about the resources I know of (the school counseling services, her primary caregiver, her family, etc), but I can’t fix her issues. I’m not even completely over my own problems.

I’m in kind of an awkward position, because I certainly don’t want to dismiss her concerns and have her think that her problems are unique to her (aka she’s completely alone), because I do know how that feels and it is scary and unhealthy. On the other hand, I am not her friend or counselor and I don’t want to be forced into either position. I’m trying my best to be firm but supportive, but would appreciate any advice you have for me.

Thank you! 1110-13

I’ve been somewhat in the position the OP describes, i.e. when you realize you lack the qualifications to help someone who truly needs help.   To dismiss them would be heartless but at the same time you know you are not equipped to offer true assistance.   My suggestion would be to kindly tell her you are not an expert with the training to help her, that this is out of your comfort zone to offer advice and suggest several campus or local support groups that would be a better fit for her.   Comments readers?

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Dominic November 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

In addition to the administrator’s excellent advice, my thought was to ask whether there was a faculty coordinator of this activity who could intervene on behalf of OP. If there is such a person, perhaps he or she could “run interference” for OP if the situation warrants.

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Crochet addict November 20, 2013 at 10:24 am

I can empathize with you- I have an anxiety disorder which is blissfully under control (with daily medication) for the most part. I agree that talking about it removes the stigma, but at the same point, I’m very selective with the people I share details with. I have no problem lending a sympathetic ear or commiserating on day to day living with anxiety, but as a rule, I do not provide treatment advice. Perhaps your fellow student has noticed how well your condition is managed, and is hoping that you can give her guidance? I’ve been on both sides, and the best advice I was given was to find a good doctor. When approached for advice, my “out” so to speak has always been to emphasize that each individual has different triggers, different kinds of anxiety, different life circumstances that contribute to that anxiety, and therefore, what works for me may not be appropriate for that individual. I always encourage people who approach me to consult with their healthcare provider. I will admit that prior to discussing my issues with my doctor, I tried an array of remedies, but my doctor has been my best asset in combating this. And really, a physician is more qualified that I am to provide advice.

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Rowan November 20, 2013 at 10:36 am

This is one of those situations where you have to be selfish. You cannot fix this girl or fight her demons, especially when trying to do so puts your own mental health on shaky ground. Reassure her, tell her that you know how hard things are for her at the moment and say “when I felt like that (counselling / online forums / crochet-your-own-zoo club) really helped”. Be honest and tell her that you’re dealing with your own stuff just now (you don’t have to go into detail, just say ‘stuff’) so you don’t think you could give the best advice.

If it comes down to it, you might have to cut her off. I know that’s hard and you’ll probably feel guilty, ashamed, etc. But – and this is important – DOING THIS DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PERSON. Nor does it mean you’ve failed her. You have to put your own health first. Wishing you all the best, from someone who’s been rock bottom and is still climbing.

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just4kicks November 20, 2013 at 10:47 am

Many years ago, I had a female co-worker glom onto me. She was a lovely, but troubled young lady. Our friendly lunch time chats quickly turned into therapy sessions. Like you, OP, I didn’t want to come off as uncaring or unfriendly, but I began to dread my lunch breaks and the invariable “what should I do about my boyfriend/parents etc. One day I when I knew no one else was around, I said (hopefully kindly) that I had my own problems and my expertise only goes so far. Maybe I could help her find someone objective for her to talk to. She exclaimed “but I have YOU!” I told her while I appreciated her friendship, it was the blind leading the blind and someone who could offer an objective opinion on such matters could only do her good. She was upset with me for quite a while and avoided me. A few months later, she pulled me aside after work one day and said she found free counseling in her area, and also was attending Al-Anon meetings to cope with her parents alcoholism. I sincerely applauded her efforts and told her I was proud of her for taking the reigns. She admitted ruefully, she was very angry with me at first, but in the end understood that I was trying to help her. Our lunchtime chats went back to being just chats, not therapy sessions. Hope this helps you OP, you sound like a very lovely person. Best of luck to you, and her!

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AMC November 20, 2013 at 10:49 am

I would bean dip like crazy, and keep repeating over and over that you are not a doctor and aren’t qualified to advise her. And that your university’s counseling center is much better equipped to assist her. You can also tell her that your experience is unique to you and may not apply to her. It’s not heartless, and it is true.

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Charliesmum November 20, 2013 at 10:52 am

If she was diagnosed for real (and not ‘self-diagnosed’) then I would think she was seeing someone to help her with these issues already. If she isn’t already getting help, then she needs to be. In that case you can tell her ‘why don’t you go to the campus health center and get a list of nearby therapists?’ but tell her, as mentioned above, that you are not equipped to help her and doing so is outside your own comfort zone. Rinse and repeat as needed, I suppose.

You said she tries to force friendship, so it’s likely she’s just trying to forge a bond with you based on your shared (or what she perceives as shared) issues. If that’s the case, I guess the best you can do is try to discourage her in her pursuit. ‘I don’t want to discuss this topic’ might work.

Good luck!

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Stephanie November 20, 2013 at 10:53 am

This sounds like complaining because she wants to be heard, not complaining because she want you to help solve her problems. Understandably, you’ve been approaching it like she wants your help. She doesn’t. She just wants to talk, probably to relieve her anxiety. Once you approach interactions with that mindset, you’ll find conversations with her much less annoying.

Decide how much time you want to give her to complain ahead of time and stick to it. Once the clock runs out, make an excuse and leave. Be consistent. You’ve given her the resources to get help, it’s up to her to use them.

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The Elf November 20, 2013 at 11:05 am

I think Stephanie nailed it: she isn’t really looking for a solution. She’s looking to vent, get sympathy, talk to someone who understands. If you’re not willing to do that (I don’t blame you), then you need to make a sympathetic noise or two, point her to the resources available to her, and make an excuse to leave or re-focus on the project at hand. If it gets too much, have a conversation where you say that you cannot solve her problems for her and would prefer to keep your time together focused on the project. Awkward, but I don’t see any other way around it.

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Floofy November 20, 2013 at 11:31 am

She’s clinging to people right away because she’s trying to establish a comfort zone within the group. Being surrounded by multiple people is terrifying with anxiety disorder, especially when you haven’t developed coping mechanisms yet. Medication doesn’t always work for people, sometimes the side effects are worse than the disorder.
But like you said, you’re not a doctor or a therapist. Be kind to her, because it is likely she’s latching onto you because you both have “something in common”, something painful she’s going through that she probably sees you’ve “overcome”. From the outside, you’ve got it together, you beat this thing, you’re someone to admire and hopefully seek good advice from.

Maybe I’m projecting some of myself here, but when you have an anxiety disorder, the LAST thing you want to do is seek professional help. There’s that stigma, that feeling like you’re broken or crazy. If you have anxiety about doing the little stuff like sitting in a group, how are you supposed to seek out a doctor?
If I were helping this girl in the least stressful way possible(for both of you) I would direct her to one of the many online support groups, from people who are going through the same thing. They can suggest to her coping mechanisms and help her find her balance, give her stories to relate to and let her share hers. There will be professional help posted on the websites, she can find one in her area.

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Cat November 20, 2013 at 11:32 am

Anxiety disorders are very common in our society-about one person in eight has some form of anxiety. Reading the newspaper about armed conflicts, the economic situation, the crime rate, the unemployment rate, the suicide rate, the racial/religious problems we have-well, it’s a wonder we are not all hiding under our beds. You don’t have a mental illness if you are anxious; you have a mental illness if you thing everything is great-because you are not in touch with reality.
That said, you cannot fix this young lady. It is not that you don’t want to or cannot be bothered-you don’t have the expertise to do so. Go over the words until you are comfortable with them; and they are your own. Tell her you struggle with your own anxiety; it requires professional and, perhaps, medical help; that you know she can cope with it if she gets the right kind of help.

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DGS November 20, 2013 at 11:39 am

Ditto what the PP’s are saying, as well as this, kindly yet firmly direct her to the services of the campus counseling center, as they staffed with licensed professionals equipped to help her cope with her particular problem. You might also consider reaching out to her Resident Assistant, if she lives in on-campus housing or to the Commuter and Graduate Student Office, if she lives off-campus, to have them reach out to her as a troubled young woman looking for a support network. However, maintain your boundaries – you are not required to be her on-call, 24/7 mental health resource, nor are you equipped to be one.

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Cat November 20, 2013 at 11:44 am

I should have mentioned that advice-giving and counseling are very different things. Counseling is not cook-book, “Do this and add this and it will all turn out.” A counselor’s job is to help you find your answers to your problems.
Anyone can give advice. “What should I do about my boyfriend?” “Get another boyfriend; tell him he has to change his ways; have your brother beat him up.” That’s not counseling. That is advice.
A good counselor will help you to determine what it is you really want; help you to see if it is a feasible goal, and will give you the freedom to discuss possible ways that your desires can be achieved without harming anyone else. A counselor makes no judgments about you, but supports you in your quest to resolve your problems.

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Rod November 20, 2013 at 11:51 am

When I moved out of my parent’s house my dad gave me the next piece of advice:

“Rod, you’re not a counselor, psychologist, priest or social worker. You’re a good guy and people will seek you out for help, but sometimes those requests will exceed your abilities. Be aware of that; the best you can do is refer them to proper help”.

He was right. I have had two close friends that on my advice have sought after help. These guys were genuinely troubled, to the point where they have been prescribed therapy and medication. So yeah, it was definitely beyond my means to help. My dad’s advice was, however, on my behalf – to prevent having me being dragged down to deal with things beyond my ability due to friendship or loyalty.

If you don’t have a deep emotional investment in the relationship you describe, the decision should be even simpler.

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Arila November 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm

I wonder if taking a few more steps in the hand off to other resources would be helpful. For example, offer to walk with her to the on-campus counesling department, instead of just informing her that it is available. I know this is more effort for OP, but then it lowers the “initialization energy” barrier to the girl for moving into this other type of help.

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Nathan November 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I know how you feel. People ask me for advice all the time and if I really don’t know enough about it I just tell them so. I have said, “I know about X, but I really don’t feel like I can give the best advice to benefit you. I would rather you take advice from the expert you’re seeing than tell you something and be wrong.”

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June First November 20, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I completely get where you’re coming from, OP.
One of my close relatives has Alzheimer’s, and while I attend a monthly support group I don’t want to talk about everyone’s troubles as a caregiver all the time. The disease is really only a part of your story, not your whole story.

College is a good time to develop boundaries. I like the suggestions of support groups, talking to a doctor, online forums, etc. Maybe it would be best if you could could combine it with a bean dip. You could say, “I’ve really found online support forums helpful. They’ve helped me move forward so I can develop my other interests. Are you watching Doctor Who this weekend?”

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Marguette November 20, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Agree that the main thing is to encourage her to get help, or, if she is already in therapy, to raise her issues so she can get constructive help.

That being said, what I want to propose is to let her know that helping her is bad for your anxiety. And she understands how that can be, doesn’t she? You wouldn’t share this with just anyone, (you explain) but she, of all people will understand. From the things she’s been telling you, she knows just how you feel, doesn’t she? And she wouldn’t want to feel that she is triggering your anxiety, would she? And so on.

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NostalgicGal November 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Steering her to other help is the best idea, but implementation may be a real problem…

If she’s seeking you out now, now is the time to do the beandipping and get her steered to other help. Before she becomes clung on, sapping you, and causing you issues. Nobody has the right to mess you up; and you are not a bad person for not wanting to go there.

Strongly suggesting that you are not qualified and she could use the help of someone better able to help her… and give her information on how to get it. Collect cards and literature, and gift her.

Good luck OP. Kudos that you care, more kudos that you know you need to step out of this loop before it tightens, and no you’re not bad for wanting to avoid it.

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MichelleP November 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Got that problem with an immediate family member, so I’m sympathetic. Unfortunately, I can’t avoid her. Kindly but firmly tell her exactly what admin suggested. If she persists, avoid her if you can, bean dip if you can’t.

As someone who’s struggled with anxiety disorder, I applaud your efforts to get better and your kindness in trying to help her. However, you need to put your own health first.

I don’t want to take away from the OP’s post, but I have the same problem as I mentioned, only this is a family member that I can’t and don’t want to avoid. We talk every day, and it’s always about her. As soon as she’s done complaining and the discussion about her issues is exhausted, she has to go/hang up. She also asks my advice and doesn’t take it. I’ve gotten to the point where I point out what she’s doing wrong and what she can do to fix it, which is what she asks advice for, then she gets upset. What should I do?

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CaffeineKatie November 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Having been in this position myself, I agree with Stephanie–she may not even want real help, just someone to listen to her endlessly. I think you already have the answer–just keep repeating “I am not a counselor” and either change the subject back to the group/project at hand, or even walk away. She will (if my experience is any thing to go by) soon find someone else to repeat her woes to.

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Gracie Lou Freebush November 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Someone, please explain what “bean dipping” is. So confused!

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Anonymous November 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I’m in the same boat (somewhat–I suffer from panic attacks), so I might actually try to help this woman at least somewhat, by saying something like, “Everyone is different, so this might not work for you, but I’ve had some success with ABC Coping Method, and XYZ Natural Remedies.” I’m not saying that the OP should try to “fix” this woman, but it’s not as if she’s a stranger off the street; they’re colleagues in the extra-curricular activity. That’s not to say that the OP has to be up for this kind of talk all the time either. There will definitely be times when it’s okay to say, “I don’t want to talk about this now; let’s just focus on Extra-Curricular Activity,” but for all we know, the woman who’s been recently diagnosed with anxiety IS trying to get help. Maybe she’s on the waiting list for counselling, or looking into support groups, or maybe she’s been to a counsellor, and found that it didn’t work for her. I’ve been to counselling, and mostly just found it annoying, because, qualified or not, a lot of these counsellors don’t really understand what it’s like, so they say to breathe deeply, or give up caffeine, and expect that to work. That said, I also understand that it’s annoying to be constantly forced to talk about one’s “Achilles heel,” so I think it might be a good idea for the OP to tell the other woman that.

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Marozia November 20, 2013 at 3:29 pm

A few people on this site suffer from anxiety disorder/panic attacks (as well as myself) and we need to talk to at least relieve the anxiety and also to show that we’re not alone in our problems. Maybe this is what your school colleague needs. Sometimes the fact that you are there will relieve her anxiety.
If it gets way too much for you, tell her that the school counsellor was very helpful and to try them.

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CWM November 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm

I know how frustrating this is. I’ve had people gravitate to me that I have no real desire to form an immedite bond with, and then they used me a personal therapy session. What worked was to take them aside from the group as a whole and tell them gently that you are neither qualified nor comfortable taking on another person’s anxiety or problems at the time. Encourage her to get help elsewhere, and if you can, include the resources you’ve used (campus health services, city/county mental health services, your doctor, etc.). If she comes to you again, you can do a simple, “Person, we’ve discussed this. I’ve given you all the resources I have. I am not willing to discuss this further with you.”

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Stacey Frith-Smith November 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm

This isn’t as awkward as it sounds- her anxiety issues are kind of a red herring. You don’t have to be more than cordial and polite when you are in the group and you certainly don’t have to entertain questions just because she asks them. As an adult, she is responsible for seeking help for any personal issues or for seeking guidance from the qualified about best next steps. Next time you are cornered with the attempted segue into the day’s complaint, simply excuse yourself. You cannot be both her regular advocate and avoid her- it’s at cross-purposes. You just have to align ALL of your actions with the choice you’ve made to limit contact, and that includes not allowing her needs to act as a means by which she insinuates herself into your social sphere. I would venture to say that you cannot be an advocate without first being a friend to her, in any case, because respect is a prerequisite for relationship, including advocacy. It’s apparent that you have little tolerance for her, so real respect is out of the question here.

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EllenS November 20, 2013 at 4:31 pm

You could approach it by saying, “It was really important to my recovery when I realized that talking about my symptoms too much to the wrong people was bad for me. I am the wrong person for you to be telling this to.”

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Heather November 20, 2013 at 5:15 pm

I’m going to take the other side on this one… I do agree that you aren’t a therapist and you shouldn’t be in a position where you are forced to act like one. But you say that these things need to be talked about in order to remove the stigma… She’s trying to do just that… with someone she feels understands. Perhaps no one has so far. No offense but it comes across to me that you already were irritated with her and this has just made you more irritated. I think you should have one “pivotal” conversation with her about how you are proud that she is ready to talk… that you are a friendly ear… but that just an “ear” can’t really help her make progress. Be prepared to listen and help her start that journey, instead of avoiding it. I don’t mean to sound harsh, and I’m prepared that some won’t agree with me. I applaud your efforts to get and keep yourself well and on track.

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Gabriele November 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm

The OP might consider talking to her therapist. The therapist could tell her that giving advice or personal insights into the disorder is not a good idea (since she’s not qualified) and that she shouldn’t do it.
This gives her an outside authority to quote, and show that you trust that person with your health concerns. The therapist/doctor/etc might also tell you it’s not good for you to waste your energies on someone else’s problems…which would further validate your need to put your health first–AS SHE SHOULD and get help.

Type up a list of resources (both local and online)–fold it in thirds like a letter (so it’s not like an announcement and is still private).
I’ve overcome a lot of my anxieties but boy do I remember…like the time I went hungry because I couldn’t bring myself to accept food from someone I didn’t know well…
I don’t know if other members of the forum feel the same way but I wonder if those who suffer from anxieties also feel other emotions strongly–and pick up on the emotions other people feel. I know so many of my trust issues had to do with people in my family who would say one thing but I could feel their underlying emotions and know they felt the opposite…which meant I was afraid to trust what they told me — and, as it turned out, I was right, even though it made things difficult. Since so many of them were of my parents generation I don’t have to be concerned with them anymore.
What does linger is a weird response to people on some medications. A lot of meds for ADD and the like are stimulants and when I’m around them I want to scream—it brings back all the worst of my anxiety memories–even though I know they’re not mine–. Most of the people were adults who self-diagnosed and got the prescriptions and even though they’re now being advised to get off them (Adderall) they say they can’t get along without them.
OP might (if she really wanted to) try to see if the other woman was on some sort of meds which could produce symptoms of anxiety….maybe that could be on the list she gives her, to prepare a list of meds, supplements, etc. that she’s taking so whoever she speaks with will have that info immediately.
I took Rx diet pills back when it was what doctors gave (1960s) so I know what they do and don’t do.
The first day I took one (seems I’ve overly sensitive to meds) and since I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t stand to read or watch tv, I scrubbed the tiles floors on a three room apartment with a nail brush(hands and knees). When I fell asleep it was from physical exhaustion, my brain was still running. I was supposed to take 2 a day…hah!. I was switched to a quarter of that and it still lasted all day. Then one day I forgot to take one and thought I was getting the flu….took the pill, felt fine and since they hadn’t helped me lose weight, I backed off and stayed away from them. Adderall is the same basic drug. For those who really need it, fine but otherwise…it’s frightening.

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RooRoo November 20, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Gracie, “bean dipping” means changing the subject – as in, “Have you tried the bean dip?”

I forget who asked for help with the “Listen to my whine-o-rama” person. The advice most often seen here is to stop saying anything except, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Often, after a while, they will stop calling. If they don’t, after a while, you can say something like, “Since you won’t change anything, I don’t want to hear about it any more.” Or some other, nicer way of saying, “Bed made, lie.”

Back to the topic, I’m another person that attracts the needy. And, guess what, I’ve recently been diagnosed with anxiety! (true.) Here, let me whine at you about it for an hour or three… just kidding, of course. I’d have a hard time with your co-worker. I might wind up saying something mean.

Perhaps you could become like a broken record, and keep repeating “Have you found a counselor yet?” until she gets frustrated and either finds one, or gl0ms on to another sympathizer.

Good luck!

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missminute November 20, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Honestly it won’t end well – she will be angry at you because whether or not she needs the support, she is using her illness as part of her clingy MO.

Did the girl know of your issues before she claimed her own? Perhaps she sis using it as a tactic to get closer to you.

I would be honest and say, “I feel drained talking about our shared mental health issues and I feel it would be better if we had those conversations with professionals and not each other”.

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Thistlebird November 20, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Gracie, “bean dipping” is jargon the regulars here use; it means changing the subject whenever someone brings up whatever topic you don’t choose to discuss, as in, “So, are you thinking of having kids yet?” “Wow, this is some good bean dip!”

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MorganHorse November 20, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Gracie Lou Freebush (I love that movie!), bean dipping = changing the subject. That is, someone tries to involve you in unwanted conversation and you say something like, “No, I won’t be able to dog sit your six Great Danes for free while you’re away on extended holiday for the next two months. Hey, did you try Gracie Lou’s bean dip? It’s fabulous. I’m going to go help myself to more.”

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Kimstu November 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm

@Gracie Lou Freebush: “Beandipping” is Ehell-speak for changing the subject in an unpleasant conversation to a neutral topic, with no transition or explanation, as in:

Tacky Heathen: God, the hosts of this party are such self-centered ashcoals!

Polite Spine: Mhm. Have you tried the bean dip?

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splendidbluewren November 21, 2013 at 5:56 am

@Stacey Frith-Smith: you have very clear insight into what is happening for the OP re annoying fellow student. A lot of PP advice is based on assuming the OP is friends with this girl, or interested in developing a friendship, but OP clearly states this is not the case.

I also suffer from anxiety and have a lot of experience with individuals who are unaware of how their neediness affects others.

I have found this following pattern applies to family members, platonic friendships, dating, and acquaintances such as fellow students and work colleagues:

* persons with poor boundaries and high needs will try to get a response from everybody

* if at first one appears sympathetic and ‘a good listener’ (setting a precedent) they will intensify their focus and increase their attachment

* when one exerts healthy and appropriate boundaries after this intensification, there is a reaction from the instigator such as; increased emotional appeals and crises, attempts to gain more frequent contact, anger, withdrawal, or a combination of these

OP, you are doing the right thing by yourself and this girl by seeking to avoid a sticky situation.
If you have not already asked your own trusted mentors for advice, I suggest getting their ideas for how to look after your own health while addressing this situation.

It’s hard to tell from your post how many times you have listened or offered advice, which may make it more taxing the first time you assert yourself – but it’s important for your wellbeing, as you know.

Presenting avenues for help once is sufficient, I think, lest annoying girl take another opportunity to engage with you (‘I forgot/ lost your email/ lost the brochure/ I need someone to hold my hand on the way to the clinic’). It is her primary care-giver’s responsibility to do the support work, not yours, and this extends to offering practitioners, support groups, and so on. I am not unsympathetic to her problems but if you offer suggestions in an open-ended way, she may assume she has your permission to re-engage any time she wants to ask about a different doctor or forum.

I am sure you can maintain a polite spine, and exit gracefully without sapping your resources or being unkind. This is what I’d try:

When the girl next approaches and initiates her attention-seeking cycle, quickly disrupt that circuit before it gets going.

I am speculating this always happens in a relatively private situation, so you won’t be overheard by all and sundry? If not, pull her aside somewhere in view of others but out of earshot, or go for a walk. I have found walking is useful for these situations, as it is side by side rather than face to face, and there is less awkwardness when one is not encountering long, searching gazes.

You may not need to say everything but in case she doesn’t look embarrassed, apologize or say she won’t do it again, I have included phrases which should cue even the most self-absorbed person to pay attention.

In a firm but not harsh tone of voice, say:

‘(annoying girl name) I can tell things are hard for you right now, but I feel really uncomfortable when you talk to me about your anxiety disorder and ask for advice.’
*short pause, but don’t let her start talking unless she is saying sorry*
‘You might not realize, but it’s not okay for you to do that, it’s just not fair to me. I’m not at (activity) to be a mental health advocate or advisor for other people, despite my life experience.’
*short pause as before*
(optional: insert your specific suggestions for her if you really think you need to repeat them i.e. ‘I think you should…’).
‘Please respect my needs and don’t bring this up again, as I won’t change my mind about it. I’m not your mentor, I’m not available to you in that way, though I wish you well in your recovery. I am sorry if this is a surprise, and hope you can see it from my perspective. Let’s head back to that water fountain…’

Don’t enter into any discussions about it or try to explain if girl says she doesn’t understand. Just repeat whatever part is most useful to you, and walk away.

Perhaps it would be wise to make some plans in case she is obviously upset, depending on the setting.
Maybe some other suggestions might appear on how to handle this?

The main thing is you have communicated your feelings, said what you want to happen, and asked her not to continue the behaviour. If she keeps on attempting it, say ‘ this is not okay with me, I don’t want to hear about this and I asked you not to bring it up,’ and walk away if needed.

IF this doesn’t work and she still pursues you at the activity anyway, use the power of non-verbal cues:
* if possible reduce your proximity to this girl by positioning yourself at different locations each time (I don’t know if this is realistic or not)
*do not make eye contact with her if she is approaching and scanning the room, but look elsewhere e.g. at your phone, a book, your shoelaces, the cutest person in the room
*act as if you are at a concert sitting next to a person you don’t know – polite but not responsive to ploys to get your attention
*take breaks strategically if possible so you aren’t at the water fountain at the same time
*make a plan for when you are getting to and from the activity so it is obvious you are unavailable (for instance the pretend-to-be-listening-to-music-through-headphones trick – even more effective when used with sunglasses!)

I hope some of this is helpful, and a follow-up from the OP would be welcome.

Good luck, OP!

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Lo November 21, 2013 at 6:44 am

I’m with Rowan 100%

I have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression and I’m on medication to treat it.

I cannot tell you how many potential friendships of mine have suffered because of it. This is 100% my fault. I did not seek treatment for a long time and it made life hell for myself and those close to me.

Not wanting to deal with someone else’s problems doesn’t make you a bad person. I definitely don’t get pulled into that old trap with people who want to use me for therapy. Their issues are much bigger than I am.

Be honest, be direct, and cut her off if you absolutely need to. Don’t ever martyr yourself for another person’s issues.

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Cat November 21, 2013 at 9:41 am

MicheleP-I had a problem much like yours. A co-worker would phone me every night and tell me every detail about his day. Then he would say, “Well, that’s about all.” and hang up. He never asked me anything about anything. I felt like my kindergartner had come home, told me about the sandbox and what Mikey did and then the monologue would end.
I finally told him that he should call his mother rather than a co-worker. She was probably fascinated by everything he was doing, but that I was busy with my own life. Since he had no interest in my activities, I would prefer not to spend time on the phone listening to what his Mom would love to hear.

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acr November 21, 2013 at 9:42 am

Perhaps next time she starts asking for personal advice, you could say, “Friend, I know you are having issues right now. But I come to Activity to focus on Activity. It is necessary for my mental health to spend this time focusing on Activity and not on personal issues.” If she discusses Activity, reward her by engaging, smiling, etc. If she starts to discuss her problems, say something like, “I need to focus on Activity right now,” and do not engage with her. If you keep your comments about your need to focus on the activity, then it’s not about her, it’s about you and about activity.

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keloe November 21, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I have a similar situation. I have recently met a woman at a party and it turned out we have friends in common and occasionally attend the same regular networking event. She was new to the networking event and said she will feel more comofrtable knowing I would be there. Fine, I gave her my number.

She’s apparently at a very difficult point in life – she has two small children and her husband apparently has a host of mental issues, so their marriage is breaking apart, and not in an easy way either. I am very sorry for her and originally was willing to provide a sympathetic ear. But she started calling me all the time, wanting to meet so that she can vent to me. At the networking events she will not leave my side. I introduced her to other people, hoping she will make more friends and getmore independent. Nope. She has problems holding her alcohol – after two glasses of wine she aparently stops controlling the volume of her voice, as well as her conversation. Every two minutes she would yell at me “But can you imagine he would not call the kids for two weeks now?”. She would also show me the bruises resulting from her last meeting with her husband, when they apparently attacked each other.

I cannot cope with this. I even took to avoiding her, including not taking calls. I am very sorry for her, but I don’t know how to help her. I’m not sure I’m qualified to help her. I’m trying to say the right words, but it’s difficult with a person I barely know. She keeps repeating how great it is that we’ve met and I feel bad for not reciprocating this. It seems to me she really needs professional counselling, but I can’t find a good way of telling her that. I’m at a loss, but I think the only way is to somehow sever the connection – I can’t help her and it’s mentally exhausting to me.

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Enna November 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I would suggest where she could could help – if she s really making you unconfortable is there someone you can ask to help? E.g. a counsellor who could step in and help her. OP: you are a nice person because you don’t want her to be vulnerable or put herself in danger. Is there a mentor you could go to? I work as a GP recpetionist and if I suspect something else is wrong I will go to the doctor and voice my concerns to him whose job it is to act on conccerns. This doesn’t happen often thankfully.

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CSmithy November 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm

@Cat: I just really want to point out that normal anxiety about normal anxiety-inducing situations is not what an anxiety disorder is. Your post sounds a little dismissive, and I feel the need to point out that it is a lot deeper than being stressed out by headlines one reads in the newspaper – sort of like phobias vs rational fears (though the anxiety can often be caused by rational triggers, the extent of the anxiety is usually not rational and can be debilitating).

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MichelleP November 21, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Thanks, Cat. I love this family member, but I’m going to have to just either cut her off altogether or outright tell her she needs to show me some of the courtesy I have shown her. She doesn’t take hints.

@Heather, you wrote a very well-worded and polite post. I actually agree with most of what you said, however I respectfully disagree that the OP should be “the ear” and there’s nothing wrong with the OP being irritated by this girl. She sounds irritating. The way she’s been treating the OP is irritating.

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Angela November 21, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I am very familiar with this situation. Suffice it to say that when a person with psychological issues talks to you instead of a professional, at some point you’re doing the person a disservice because he or she will talk to you instead of seeking professional help. You aren’t trained and you didn’t volunteer. Give your “friend” information and tell her that you don’t want to be a distraction from seeking skilled help.

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Whodunit November 21, 2013 at 8:11 pm

I’m confused OP — you say that mental illnesses are rarely talked about and want to do so to remove the stigma yet you don’t want to talk to this gal. You say you are candid about your experiences, obviously she knows enough about you and the disorder that she’s come to you.

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Kimstu November 21, 2013 at 11:20 pm

@Whodunit: “I’m confused OP — you say that mental illnesses are rarely talked about and want to do so to remove the stigma yet you don’t want to talk to this gal.”

Doesn’t seem that confusing to me: there’s a big difference between (1) simply acknowledging to friends and colleagues that you suffer from a mental illness, and (2) talking their ears off all the time about intimate details of your condition and your personal life.

Same as with any other illness. If I had, say, bipolar disorder or HIV or cancer, I’d want to be able to be honest about that in my social circle without being shunned for it. But I wouldn’t expect anyone in my social circle to be willing to listen to me go on and on about the details of my situation every time I saw them.

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Kate November 22, 2013 at 3:28 am

@Cat, I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but it’s actually fairly offensive to imply that anxiety is a ‘normal’ feeling that we should all be experiencing. To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it has to impact significantly on your ability to function in everyday life. Part of the problem faced by sufferers of mental illness is having the severity of their condition belittled, like ‘Everyone gets sad sometimes’ or ‘I’m so OCD too!’. You wouldn’t say to someone with stomach cancer “Yep, we all feel sick occasionally” and it’s similarly offensive to make statements like that about mental illness.

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Angel November 23, 2013 at 10:46 pm

When I was in my early 20s I had a friend like this. She didn’t have an anxiety disorder, she had very poor judgment when it came to picking men. She would want to vent to me all the time about her issues, wouldn’t listen when I tried to offer advice. Long story short, we didn’t talk for about 10 years. Since we started talking again about 8 years ago I have definitely changed the way I interact with her. I limit one on one face time and usually most of the time spent together revolves around an activity. I do notice that she pretty much vents the same way she used to (even though she is happily married with kids) just a whole new set of problems. So I guess my advice would be is limit face time, and let your interaction revolve around a specific activity. And with an actual anxiety disorder I like the suggestion of an online support group. There are lots of those. Don’t get sucked into being a source of free therapy. It will suck the life out of you.

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Anonymous November 24, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Angel–I had a friend like that too, my fourth year of university. She made a lot of bad decisions with men (mostly drunken one-night stands), and she was rather flaky with plans as well, and yet, I didn’t want to drop her, because, well, I liked her, she liked me, we had a few mutual friends, and a falling-out would have been messy. Anyway, I handled it pretty much the same way you did, by not making plans with her that would be ruined if she flaked. So, for example, I wouldn’t be going swimming with Friend, I’d be going swimming……and if Friend came along like she said she was going to, great. If not, I still got to swim.

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