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That So-Called Friend Who Kicks You When You're Down

Deconstructing shame will change your views of them and you.

Have you ever had this happen?

You are confiding in a friend about a problem. And maybe that problem is with a person, the person you're taking care of. Or, the person taking care of you. Or your kids. Or a person at work. Whomever.

The next thing you know, you're being blasted by this so-called friend you confided in. They've got a voice and, man, are they using it. You never saw it coming. Well, you've seen them do this with other people, but never you.

They were always the one who said you could come to them for a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Suddenly they are all over whatever you've done. Fine, so you may have overreacted. Or you may have taken something personally. Or you may have had a feeling about something. But this friend's outrage at you, and judgment for what you did or didn't do, hurts like hell.

The question is: Why are they doing it now? And, what is going on?

Part of what is happening is that something in the outside world (aka: your recitation of the problem you're having) is like a giant finger poking them in a part of themselves they have felt shame or pain or anger about for a very, very long time. Perhaps as a long time as in their entire lives.

But the unconscious is magical. And resilient. It holds everything. And the more it holds, the more energy builds around the things it holds, for example, a very early hurt or abandonment from childhood; a profound loss that was never processed or dealt. That energy from the original hurt bubbles up until it starts to bubble over and explode. This leads to big and little explosions everywhere.

Here are a few examples:

—You confided in this friend about stress you're having with your teenager. You start to cry, say you wish you'd done things differently. So-called friend agrees. "Yeah. And probably a good idea to examine your neediness, too."

—You applied for something and were accepted. You're really happy. Others have congratulated you. This person says: "I heard everyone who applied got in."

—In the middle of a stressful time this friend asks for your advice. You comply. They don't like your suggestions. "Everyone else likes my ideas except you. You're jealous of me just because your life is difficult right now."

If you say something about how any of this feels, how shocked, hurt or confused you are, they might do any number of things to not get near that internal space that they (again, unconsciously) want to avoid.

Their part: They pretend what happened didn’t, even though they caused it and it did happen and you were hurt by their words. They refuse to own any part of the exchange. “You always do this—turn something simple into a complex mess.”

What this means for you: Talk about Ouch. Plus, it's a way of heaping shame on someone as a means of control. The question is: Why? The answer, again, something inside them is being triggered, something they themselves have felt shame or pain or anger about for a long time.

Their part: Telling you to lighten up and not be hurt. “Other people have it worse than you. Your life is easy. Be grateful!”

What this means for you: Same reason as mentioned above.

Their part: If you try to talk with them, and they are unable to hear you, perhaps make a point of saying, after they did this hurtful thing—while looking you in the eye—that their own “growth” has to be about learning they need to stop apologizing all the time. “I’ve spent too long apologizing to people who have no interest in understanding me.”

What this means for you: Again, it means you are to feel more shame. Shame (or something else) that is really theirs.

Their part: Telling you that you need to be responsible for your own feelings and that they are done taking care of you when in fact you’ve been the one walking on eggshells. “Grow up already—I hate having to watch my words around you.”

What this means for you: Same as above. Do you see a pattern?

Their part: When you are having a tough time expressing yourself, they look at you almost contemptuously and say: “I’m sorry—you make absolutely no sense.” Or, “Speak up already.”

What this means for you: We all know that no one is perfect. We all know that we all do things we wish we hadn't. But, when a pattern becomes apparent, especially in hindsight, especially about a so-called friend or confidant, it can be a tough adjustment.

But there is something you can do.

Don't absorb their shame or their feelings. By "don't" I really mean, become conscious of it. Note it. Train yourself to at least be open to the notion that this is happening. I know it is hard. It’s a shift in perspective, one that gets at the root of the problem. And simply say to yourself: "This is not mine." Or "If I feel ashamed of what they say I've done, I'll set it aside and not agree, even if I feel it." Not agreeing with it is a huge step. Too often shame gets attached to us by someone else. Then we end up carrying it around and have trouble dealing with it. Why? Because it's not ours.

Acknowledge (to yourself) how you feel about that.

Then ask yourself if you're genuinely surprised by this person's behavior? You may be, and it might be out of character for them. If so, you will eventually be able to have an authentic talk about it. On the other hand, maybe you've seen it erupt elsewhere and were just glad it wasn't you.

Pay attention to your inner voice. Try not to react. Is the exchange with this person dragging your spirit down? If so, that could be a sign to ask yourself what you’re getting from this relationship, and if it’s really what you want.

End the so-call friendship. At some point the stress will become too much. You'll know when that happens. Trust yourself.

More from Meredith Gordon Resnick L.C.S.W.
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