I don’t want her to feel like she can’t lean on me because I don’t lean on her
My friend has a very challenging life. Of course, there’s no competition when it comes to hardships, and no one has a monopoly on suffering, but whatever nisyonos I have pale in comparison to what she endures on a regular basis. She has a family, baruch Hashem, but each pregnancy was high risk and for every child she has, there were several miscarriages.
Due to an accident, her husband suffers from physical and emotional ailments that prevent him from working. She works two jobs, takes care of her home singlehandedly, barely has time to come up for air, but doesn’t begin to make ends meet. One child struggles socially, another has a physical limitation, a third has a learning issue. The list goes on, with many issues spilling over to create new ones; she often feels like she’s playing with one of those bopping toys — push one head down, another head pops up.
Through it all, my friend tries to remain a positive, put-together, respectable, happy person — which she naturally is — and not wear her challenges on her shirtsleeve. I’m her oldest friend, and because she isn’t comfortable sharing her struggles with her neighbors, I, who lives in another state, am one of the few people who know the truth. I’ve become a sounding board to whom she can vent when things are really rough.
Lately, I see that this dynamic has become hard for her. We’ll be shmoozing, things will begin to pour out, and after a half-hour she’ll say, “See, again, I just cried to you, and I have no idea what’s going on by you. Next time we’re only talking about you!” or, “I’m always the one crying to you, why are you always just listening? Don’t you ever have a hard day? You never call me to talk about things, and I feel like such a baby, I always complain to you…”
She’s not wrong. I do find it hard to share challenges with her. I don’t discuss my children’s struggles, as I feel it’s a breach of confidence, but I don’t feel I can share other issues either. I have no idea how I can afford food for Shabbos, but how can I talk about not being able to pay my bills? We’re a two-income family and the reason I can’t pay my bills is because we’re a blessedly large family with a never-ending cycle of braces, tutoring, therapy, tutoring, camp, tutoring, Yom Tov clothes, summer clothes, white shirts and more white shirts… How can I vent about the frustrations of a teething baby awake all night when she’s been praying for just that?
It sounds like a terrible thing to say, but when things are really hard for me, whether with finances or with a struggling child, I think of this friend and feel so blessed — and then guilty for being grateful on my dear friend’s cheshbon! Yet the reality is that for me to kvetch to her is as ludicrous as someone with a broken ankle kvetching to someone with terminal cancer.
So I wrack my brain trying to find something I can vent about. If I’m upset at someone, I run to call this friend so I can ask her advice or ask her for chizuk, which in all honesty I wouldn’t do otherwise. My nature is more reserved, and I prefer to mull things over to myself rather than “talk it out” with a friend, but I find myself looking for ways to be vulnerable to her and allow her to be on the giving end.
All this can, quite frankly, be exhausting. I suppose my question boils down to this: Is there a way to keep this friendship on solid, equal footing if I choose to stop trying to think of ways to get advice and chizuk from this friend? I care about her very much, she really is a friend, and I don’t want her to feel like she can’t lean on me because I don’t lean on her. But does that mean I need to keep allowing her to be on the giving end even if it’s contrived and strained on my part?
Sarah Wikler, LMFT, a former high school principal, is a therapist in a full-time private practice in Lakewood, NJ. She works with children, teenagers, and adults.
Your friend feels guilty for “burdening” you. She doesn’t like the feeling of being on the receiving end, and she’d very much like the relationship to be balanced.
Although you do have your own challenges, at the moment, your challenges pale next to hers. She also feels uncomfortable because in this relationship she’s the only one being vulnerable and she doesn’t get to see that side of you.
Your friend needs you, and you seem happy to be there for her. You’ll need to reassure her that although you don’t need her as much as she needs you, you’re happy to be there for her. And there’s no need for her to feel bad or guilty.
Let me suggest some possible responses to her expressions of discomfort with the status quo. When she says, “Next time we’re talking about you!” Your response can be, “Sure!” Your friend will feel good that you’ve accepted her proposal and are willing to talk about yourself, even if your next conversation with her ends up being another venting session.
When she complains that she’s always the one doing the kvetching, you can be honest and validate her feelings by responding, “Yes, but that’s because you’re going through so much right now!” When you acknowledge her struggles, you’re showing her that it’s legitimate for her to be venting, and you’re also normalizing it. She doesn’t want to be a burden. Reassure her that it’s okay to vent to a friend, that she’s not being a burden, and that you’re happy to be there for her.
Similarly, when she asks, “Don’t you also have hard days?” The answer can be, “Yes, I do, but not as hard as yours.” When she expresses that she feels like a baby because she’s always complaining, the reply is the same: “You’re not a baby. Anyone going through what you’re dealing with would need to vent.”
When she says she’d like to talk about you, that’s not a problem. Go ahead and talk about what’s going on in your life! Begin by sharing ordinary events, like today you took the kids to the park, you shopped, your in-laws are coming to visit. Now, it’s possible that right now she really doesn’t want to hear about your “petty stuff,” and she might probe further, “Any hardships in your life?”
Answer honestly, “Yes! The baby is teething, the cleaning lady didn’t show up, and the fridge is leaking!” You’re not complaining that these minor challenges are insurmountable problems, but rather you’re sharing aspects of your life that are less than perfect. She asked you, which means she wants to know.
At some point though, she may shift the conversation back to herself and continue with her kvetching, which is a common occurrence when people are going through a difficult time. She may, however, really want to hear what’s going on in your life. Responding to the question of what challenges you’re going through, is not the same as initiating a complaint such as, “Oh, life is so hard because Chaim spilled his milk!” You’re simply filling her in about Chaim spilling his milk because she asked you to share what’s going on in your life, and you’re telling her. It also makes the relationship more real and levels the playing field somewhat since you’re talking about yourself and being vulnerable.
Even though you don’t need your friend’s sympathy, by sharing, when she requests it, you’re making the relationship more mutual and feel more real to her. She shares about herself and you share about yourself. And yes, you’re permitted to share that your life isn’t perfect even with two incomes. You’re not equating your struggles, but rather sharing your difficulties.
Certainly this has to be done with seichel. If your friend is in the middle of sobbing about the fact she has absolutely no spending money, it would be a bad idea to say, “You think you’re the only one with no money? Even with two incomes I still can’t pay my bills!” However, when she asks you to share your struggles, and it’s your turn to speak and she’s giving you the floor, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning that it’s tough to pay your bills. The same way a person with terminal cancer, Rachmana litzlan, can understand that a broken ankle hurts.
Obviously, it would be poor taste to vent about a broken ankle during a visit to someone who is very ill. However, if the choleh, after responding to an inquiry of how she’s doing, would ask the visitor to tell her what’s going on in her life, the visitor can respond (matter of factly, without kvetching) that she recently broke her ankle. The visitor’s sharing isn’t in response to the choleh’s complaints or an attempt to equate the two challenges. It’s in response to when the choleh expresses interest in the visitor’s life.
In the same way, you make the relationship mutual by creating a give and take. You’re permitted to share smaller struggles if she expresses interest. Sometimes people who are in pain and suffering still want to hear about others. And sometimes they simply want to hear that other people’s lives aren’t perfect either.
Finally, you don’t need to search for topics to vent about. You don’t have to make believe that you need your friend’s help when you really don’t. By sharing your life in a sensitive way, by being a little vulnerable, and by showing her that you recognize that she’s going through a hard time, you might be giving her just what she needs. And you can remind her that by turning to you for support, she’s actually giving to you by trusting you and allowing you to feel helpful to someone about whom you really care.
When someone we know is going through a difficult time, we naturally want to be there for her. When contacting that person to show you care, refrain from asking questions about her situation that may be viewed as intrusive or infringing on privacy.
Rather, offer a statement such as, “I want you to know that I’m here for you,” or “I’m up late at night, so if you ever want to talk, feel free to call.” This gives support by demonstrating that you’re available and open to listen. Then she can choose to share as little or as much as she feels comfortable.
Regarding offers to help, an open-ended offer isn’t very helpful because people who need help usually don’t feel comfortable reaching out with specific requests. Asking someone to let you know if there’s anything you can do for her is too vague.
Rather, be specific in terms of how you’re able to help. For example, say, “Can I send you supper tomorrow?” “Can I make the fish and soup for you for this Shabbos?” “Can I do carpool for you?” “I’m going to the grocery this afternoon. Can I get you anything?”
And if, for whatever reason, you’re unable to offer concrete assistance, you can still daven for that person or even organize a Tehillim group for his/her zechus.
Additionally, a small personal gift, a baked good, a nice breakfast, or just a small note saying “I’m thinking of you,” can go a very long way toward making someone feel cared for and not alone while they’re being challenged by a nisayon of any kind.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 761)
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