How we lose the very friends who should be supporting us (it’s not about you!)

Last updated on May 20th, 2020

'My friends let me down'

(Note: this is text I took away as I revised my book. I you might enjoy reading it here)

This is a common experience among parents: just when we most need a friend or family member to support us, they seem to withdraw their love and support. We may also notice that some people start avoiding us. Worse, are those who dispense strident advice about how to fix ourselves and our child. They've heard a piece on the radio on eating disorders so now they're experts.

These things can be hugely painful. We humans need relationships, and every time we tell ourselves that someone can’t be trusted there’s anger or grief. And that’s tough, because our child's eating disorder is bringing quite enough challenges without having extra ones piled on. We really need support.

The compassionate communication principles I offer in my book may help you give yourself compassion around this. A starting point is to notice that some of the things you tell yourself about friends or families may or may not be true. There are hundreds of possible reasons why others do the things they do. I don’t believe that people are out to harm me; all they’re trying to do is meet needs, and sometimes the only way they know how to do this really sucks. I can either try to change what they’re doing, or allow my sadness about my own unmet needs, finding peace in acceptance of what is.

Why does my child's eating disorder scare my friends away?

I'll list some common sources of distress relating to friends, acquaintances or family members. And I'll propose some ways you can turn things around.

"The other parents are avoiding me. Like it’s my fault my child has an eating disorder, like I’m a bad mum."

  • It could be they’re not actually avoiding me, but that there are other reasons for us not chatting like we used to. Perhaps I’m the one who’s not forthcoming.
  • Perhaps they are scared that whatever they say will increase my distress. Saying nothing is the best way they know how to care.
  • Perhaps they’re broken-hearted to see my kid looking so ill and they’re protecting themselves from the pain of what it would be like if it was their kid.
  • Perhaps this woman is herself struggling with an eating disorder, and perhaps she’s still hurting about how her parents dealt with it.

My pain around all this might point to how much I value the companionship of others and how I long for acceptance and support.

"They think my daughter’s vain and stupid for wanting to be thin"

  • Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. What’s certain is they don’t know as much about eating disorders as you do.
  • They might really want your daughter to be well, and they hope that she’ll come to her senses and snap out of it.
  • They might also be struggling with their own body-shape issues, their own sense of self-worth.

I notice in myself is a fierce desire to protect my daughter from judgement. I can’t legislate for how people will think about her, but I want to save her the burden of having to deal with insensitive comments. I also notice that she’s now got a good head on her shoulders and is perfectly able to take care of run-of-the-mill ignorance.

What strategies are at our disposal? For me, I made careful choices about who I allowed into my inner circle. I also found it worked extremely well to give one simple analogy: anorexia is like someone’s holding a gun to her head 24 hours a day. Every time she even thinks of eating, her brain is screaming at her that she’ll get shot.

For some, it helps to say things like, ‘It’s a brain thing. An illness. Willpower has nothing to do with it.’ Or, ‘It’s genetic.’ In other words, talk about the illness like any other illness.

“Maybe it was because I am a health professional and people take what I say about health-related conditions as gospel if I say it with enough confidence. Or perhaps it could be anyone saying something with confidence that reframes the condition for others.”

(B Caldwell, 'To tell the world, or not?')

"I’m a burden on my best friend. I’m scared she’ll give up on me. I try to put on a brave face but every time we talk I end up in tears. She has her own troubles with her cancer and I’m the one who should be supporting her."

This may be true on some days, when your friend is overwhelmed with her own troubles, while being quite the reverse the rest of the time. There is such a thing as 'Helper's High'! We’re all different, so all you can do is ask (it certainly helps if you trust that your friend will tell you when it’s not a good time for her) or remind yourself that you just don’t know.

Perhaps it will help you to hear what it’s like for me to support someone, because I am clear that it satisfies all kinds of needs of mine. I know I’m giving the other person something precious and difficult to come by, something I’d have liked more of when I was at my worst. It feels good to give. I get a sense of purpose and meaning, connection, community. It’s a privilege for me to have someone trust me with their raw emotions. If they put on a brave face (usually by email) and I later learn how much they were suffering, I wish that they could have felt safe enough to trust me with their truth. I don’t lose patience if a friend is feeling down week after week, because I have no illusions that I can make them happy, and I know that all they really want is a witness, someone to walk alongside them.

In the example of the person suffering from cancer, she may get a lot of meaning from supporting you, and she may be quite happy to do so without expecting you to reciprocate. (An example is Charlotte Bevan, who helped many families while enduring tough treatment in the last few months of her life). Your friend may have other wonderful people in her life who are there for her. You may wish that you could care for her, and at the same time you may come to the acceptance that you cannot because you have no spare capacity for anyone except your child.

My default state, when I am suffering, is to be an island. It has taking me a while to get comfortable opening up to others. I have put far too much value on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, autonomy. These are qualities but they only tell part of the story; we are all interdependent, and we thrive on contributing to each other when we’re given a chance to do so freely.

"You get to know who your real friends are. These days my old mates meet up without me."

Again, what are my interpretations?

  • Perhaps my old mates have given up inviting me because the last three times, I had to stay home for my child.
  • Perhaps they don’t want to appear insensitive when our lives have diverged so much.
  • Perhaps they don’t know what to do with my grief. They might think that because my child is unwell it’s not OK to crack jokes, enjoy a good meal out, or send me links to funny cat videos.

The subject of friendship is still a great big learning challenge for me. I've expected loyalty and constancy. I've tended to label people as ‘real’ friends while they meet high standards, and to write off everyone else as sub-human. If you're like me, this illness is pushing you to grow. These days I note that there are people who make me laugh or with whom I can have a great evening of music, but they’re terrible listeners. There are others who are a wonderful source of warmth and empathy in the moment but if I try to meet up for a drink, their diaries are full for the next two months. It’s up to me to choose who I call upon depending on my needs at the time. And yes, it may mean that there are people I will avoid spending much time with, because I know from experience that when I am in their presence, my needs are very much not met. I don’t want to judge others, but I don’t have to enjoy everyone’s company either.

"My friend doesn’t have a clue what I’m going through. He’s always giving me advice, and I feel like a failure because I can’t pull myself together."

In this situation, I would probably want to get in touch with what I long for. Perhaps I wish my friend knew how things are for me. Perhaps I long to be accepted as I am at this present moment. Perhaps I’d love someone with whom I could talk, talk, talk, and who would simply – oh bliss! – listen and be my witness. Perhaps I’d like some advice on one single question and no more – advice given with a light hand, free of any expectation that I should act on it.

After this exercise in self-connection, I might decide not to have any more heartfelt chats with my friend for a while because I don’t trust he can listen. But I could also try a revolutionary new concept – asking for what I want! It’s surprisingly hard to do when you’ve grown up believing that if people really care for you, they should be able to read your mind. I have been at the receiving end of someone interrupting me to tell me exactly how she needed me to listen to her. I had a go, she confirmed I was on the right track, and it was quite wonderful to have such clarity about how to achieve my own aim, which was to support her.

"My friends disapprove of how I deal with my daughter’s aggressive outbursts"

You need self-compassion and you need to remember that your decision on how you respond to aggression is a well-informed and loving one. If you value your friends’ support, you can try to educate them (after connecting with what’s going on for them), or you could use a shortcut, as this parent did:

“The most understanding I ever got was when I said my daughter had a ‘rare’ eating disorder!”

What I’m hoping to demonstrate with these examples is that we have many choices when we have question marks about our friends or acquaintances. The compassionate communication tools in my book may help you give new life to ailing friendships, but they may also help you disengage, without guilt or finger-pointing, from relationships that drain you of your zest for life.

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