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Friday, December 23, 2005

I Attract Waifs and Strays

Today's answer is posted by Clare.

The Problem:

I'm generally a friendly person, but I seem to attract a lot of what could kindly be called "waifs and strays" and less kindly the borderline psychotic / desperately lonely / socially inadequate. I guess I kind of recognise myself in them, which is why they probably gravitate to me, but there comes a point where you've done everything you can to encourage them to make other friends; where you've suddenly had a light shone on their behaviour that shows they're probably a (little/lot) more obsessive about your shared interest than you feel is healthy; where you feel that you will be at their beck and call if you let them. How do you keep them at bay or break off contact without feeling cruel or rude or a failure for letting them down? I've been really burnt in friendships in the past - people turning on me, using what I have told them in confidence against me and suchlike - and part of me does try to be more careful about how I let people in. But I thrive on contact and hate to cut people off completely, knowing how much that can hurt. But I feel very vulnerable sometimes.

I try really hard not to hurt people in any way, and even if things aren't my fault will often apologise in a desperate attempt to make amends. I'm sure this isn't good for my self-esteem.

This is rather rambling and probably lacks a direct question, so to sum up - how do I not hurt people who I no longer wish to have contact with; how do I reduce contact with those getting to be "too much like hard work" (I feel so unqualified to be their social therapist!); and how do I convey that I do not wish to get reinvolved if/when someone tries to re-establish contact? Is it just a case of lacking confidence and self-esteem or am I bad person?

The Answer:

"Ah yes, she's another one of your lame ducks, isn't she?"

My sister said this to my mum. There was a succession of People With Problems befriended by my mother, but after a time they would fade away - often after a period of general irksomeness. And then I grew up and found myself doing the same thing.

There was always a pattern:
1. Meet nice person in dire circumstances.
2. Feel urge to help person. Take under wing.
3. Realise task is impossible. Start to despair.
4. Person becomes clingy and demanding. Everything difficult.
5. Withdraw contact, either in a gradual fade or a sudden bust-up. Either way, feel terribly guilty.

The good news is that you shouldn't feel guilty about distancing yourself from somebody demanding more than you are prepared or able to give. A friendship is a two-way street, and no matter how many problems somebody has, if they are not able to recognise your needs as well as their own, the relationship is doomed.

Also, there is no pleasure to be gained from a liaison where only one person feels happy or comfortable. The chances are your friend will sense your discomfort and this will make them feel bad, whether or not you are open about your feelings. It's pointless to spend time with someone unless you actually want to. Nobody wins.

So, yes. It is OK to sever contact with someone who is making you unhappy, no matter what the circumstances. And if you feel guilty because this seems like a selfish thing to do, remember this: Selfishness is a necessary part of human relationships. We spend time with people, indeed we help people, because it makes us feel good. There's nothing wrong with this. If you think every human being deserves comfort, fulfilment and happiness, then you have to include yourself in that. And you are in a better position than anyone else to make yourself happy. Don't forget that.


Yes, I'm sorry. There is a but.

The question is, how did you get into this situation in the first place? You allowed someone to become close to you, and then regretted it. Why? Could it be that the whole thing was flawed from the start?

I admit that what I'm about to say is based on my own experience. This is a pitfall for all agony aunts. They can end up bending all problems to fit their own inadequacies. You may say that you are different. Fair enough. Let's see.

The thing is, could it be that you are forming these friendships for all the wrong reasons? If you see someone in need of your help and determine that you will be the one to sort them out, is it really any surprise that they come to expect certain things from you, and it all becomes very one-sided? Have you not encouraged them to be dependant on you from the word go?

Like I said before, this is a two-way street. Unless you genuinely enjoy someone's company, you should not be making friends with them. Or the opposite: maybe you honestly think someone's great, but muddy the waters of a blossoming attachment by trying to double up as their counsellor - when in fact you are too close to offer this service. The kind of help you want to give should be professional and detached, not confused with friendship. Be careful. Are you just being patronising? Are you really going to help them, or just make yourself feel temporarily better?

Help your friends. Don't make friends of the people you want to help. It doesn't work, it won't last, and it always ends in tears.

Clare's blog is Boob Pencil.

[There may be more answers to this problem here]

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Come Tell Us Your Problems

This is a brand new Claire Rayner column. For the non-UK-ers amongst you, Ms Rayner is a well-known British agony aunt.

Some time in January, we'll start trying to solve problems.

We're not qualified or anything, we just can't resist sticking our oars in.

We haven't quite worked out exactly who or what we are yet, but we might have any or all of the following available to poke their noses in your business: Clare, Anna, Mike, Vitriolica, Zinnia, Zoe, Joe and Guyana Gyal.

P.S. If you posted a comment on this post and you're wondering where it's gone, it has been moved over into the holding area - which contains replies from punters, as well as problems.