How do I let my friends know that sometimes I need help, too?

·4 min read

I’m a 37-year-old gay male. I don’t want an “other half”, because I like being single, but I’m always there for my friends, even during this pandemic. However, recently I’ve found they are not really there for me. None of them asks how I am, even after I’ve shared something that has upset me.

Sometimes I need a little care, a hug, a little backup, or something to lift me up, too. I don’t hate being that person for them, but I do hate myself when I am trying to lift a friend in need when I haven’t dealt with something of my own.

I guess my real dilemma is: how do I make it known to my tribe that I, too, may need their support?

I think you might be stretching yourself too thinly. Lockdown has been emotionally exhausting for many, and it’s easy to disregard the psychological load we’ve been carrying. So it could be that, with fewer reserves, you are now seeing things as they are and have less patience to put up with what you used to tolerate. You say you have recently found this out about your tribe, but is this new behaviour from your friends, or a new realisation on your part? Because they may be emotionally exhausted, too.

I spoke to psychotherapist Dwight Turner (psychotherapy.org.uk), who said: “You sound like a person with a good heart, who wants the best for those around you. But one of the things about Covid is that it has brought up things we maybe haven’t had to think about, or wanted to think about, before. Now, with more time and space to ourselves, these things are harder to avoid.”

Turner also wondered what you were getting out of being so helpful. This is meant kindly, but it’s something to bear in mind: “Sometimes, in helping others, in putting ourselves at the centre of their world, we might be ‘saving’ others in order to save ourselves.” In other words, sometimes we give to others the help we really need ourselves.

It’s great to be helpful and “there” for others, but it becomes a problem when, as Turner said, “anger and irritation builds. That shows a line has been crossed and you need to start thinking: How do I look after myself? What about me?”

If none of your circle is there for you when you need them, or ever has been; if none of them shows any curiosity about you and never has; then there are two things you need to do.

First, look at your part in this. Some people mistake this for blame, but it’s actually about taking responsibility and can be very empowering (always remember you are the only person whose behaviour you can change). Do you give the impression that you are coping and life doesn’t bother you? Do you refuse help or is it never offered? If someone doesn’t listen to you or isn’t there for you, why do you go back for more? What are you hoping you will change by doing this? What would happen if you weren’t always there for your friends and instead put yourself first occasionally?

Related: My best friend cut me off when my parents died. Will I ever get over it? | Annalisa Barbieri

If we’re not careful, with certain people, explained Turner, “we can be the mirror that reflects them, while remaining invisible [ourselves] to them”. It could be that, in an attempt to hide your vulnerability and perhaps loneliness, you have built a protective shell that is so effective, people think you are fine. It takes courage to admit to vulnerability. “Where did you learn this behaviour from? What has taught you to just keep on giving?” Turner wanted to know.

The second thing to consider is opening up a bit more to people. Begin with those you feel most comfortable with and trust most. Could you ask what impression they have of you, and why they don’t ask about you? It may be interesting to see what they say. Do you, in fact, ask for help directly? People aren’t mind readers, and although one would wish they were as sensitive as you, not everyone is.

I hope your friends respond well. But, if you try all of this and they don’t respond in a way you would like, then it’s time to start thinking about what the value is in these friendships. Fear of loneliness can sometimes tether us to the wrong people, but few things are lonelier than being with people who don’t truly see us.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

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