Making New Friends When You Have Secrets
A reader asks how to make friends when you have emotional problems that are likely to affect a new friendship.
I’ve been having difficulty making new friends because I’ve had emotional problems in the past. I never know how and when to disclose them.
I've tried two basic approaches: One is the "early hook," focusing on making a good first impression.
What I mean is that upon meeting someone, I act relaxed and outgoing. I push aside my history, my daily anxieties, and so on because I don't want to turn the person off and risk losing the friendship. I focus on them and try not to reveal too much about myself.
When I feel ready to let the friendship grow closer, I let them know about all the psychological problems I have, including social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, eating problems, and panic symptoms. All these problems affect me every day and nobody can truly be close to me without being aware of them.
Often it comes as a shock to the friend who recalls me being so pleasant when we first met and then accuses me of having changed so much. They sometimes leave, unable to deal with me further. It hurts, making me think: Why didn't I just decide to keep all my problems under wraps?
The second approach, which I use more often, is to try and unload everything right away. Instead of being deceptive, I'm upfront. For example, I tell them that no, I did NOT have a good day; in fact, my day was terrible, and if they want to know why I'll go ahead and explain the symptoms.
They will know from the get-go that they are befriending someone who has been through many years of therapy and medication for problems that began over a decade ago, without complete healing ever having taken place.
The new friend may start off with feelings of heroism and want to console me until they realize that nothing they can do is capable of changing my situation. They lose patience when my problems don’t resolve as easily as theirs do, and wind up resenting me for not adapting.
Neither approach seems to work. Is there something else I can do? Or maybe could the problem be the types of friends I choose?
You've identified two possible options for disclosing information about yourself to new friends. Perhaps, though, an approach somewhere between those two extremes might be worth a try.
Whether someone has emotional problems or not, it's usually better to disclose them slowly, allowing for give and take between you and your new friend, before you share TMI (too much information). This gives you a chance to size up the person. Then, based on the person---and their openness and acceptance of you---you can gradually share more.
In Schizophrenia for Dummies, Irene mentions some red flags that might make someone hesitant about disclosing a mental or emotional disorder to someone.
Keep in mind that not everyone is necessarily able to accept, understand, or feel comfortable dealing with another person’s emotional problems. They may have their own to deal with and feel overwhelmed by yours. Or they may be unequipped to give you the emotional support you seek.
Before you confide too much too soon, here are some things to consider:
• Has the person previously shown a lack of sensitivity to you or to other people with emotional problems?
• Do they ask probing or invasive questions that make you feel uncomfortable?
• Do they have loose lips and seem to delight in gossip?
• Could they be dealing with their own problems and have no energy for yours?
In an ideal world, new friends would be open and sensitive to hearing about someone else's emotional problems. Unfortunately, as you have experienced, there is still stigma, misunderstanding, and intolerance of people who are less than perfect or who appear to be overly needy.
If you feel tentative about disclosing your history or current problems to a new friend, wait until you feel more confident. It may simply be a matter of timing. Similarly, hold off on sharing too many details too soon.
Finding the right words to explain emotional problems can be very challenging, so you will probably want to rehearse them mentally before you break the news.
Of course, once you disclose, make sure that your discussions don't focus exclusively on your problems. The other person has signed up to be a friend, not a therapist. And it’s more than likely that they, too, are dealing with their own “stuff.”
While in no way are we suggesting that you narrow the scope of your friendships, you might also want to seek out friends in support groups where everyone participates with the specific intent of sharing problems; that will provide you with another outlet to discuss yours.
You seem to have achieved quite a bit of insight into your problems so those ten years of therapy must have helped ☺!
Thanks for your candor and for asking such a good question. We are sure it will be useful to others.
Irene & Sheryl
Whether you are bringing emotional baggage to a new relationship, it's usually better to disclose slowly, allowing for trust to build before sharing TMI (too much information).