Someone told my friend to ask for what she wants. How do I tell her it’s too much?

Dear Bear,

I have a friend who has been in therapy for a while, which is really good because she needed it. She’s always struggled with depression and sometimes even suicide after awful family bullshit. In therapy she is being encouraged to express herself and ask for what she wants. She told me her therapist said she needs to take the wheel and drive, not just sit in the back and hope. Which is great, in theory. But in practice she is kind of heedless and thoughtless of what else is happening and just baldly states what she wants to happen no matter what else is going on: people are negotiating, or she’s “asking” but it sounds like a command, or she asks something at a terrible time.

Clearly she’s proud of her new skill but not aware of the effect it’s having. Some other friends and I have started discussing it. It’s just way too much and I feel very unclear about what to do. Like, yes, ask for what you want but maybe not like that? I’m not a therapist so what do I know? Except that she’s swiftly alienating her friend group. Bear, what do I do or say to her?

***

Dear Brave Correspondent,

I really appreciate this question. This is such a Thing, and I am so glad you wrote in because I am very ready to have a chance to talk all about this.

So: I am not your friend’s therapist (or anyone’s) and I definitely don’t know for sure what she’s working on or healing from. However, I do know some things about depression and suicidality and trauma and coping mechanisms and thing number one is that a lot of people who have survived difficult or traumatic or neglectful childhoods develop pretty robust coping mechanisms to allow them to get through it. Often, these coping mechanisms are clever and resourceful and allow the person to keep themselves safe and alive and that is amazing and should be celebrated.

(have you done this? you are amazing. ::blows a celebratory little pouf of biodegradable glitter over you::).

HOWEVER. Once a person is largely disentangled from a toxic or traumatic situation, that doesn’t mean that the behaviors magically disappear. It might seem like they would. It might seem like a person being artificially constrained and forced to cope with a repressive regime would be like Kevin Bacon in Footloose, off toe-tapping and twirling (manfully) as soon as they have the chance. But after a person has taken enough beatings, metaphorical or actual, for dancing (metaphorical or actual) they start to fear it. Operant conditioning is real. If your dad always went ballistic and started screaming when the credit card bills arrived, you might become a person who finds bills incredibly anxiety producing even if you have the money to pay them, because you strongly associate them with upset or anxiety. Trauma can kind of create an emotional-growth pause in this way – you avoid the bills because you so heavily associate them with anger, fear, and upset and you don’t naturally develop an ability to appropriately manage money when other people might, and then suddenly you’re 43 years old filing two years of back taxes in one weekend. Or, uh, something.

So your friend is working through some old stuff from childhood, and in certain ways she is…kind of like a child. Not in a bad way, just in the way where a kid learns a new skill and at first it’s clumsy and awkward and sometimes they fall over. Your friend’s ability to ask for what she wants feels out-of-phase and difficult for you because she’s not operating that part of her brains with adult practice, she’s operating it with the practice of someone who has just learned. It’s great that she’s taken this step, because it is probably requiring a ton of bravery to do it, and also, yes: it’s probably pretty rudimentary right now.

So first, I want to encourage you(pl.) to judge these early efforts of hers as generously as possible. Don’t hold her to your standard of how a neurotypical whatever-you-are-year-old should ask for what they want. Be aware that she is so new at this, and it is probably taking a lot of energy and work to just do as much as she’s doing. Even if you don’t adore this phase, I think your friend group cares about this person and you can choose to hang in there while she gets sorted out.

That said, you can also offer her assistance. I would probably skip feedback for now; don’t take her aside and say “hey, you’re really stressing people out with this thing you’re doing.” But you can help by giving some structure to negotiation and making sure the rules of it are transparent – right now she might really just be… guessing at how/when to make her ask. So you can say “okay, let’s go around and say what we each want for dinner,” or “Can we make a rule that there is no talking about anything but baseball and baseball players’ dogs during the ballgame?” and that may help her to learn some of the unspoken rules of how this social thing works in your social group.

Because that’s the other thing, Brave Correspondent – every social group has its own   social norms, and they are influenced by many factors, including race, gender, class, sexual orientation, cultural background and more. Some groups require members to be more oblique with requests, and some are fine if you just come out with it. If she’s never really participated in the process, how would she know? And also, not every group will be the same. So I think it’s fine to notice that she’s not well in sync with the group norms but actually more important to notice that your group’s way of communicating about wants and needs isn’t a universal standard, it’s just your way. Does it “sound like a command” because she’s directly stating her preference (“I’m not in the mood for axe-throwing at all. I really want to see a movie,”) and not engaging in multiple rounds of “oh honestly, anything would be fine with me,” before eventually admitting to a preference? I’m asking this question because there may be a real opportunity here for you all to think about your own patterns with regard to asking for what you want.

I get the sense, Brave Correspondent, that this is a good friend and someone you want to stay connected and engaged with. I would even venture to say that your letter is less about being upset with her behavior and more about about preventing or ameliorating some unsettlement among your friend group about your friend’s necessarily-clumsy progress. Are you a person that likes to try to manage interpersonal situations because it stresses you out when there’s friend-conflict? Are you hoping to avoid something bad by nice-ing everyone along? I understand the impulse (ahem, understatement) but you may have to take a deep breath, or a few, and let things unfold. Sometimes friendships strengthen with change but sometimes they buckle. That’s valid even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes. You can grow with your friend but you cannot make everything easy and conflict-free for the whole group by sheer force of will or effort (I know, and I’m so sorry; I hate it too, but you actually cannot).

Now, for sure, there is the thing of reading the room, of noticing where other people are emotionally before making an ask. I think many of us have known people who just never seem aware of our energy or emotional state before they barrel right ahead telling us what they want. My three-year-old is like this – I could be puking sick, fast asleep, in a puddle of tears, and he will just announce “I want some yogurt please.” I could be trying to navigate and drive and deal with a confusing GPS situation in a blizzard and my eight-year-old will suddenly say from the backseat: “pick a number!” They want to do some math trick they just learned in the math puzzle book they’re looking at; they’re not aware of my driving feelings. I’m telling you this because 1) like my children, your friend is practicing and will improve and 2) I want to encourage you to take a similar tactic when you ask her to wait her request for a bit. “I can’t think about that right now, can you ask me again in a minute/tomorrow/next week/in the fall? I need to focus on the road/the turkey/the first day of school/my surgery before I will have any attention for that.” Just give her the information, even if you are perhaps quietly praying to become invisible and/or teleport to a quiet cave far away (possibly just me).

Right now, your friend is using a hard-won opportunity to heal from some bad old shit and get herself (and her being-a-person skills) to a better place. This is good news. It sounds like she is disrupting patterns in your friend group and possibly also annoying the crap out of you while she does it, which clearly feels like bad news. It’s okay to feel annoyed, but I want to encourage you to look at your annoyance fairly and head on. Are you being disrespected or is it more disrupted? Do you actually not feel like you can say “sorry, no,” to her requests? If so, why? There may also be some bonus learning here for you, Brave Correspondent, while your friend does her work – maybe you have an opportunity to practice saying no to things you don’t want instead of agreeing and then feeling resentful? That’s a super good skill, and one that the cultural forces of misogyny press hard on girls and women to avoid developing at all costs. Maybe, just maybe, there’s an opportunity here to also learn along with your friend? Tell her no when you mean no. Tell her “not now,” when you just need to say “not now,” even if it feels awkward. I feel confident, Brave Correspondent, that you’ll both find some grace with practice.

love and courage,

Bear

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2 comments on “Someone told my friend to ask for what she wants. How do I tell her it’s too much?”

  1. Adam says:

    I am going through the same thing as the letter writer’s friend. I was abused and gaslighted by a parent to the point that even asking for a hug seems like a monumental imposition on the other person’s world. I have no gauge of what a “big ask” or a “small ask” looks like, and building that gauge has been far more difficult than people probably realize. To me, any ask is a HUGE ask, and not allowed. So it’s like fighting through a tsunami to even ask for a hug, let alone anything bigger.

    Letter writer, your friend is fighting demons about asking being okay that they’ve been fighting for a long, long time. Expecting them to “just know” all the unspoken rules about this, or to not be awkward while they learn, is really unreasonable and unrealistic.

    1. DJKittens says:

      I don’t think the LW is expecting their friend to ‘just know’ how to ask for things without being demanding. That’s why they wrote Bear instead of giving their friend a lecture about boundaries. They wanted tips and Bear provided them.

      And yes, lots of people do actually cross boundaries when learning this stuff, and it’s hard to watch because there will come a time when LW’s friend will do it with someone who doesn’t understand her background, who may be alienated by her, like in an employment context or with a new acquaintance. The therapists who teach people to ask for things are also responsible for teaching them about context, when is the best time to ask, and accepting no for an answer.

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