More Thoughts About ‘The Toilet Function of Friendship’ – Avoid or Minimize Contact with the Rachels and Fletchers of the World
I did a blog post about this about three weeks ago:
((Link): When You’re in Imbalanced, Unfair Relationships – You’re the Free Therapist, The Supportive, Sounding Board Who Listens to Other People’s Non-Stop Complaining, But They Don’t Listen to You – re: The Toilet Function of Friendship).
I had more I wanted to say about this.
This guy’s blog post – Joseph Burgo’s post – about “The Toilet Function of Friendship” that I blogged about previously really hit home with me…
especially since I am a recovered codependent who, over 35+ years during the time I was codependent (and used to have clinical depression and had low self esteem), kept attracting abusive, mean, nasty, self absorbed, pessimistic, depressed, emotionally needy and psychologically wounded or personality disordered people to me,
…and the comments left by people at the bottom of his post were also very eye opening or informative.
I wanted to discuss a few comments visitors left to his post, above all, a post by someone calling herself “Rachel,” and a comment by “Fletcher.”
I’ll probably save Fletcher’s and Rachel’s comments for last.
I notice a lot of the people who left comments below the post on Burgo’s blog say that they have been on the receiving end of this situation, where they attract negative or hurting friends who cope with life’s stress by “dumping” and venting about their problems to a sympathetic listener.
I too was in that position for many years, and it left me resentful, exhausted, and with nothing to show for it.
I’ve always been a very good, attentive listener.
I’m not the sort of person who attempts to pivot every conversation back on to herself, so… meaning…
If you’re my acquaintance or friend, and you stop by my cubicle during the work day or call me at home to confide in me about some problem you are having, I used to just sit there and let you talk for how ever many hours you wanted to rant and confide.
Even if I was wanting to get off the phone after 20 to 40 minutes, I was reluctant to end the phone call, so I’d sit there while the emotionally needy friend or family member droned on and on and on (or ranted and ranted in anger) about whatever problems they were having.
(I used to never, or very rarely, put time limits on people when they would complain to me, which left me utterly exhausted.
In my codependent years, I felt guilty if I tried to end people’s “complain and gripe” fests prematurely (because I was getting physically tired listening, or they were interrupting my work or whatever the reason), and I was afraid they’d break off friendship with me if I refused to allow them to use me as their “emotional toilet” or “free therapist.”
Only in the last few years, as I reflect upon my past, do I realize HOW UNFAIR this was to me.)
My habit was to just sit and listen thoughtfully, to nod my head in sympathy as you would rattle off your life’s stress to me, whether it was about your lazy, selfish boyfriend, or your ex-husband who wouldn’t pay child support, or your jerk boss making your work life awful – whatever it was.
And when I would finally speak up, after listening to you vent, I would only make empathetic, non-judgmental comments.
Back in my codependent, people pleasing days, I would tell you I was sorry you were under so much stress, and I hoped your situation would improve. I would validate your feelings, validate your situation, so you would feel heard and understood.
I rarely, oh so rarely, would give people who talked to me to complain to me, advice, judgement, criticism, or platitudes.
All of those relationship habits and qualities of mine that I had for many years made me very, very attractive to needy, angry, depressed, narcissistic, pessimistic, or unhappy people.
I now know better.
I think it does take a lot of life experience to get here, to be able to look at my past, to see where my Mom and church were in error to teach me as they did, (with their teachings being largely responsible for turning me into an attractive target for hurting, angry, or emotionally needy people), to see clearly the patterns of behavior.
Most of the people who used me to get their emotional needs met (but who seldom met mine in return) had very deep psychological problems or maladaptive coping skills.
Some had clinical depression (which I also had myself for over 30+ years), some may have been Covert Narcissists, some choose to cope with pain, disappointment, or anger in life by complaining to someone else – and I was often that “someone else.”
Some of these people have deeply entrenched psychological issues, and there is no amount of me listening to them and consoling them that is going to heal them. That concept took me much later in life to figure out, and that point was confirmed in various articles or books I read by psychologists and psychiatrists in the last few years.
These types of people really need to see a psychologist or licensed therapist over a period of weeks or months to work on their inner problems and relational styles that lead them to cope with their frustration or anger in life by constantly “dumping” them verbally on to a trusted friend for months or years.
If you are a people pleaser, an empath, or a codependent (whatever label you use for yourself), you need to accept that you will not get your needs met by ignoring your own and running around meeting other people’s needs, if that is one of your secret motivations for why you help others or act as their “emotional toilet” or “free therapist.”
(Some codependents think it’s not acceptable for them to get their needs met; they got the message from their family or church while they were growing up that it’s supposedly “selfish” for one to get one’s own needs met.
And no, it is not selfish to get one’s own needs met, or to expect people who say they are your friends to sometimes meet your needs in return. It’s part of a normal, healthy childhood or adulthood to get one’s needs met.)
If you’re a people pleaser, a codependent, you will have to be more intentional about when, to whom, under what circumstances, and for how long you will show someone else care, compassion, concern, or give them financial assistance.
Because if you do not learn to get comfortable with putting limits on your time, compassion, finances, and energy, you will be exploited and taken advantage of by many people who never (or rarely) meet your needs in return. All these people over decades will drain you dry and leave you exhausted.
I do think there are some times in life where it’s appropriate to grant people more emotional support than usual and not expect much in return.
But such occasions should be exceptions, such as, if your friend is in the grieving process over the death of a loved one, in such occasions, it may be acceptable to allow them to complain to you for hours over two to four years as they process the loss.
But if you have a friend who more or less contacts you regularly to complain a lot about every issue (and I mean the non-exceptions – just to rant about how they hate their job, their boyfriend is inconsiderate – your more tedious, normal life situations that are not as stressful, as say, a death in the family) – or maybe the same two or three (trivial, mundane) issues repeatedly – you really need to put limits on that person.
Most people who do this venting are only using you to get their emotional needs met, and they will NOT return the same non-judgmental emotional support to you that you granted them for weeks or years.
From the (Link): Burgo blog post, some comments left by some of his blog visitors:
Dec 10, 2020
Wow! What a powerful article and one I, too needed to hear and to equally recognize both sides.
I have ‘friends’ who dump on me that I should un-friend, but I have been loathe to do so for myriad reasons.
First and foremost being how to explain the action I’m taking and how to deal with the unknown reactions & emotions of others.
Taking that a step further, if the offender accepts the charge of being a dumper, shows remorse and a genuine interest in changing/correcting their behavior, then what?
I feel neither qualified nor comfortable that I could impartially participate in that process.
Secondly, If I’m brutally honest with myself, I surmise a significant amount of my reluctance has more to do with: having only a very small circle of friends, naturally, I’m not anxious to cut ties leaving me with fewer still; not feeling that I’m in a place to commit to ‘doing the work’ of going through the stages of the grieving process to achieve healthy closure and move on;
the realization and admission that I have allowed myself to be sucked into some reciprocal dumping, which makes me feel a bit hypocritical; and finally, my current feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and low self-esteem which undermine my pursuit of new, healthier and more equitable relationships. ….
— end —
I think a lot of people pleasers and codependents can relate to what Tracey said – I got the message growing up (from my mother, the Christian faith I was raised in, and secular gender stereotypes for women) that if I wanted friends to care about me and listen to me talk about my problems, this meant I had to earn that.
I was led to believe that I had to earn this care and attention from others by listening to my friends complain for hours about their problems and extend them empathy (even though I usually found such constant listening to complaints exhausting, boring, and I resented it).
(As an introverted person, being an attentive listener comes naturally to me, I’m good at it, but it doesn’t mean that I enjoy listening to people approach me often to complain for hours over months about their issues.)
I was afraid if I didn’t continually play this role of empathetic listener, that these friends would resent me or dump me.
As a recovered codependent, I can tell you this is in fact true!
Some of the people in your life are only in your life because you do favors for them – you give them money; you do kind gestures like often buy them coffee… or, if like me, you listen to them complain for hours over months or years about their problems, they rarely listen to you talk about yours, and you don’t address this imbalance.
These kinds of people are thrilled with this type of situation – they are happy that you are willing to listen to them complain for hours over years but that they don’t have to listen to you talk about YOUR problems.
They don’t have to invest emotional labor into YOU. They are quite happy with that arrangement. They love that they are getting THEIR needs met but that they don’t have to meet YOUR needs in return.
Once you begin getting over codependency and enacting boundaries, once you start addressing the unfair situations in these types of “friendships,” oh yes, many of your so-called friends will get angry about you confronting them about it, with you demanding that they start meeting YOUR needs every so often, and they will stop reaching out to you.
And you need to learn that is fine.
Such people (the parasites!) were never true friends to start with.
… I can be severe in discouraging “dumpers” and as you say, life and experience teaches you to see them coming 1000 yards away!
— end excerpt —
I relate to that! As I’ve gotten into middle age, gotten rid of the codependency my Mom and Christian faith instilled into me, I’ve gotten much faster at spotting the “pity me, feel sorry for me” type of folks who have no intention of fixing their problems.
And now that I realize it’s not “mean” or “selfish” of me to minimize contact with such people, or to avoid such people, or switch the topic to a neutral topic (or exit the conversation altogether) when they start whining about their problems, I am so much happier now!
For years, I was more fooled and drawn in by the “sad sacks” (sometimes these are (Link): covert narcissists) I met along the way, the people who would go on in a “pity me, feel sorry for me!” way who wanted me to console them all the time.
A lot of these people had a tendency to want to share with me how they were victims in life and to share with me all their personal pains and abuse since childhood. They played on my heartstrings.
I’ve now since gotten much faster at recognizing these types of people, and I back off, instead of feeling responsible for helping them or validating them (it’s not my job to fix them or cheer them up).
Comment by Lara – I agree with her on this:
Regarding this comment by Steve…
Steven Meer says:
December 25, 2010 at 12:10 am
I can relate strongly to the kind of “friends” you are describing.
As for myself, it did not take me many years to see, and make them see, that I was not the kind of person that they could continue to do this to. I had enough “real” friends to know that the loss of these people was a welcome relief.
I think the main reason why I let myself get dragged into these situations earlier in life, was the mistaken belief that after they dumped their crap on me, I could then offer them some advice that they would at least listen to and might consider to follow.
In my ignorance, I could see no other reason for why they would be dumping all of this crap on me, unless they wanted my input.
I did not understand that this was a one-way exchange for them – my function was just, as you said, to be their toilet.
Since then, I set myself up with some healthy boundaries – one being that friendship is not a one-way street. If a friendship becomes one, I don’t need to continue it….
— end excerpts by Steve —
Honestly, I found this comment by Steve a little annoying.
Steve, most of the time, when people come to you sobbing, crying, or raging about their divorce, their grandma dying, job problems, or having gotten pulled over by a cop this morning for speeding and they received a ticket, they are NOT looking for advice!
Why is this so hard for most people to accept or understand?
Steve, if you personally go to someone upset or angry after a stressful life event, do you personally appreciate it when the listener starts giving you advice? Probably not.
Receiving advice when you’re upset, hurting, worried, or angry over a situation feels very dismissive to most people – it adds insult to injury.
When most people contact you, Steve, to complain about their issues, whether in a sad or angry way, they are seeking validation, empathy, and encouragement.
Seldom in life will people approach you, me, or whomever, to cry or rant about their crummy job or dead pet dog or horrible ex-spouse because they want your or my advice, or are looking to you or me for solutions.
I know when I am upset in the moment and call a friend to complain, I am not looking for advice, judgement, victim blaming, shame or criticism, but just for the person to sit quietly for 40 or so minutes while I vent, and then have them validate my negative feelings and situation. I am NOT looking for solutions or advice at that time.
My problem as a lifelong people pleaser is that while I know most hurting people approach me simply wanting to vent, and they just want me to listen without judging or giving advice, I had to put limits on this.
The older I get, I no longer have the stamina (nor the interest) to allow people to phone me for HOURS on end every few days to complain, especially if it’s about the same problem over a period of years.
But I do realize when people call me (or text me) to complain, they’re not looking for advice – they just want to get things off their chest.
I do realize that rather than constantly complain about the same problem repeatedly, that eventually, the complainer will need to take ownership of their life and of the problem and start dealing with it, working on a solution.
Constant complaining about a problem feels good for awhile but will ultimately do nothing to solve the issue you’re complaining about. That’s the flip side of that situation.
I related to Catherine’s comments: