THE BLOG
09/12/2010 09:29 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When do I tell a new friend about my emotional baggage?

QUESTION

Dear Irene:

I have difficulty making new friends because of all of the heavy stuff I have to reveal to them.

I've tried two basic approaches. The first is the "early hook:" making a good first impression. What I mean is that upon first talking to someone, I'm uncharacteristically pleasant, relaxed, and outgoing. I push aside my histories, my daily anxieties, and so on, because I don't want to throw things out there that could turn the person off and risk me losing my chance at friendship. Initially I focus on them and try not to reveal too much about myself, instead letting them take the mic with me as the patient listener.

When I feel ready to let the friendship grow closer, I have no other choice but to let them see all the psychological problems I'm going through, which include eating problems, social anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and panic symptoms. These affect my living routine 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 be fake?"

The second approach, which I try much more often, is to try and unload everything right away. I don't want to be deceptive, so I'm very upfront. 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 not befriending someone with the life of a normal hip socialite. Rather, they are befriending someone who has been through many harsh years of therapy and medication for problems that began over ten years ago, without complete healing ever taking 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 bringing me substantial change. They hate the idea that my problems do not solve as easily as their own do. They resent me for not adapting.

I do not seek a me-centered friendship and I often find myself in a people-pleasing role. It's easy to trap myself in the thought that I have so many flaws that I have to push twice as hard and impress twice as much just to charm people into offering their friendship. I often take my mind off my own problems just to focus on the problems of my friends, which are usually temporary and have obvious solutions. Or maybe it's not the approach I'm getting wrong, maybe it's the kind of friends I have been with. I hope you could give me the answer!

Tom

ANSWER

Dear Tom,

You've identified two possible options for disclosing information about yourself to new friends but, perhaps, 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 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, I mention some red flags that might make someone hesitant about disclosing a mental or emotional disorder to someone:

• The person has previously shown a lack of sensitivity to you or to other people with emotional problems.

• The person asks probing or invasive questions that make you feel uncomfortable.

• The person has loose lips and seems to delight in gossip.

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 too 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.

While in no way am I 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. I hope this helps.

Best,
Irene

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her recent book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.

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