Auntie SparkNotes: My Negative Friend Needs Confidence
My best friend who I’ve known since second grade is having some problems, and I’m really not sure what I can do to help. As background, she’s sixteen and I’m eighteen. We have a sort of relationship that has led to people mistaking us for sisters or cousins. I’ve just graduated and am going to college in the fall, about an hour away. She’s still living at home, and will be for another couple of years at least.
She’s going through a fairly hard time right now, as her parents seem to think she should know exactly what she wants to do with her life (she’s freaking sixteen) and that her future can only be in a certain category (engineering/science, which she doesn’t want to do). Her parents know she’s intelligent, and because she’s intelligent, they think she needs to contribute something to those fields. They would not approve if she followed her current dream, which is to do something related to rock climbing, or even nature, such as being a park ranger or a climbing guide. She doesn’t want to waste her parents’ money on college classes she won’t use once she has freedom to choose her own way, and, of course, they’re her parents.
Also, these problems, plus her feelings that she has no place in the world, have left her fairly negative. I’m a generally positive person; I tend to have faith that everything will work out, somehow, even if it’s not in the way I expect/hope it will. Her constant negativity is honestly getting old. She thinks she’s crap, which she isn’t, and that her future will suck, which, heck, I don’t know for certain, but I believe she can make it work. She even takes this negativity into small things, such as her job (“It’ll be eight hours of listening to screaming kids! I can’t stand that!”—it wasn’t, and she was fine) and her social life (she’s afraid of her friends abandoning her). She seems to think that my leaving for college is a form of abandonment, and that I won’t want to be friends with her once I’ve met all the cool people at college. I’m super excited to meet cool people at college, but I’m not planning on cutting her off because of it.
My question is, then, what can I do for her? I want to support her, but I’m not sure how to respond to her negative comments, and heck if I know what to do for her when it comes to her parents/future situation. If I tell her she’s not crap and I want to be her friend, she doesn’t seem to believe me. Is there some way to give her confidence in our friendship and confidence in her life?
And I'm sorry, Sparkler, because I know that's bad news—but I also want you to brace yourself, because it probably won't end there. Your friend's outlook and approach to life is a problem only she can deal with; it's not within your power to alter her perspective. But more importantly, as long as she's committed to interpreting any and every new development through the lens of ohmigod-this-is-gonna-suck, you can expect to be on the receiving end of a lot of negativity from her surrounding your transition to college and any friends you make there. As you've pointed out yourself, this girl is basically incapable of looking on the bright side of things right now, and even the potentially positive things in her life, like her job or her friendships, feel in her mind like a pile of disasters waiting to happen. So when something comes to pass that feels like a fulfillment of her worst-case catastrophizing—i.e. you go away to college, where you have a whole life and social circle that doesn't include her—it is a fair bet that she'll take it as a sign that she was right, she's been abandoned, and it'll only get worse from here.
That said, it is within your power to choose how you respond when she does this—and if you anticipate her sour attitude, then you can avoid falling into the trap of taking it personally, which is going to be key if you want to keep this friendship alive. And as far as helping her to have a healthier outlook, refusing to validate her pessimism is pretty much the best thing you can do. Don't let yourself be baited into an argument about whether she's "crap" or not. Don't make yourself a sounding board for endless moaning about how her life will forever suck. And if she accuses you of abandoning her, don't dignify the ridiculous accusation by trying to convince her she's wrong. This is a perfect time to practice the art of lovingly but firmly refusing to attend every argument you're invited to: you smile, you say, "Don't be silly, your friendship means the world to me," and you change the subject. Every time.
And before you ask: yes, this does indeed require some absolutely superhuman levels of maturity and restraint on your part, especially if your catastrophizing friend has already worn you down to the tiny frayed ends of your very last nerve. But when you ask what you can do… well, this is it. You can model confidence, restraint, and a compassionate refusal to validate an unhealthy outlook. You can ask, "What do you intend to do about that?" when she launches into a litany of complaints. And when you find this exhausting — as it almost certainly will be, sometimes, if it isn't already—you can remember that it's temporary. Your friend is sixteen, which is the perfect age at which to begin outgrowing the conviction that your life will suck forever. And once she's through it, she'll definitely appreciate any friends who had the patience to stick around while she was having her Eeyore moment.
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