‘How do I stop myself from feeling like this?’
Auntie Matter on assertiveness and metacognition
If you have questions for Auntie Matter, please submit them at tinyurl.com/AskAuntieMatter. Questions have been edited for length, clarity, and content.
Dear Auntie Matter,
I feel like I'm going through a midlife crisis. One of my closest friends (I thought) doesn't seem to want to talk to me anymore; she'll text me back when I text her, but she doesn't seem to care enough to actually talk to me on her own (and we live far enough away that we can't really visit). I know that how much she talks to me is her choice (and she might be busy) and she certainly doesn't owe me anything, but it sucks.
I used to be really good friends with one of my exes, but several months ago something happened — he ignored when I said I wasn't interested/didn't want to do something and ever since I've been on edge around him. He keeps trying to talk to me constantly and I feel guilty for not wanting to be around him, even though I know I have a right to.
Some of my other friends have been getting on my nerves lately and I can't tell if it's because I'm stressed, I'm letting the situation with those people bleed over into my other interactions, or if it's because I'm just a bad person. Some of the things my friends do and their senses of humor (I suppose) remind me of my ex and it's making me really uncomfortable, which is unfair to them. I know I shouldn't isolate myself and I'm not trying to, but my grades are slipping and I don't really trust or know most of the people around me to the point where I'm comfortable talking about this with them. I'm always stressed and I feel like I'm never going to accomplish anything. Sorry this is so long, but how do I stop myself from feeling like this?
In the first two-thirds of your letter, you describe two different situations: the uncertainty around your long-distance friendship and the situation with your ex.
First, the only way you are going to find out what is going on with your long-distance friend is to call and ask her about your friendship. You should neither accuse her nor make excuses for her, but you should have a conversation with her.
Now, about your ex — of everything in your letter, Auntie is most troubled by the sentence, “He ignored when I said I wasn't interested/didn't want to do something and ever since I've been on edge around him.”
What did he do, dear letter-writer?
If the “something” is sexual in nature, Auntie highly recommends you go to VPR to discuss it confidentially with their compassionate staff. They can help you process your feelings about it, and you don’t have to formally report it (unless you would also like to do that, in which case you can visit Title IX, too).
Regardless of what he did, it sounds like he hurt you quite a bit, and Auntie sees two paths forward: you can either end the friendship definitively, blocking him in every aspect of your life, or you can express the depth of your hurt and give him the opportunity to make it better. If you choose the second option, and he fails, you have to let him go.
In all of these situations, you fail to express your disappointment because you believe more disappointment will follow. The truth is that you don’t know whether a situation will improve until you try to improve it. This applies to your friends. You should try talking with them to see if you can either have them make small changes to make you more comfortable, or to work through your discomfort and annoyance with them. This could even bring you closer to them in the end, and if not, maybe you were not compatible as friends to begin with.
As a final practical point, you should consider talking to some other older or more experienced person who could help you get perspective on your situation. Options include your parents; your advisor; counselors at MIT Mental Health or deans at S3; your dorm’s heads of house, GRTs, or RLAD; a chaplain; or any professor, staff member, older friend, or alum — basically, anyone you feel like you could connect with and talk to.
In addition to practical advice, Auntie has some ideas about how you think about things. Your letter reveals a lot about your character. Auntie commends you for trying to take such a measured perspective on what seem to be distressing circumstances. You seem like a strong, thoughtful person, and you should remember that the state you are currently in is temporary, and that you either have or can develop skills to better your situation.
At the same time, you are not achieving the measured perspective you are trying for. In your letter, you display cognitive distortions. Auntie is no psychologist, but even the layperson can learn to understand and identify cognitive distortions in their thinking. When you say, “I’m always stressed,” or “I don’t trust the people around me,” Auntie wonders if you are catastrophizing. When you say, “I’m a bad person,” Auntie thinks you might be labelling. This is not to say you are “crazy,” or trying to misrepresent things. By all appearances in your letter, you are doing your level best to see things objectively. But these distorted thoughts and cognitive frames can be insidious — that is why it is important to identify them, so you can talk back to them. You are trying so hard to be objective, and recognizing cognitive distortions can be another tool that you use in that fight.
Auntie encourages you to do an experiment. Particularly with your friend group, where you (insightfully) identify that you might be experiencing some emotional “bleed,” you may be experiencing some cognitive distortions. Write down your feelings about your friend group at a time when your mood is poor. Then, at a different time, when you are well-rested, well-fed, and not stressed, write down your feelings again. If you find that the reasoning is different, you can probably identify some distortions in the first account you write. Furthermore, when reflecting on your friendships in a better mood, you might be able to better discern which are the most worth keeping.
Finally, Auntie would like to note another cognitive habit that might not be serving you. In your letter, you often seem concerned about what is “fair,” and what people’s “rights” are. While it is good that you try to be reasonable in your expectations for others, sometimes in relationships it’s best not to think in terms or rights or fairness, but in terms of what is good for, and acceptable to, both parties in the relationship. What works for you might not be fair, but it might make everyone happy. Furthermore, framing things in terms of fairness and rights makes your relationships almost litigious, instead of collaborative. If you need to defend what is good for you in a friendship on the basis of a right, instead of on the basis of it being good for you, chances are either you or your friend are not really looking to the good of the other person, in which case you may not have a real friendship.
Auntie thinks you will look back on this period in your life as one in which you learned a lot. Good luck, and feel free to write back!