I’ve found myself in relationships throughout my life that are openly hostile to my emotional needs. Where it becomes the imperative truth that if I talk about myself, my feelings or problems, it is seen as an invitation for attack, not an invitation to connection or intimacy. Where I definitely don’t get back what I give to the other person.
Last year I tried to set a reasonable boundary with a friend. I told them that I had heard their opinion on what the treatment should be for my health issues, I had laid out the reasons why that doesn’t work/isn’t for me, and I didn’t want to hear about it from them again. Their repetitive, unsolicited medical advice often beginning with the phrase “you have to…” was beginning to really bother me.
They weren’t just sharing what worked for them, as they had never been in my position in the first place. This came right after a very traumatic episode, and I told my friend how overwhelmed I was and that they weren’t helping. In response they refused, saying “Well, I’m going to say what I think.” That was, really, the end of our relationship. At that point there was nothing to do but walk away.
Except I was dependent on this person, and would remain so for almost nine months. After my deceased partner’s family threw me out onto the streets, I was left homeless and with no option but to camp out on some land that they owned, and because that land was in the middle of nowhere I also was dependent on them for transportation. During that time my friend did continue to harass me by repeating that same critical advice which they knew was unwelcome. They took the fact that I was vulnerable due to needing their help as an excuse to ignore my boundaries which I was completely entitled to set.
They didn’t use the time, for instance, to read up on the science behind my illness and become more educated about it. They didn’t express curiosity and ask me questions, but instead made insulting statements that gradually escalated despite my attempts to avoid the subject. Soon not only was I accused of being a “bad patient” who supposedly wasn’t listening to his doctors, but actually a delusional person who’s illness was all in his head; who was “taking too long” to grieve his dead partner and everything that was lost. This person projected his ignorant judgments onto me and accused me of a long list of things that I am not rather then understanding and respecting me and my innate intelligence. That is not acceptable.
Being dependent on someone who I didn’t feel safe around made my life into a complete nightmare. I experienced severe stress and panic virtually every time I had to see or contact him. I felt silenced and intimidated, while he felt free to say whatever he wanted to me and vent all of his anger and judgment with no filter. It was a very familiar pattern, from my abusive childhood and onward. Hearing my former friend writing me off as someone who was “weak,” “wimpy” and constantly making homophobic comments about the way I dressed was extremely triggering. It took a long time to get out of that place, both physically and emotionally, and be able to reflect on what was actually happening.
The fact is, I don’t “have to” do anything; I have agency to review my options and make the medical decisions I see as best. I do self-work based around healing and recovery because I want to, not because of any alleged moral obligations. This is a very important distinction for me, as I see healing as a journey of liberation, not of stricture. I avoid any healing philosophy that is made up of commandments or one size fits all platitudes. Healing is finding my voice, healing is having my own personal boundaries, not following someone else and their rules.
My family of origin was extremely unhealthy and emotionally abusive. In my childhood, if I came to any of my family with a problem, if I expressed hurt or sadness, I wasn’t given support, but just brushed aside, criticized, belittled, told what to do and why what happened was actually my fault. With my late partner of seven years, I experienced a similar pattern, where if I was ill, he insisted that offering emotional support ‘wouldn’t help.’ But his unsolicited ‘practical advice’ was very condescending, and usually ended in his mocking and insulting me, which definitely didn’t help me or our relationship.
My ex-friend didn’t know what he was talking about. However personally, I don’t have to understand the intricacies of someone else’s medical condition or life situation in order to empathize. If I want to know more about something, I will look it up, but I’m sure that the person living it will always know more about it then I do, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume that it’s up to me to solve their problems when they certainly haven’t asked me to do so. I also don’t see it as my place to become frustrated with someone about how sick or in crisis they are, and whatever I do feel I definitely don’t unload it onto the person who is actually suffering.
Instead of telling someone “you should,” “you have to…” or giving unsolicited advice, providing emotional support does go a long way. A good alternative to such statements would be “I know you’re doing everything you possibly can right now, how can I support that?” Offering to support someone in what they are already doing for themselves, as opposed to making them feel obligated to explain themselves at length or defend themselves against unsolicited and inappropriate advice. Respecting their intelligence and ability to research, plan and think critically about their own life. Respecting the fact that if they wanted advice, they would ask for it directly.
I’ve long since learned that defending and explaining myself just doesn’t work with some people. They don’t get the point, they don’t step back, they just respond with more inappropriate advice and intrusive questions. The effective response there is to just be firm the first time, to not engage the pattern. What they communicate by their behavior is “you’re so lazy, you do nothing, you aren’t even thinking about how to improve your circumstances and you obviously have a ton of free time, so you better do X!” There’s nothing helpful or constructive about this form of advice.
Do we have to first prove that we’re worthy of emotional support before receiving it? Do we have to show that we filed our paperwork on time, followed the advice of a ‘professional’ and put ourselves through a series of self-flagellation to be deemed worthy of it? If we come from a cycle of abuse and dysfunction, then maybe we are used to being given the cold shoulder unless we’ve jumped through all of the right hoops and can present a convincing case to prove that we are worthy of empathy as opposed to punishment for what the judge declares was actually our fault. But that is not emotionally healthy.
We are worthy of emotional support, even if we have made mistakes, even if our capacity right now is just to struggle through the day and try to cope with that, even if the people around us have no interest in giving it. Even if we provide non-judgmental emotional support to others but they refuse to reciprocate.