5 Mistakes You Make When Trying To Talk About Your Problems

One of the first times I tried talking to a friend about my personal hell (scientists often refer to that as “life”), I was fifteen. I was dangerously depressed and felt on the verge of suicide. A friend was asked by some misguided adult to reach out to me and get me to open up. I started talking. Then I started crying. Then she freaked out like I was sprouting literal demon horns, ran out of the room, and never spoke to me again.

Ta-da. People suck sometimes. They really do. It’s easy to say “You should talk to someone about your problems,” but actually doing it can feel like stepping into a steel trap that leaves both you and the person you’re talking to gnawing your own feet off.

But while I know it can backfire, I also believe in it 100 percent. So, why is it so goddamn hard? Why does it feel like everyone’s reaction to tough, personal conversations will be “sprint away while screaming and then fake their own death”? Well, maybe it’s because …

5

You Pick The Wrong People To Talk To

Can we all just agree what whoever thought Betty Runscream (that’s what I’m calling her now) was the right person for a suicidal teenaged me to open up to was totally wrong? I barely trust most teenagers to not forget my fries, let alone counsel another human on a literal life-and-death subject.

Not all people are the worst, but let’s be realistic here: If you’ve tried to talk to your friends about your problems, and they laughed at you, ignored you, or told you that your problems don’t matter, it’s entirely possible those friends are assholes.

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Claire, for sure, that goes without saying. I’m honestly surprised you didn’t figure that one out on your own. Anyway …

But it’s also possible they are perfectly normal human beings who just happen to be the wrong person to talk to about that particular problem.

Saying “you should talk to someone” is like saying “you should take some medicine.” So, what medicine? Because it kind of matters. You don’t want to treat insomnia with a high dose of laxatives and uppers. You don’t want to treat a floppy boner with that burning muscle relaxant gel that makes it feel like your skin is being devoured by fire ants.

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Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

If you don’t pick someone who knows about your situation, you may as well be rambling about thermodynamics to your cat. When you’re having money problems, asking for advice from your friend who’s on the verge of eviction could result in an extended, “Oh screeewwww yooooouuu …” At the same time you wouldn’t ask the rich, silver-spoon friend who thinks you can buy a house just by cutting back on coffee.

Ideally, you’d find a friend who has had money problems and learned how to fix them.

If you don’t have friends who have been through your exact situation, you can usually find some who have at least been through a similar one. “Well, my wife never cheated on me, but we did have a problem a few years back where she was having nostalgic feelings for an old boyfriend. Here’s how we got through that.” Or even, “I was never addicted to crack, but I did quit smoking once, and it was super hard, and here’s what I learned.”

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“QUITTING SMOKING FUCKING SUCKS!”

Even a friend who can say “Yeah, I’ve been there. I don’t have a perfect answer because I made a lot of mistakes. But I can commiserate and assure you that you’re not alone” can make a big difference. Sometimes, just venting and getting a resounding, “Yep, I totally understand,” can be a huge relief.

4

Your Timing Totally Sucks

When I was in my early twenties, I got laid off three times in one year because of some newfangled thing called “the economy” which I think was invented by the literal devil. I was offered an entry-level job in Europe, which while a step down career-wise might give me a chance to pay down my debt. Plus, I figured, being broke in Europe beat being broke in North America.

So, I asked my incredibly nice friend Becky (who yes had insanely good hair) for advice.

And she said, “WHAT THE HELL IS THE MATTER WITH YOU? IT’S BAD ENOUGH YOU COMPLAINED ABOUT YOUR SHITTY LIFE THROUGH BOTH OPENING ACTS, NOW YOU’RE GOING TO TALK THROUGH THE BAND I ACTUALLY PAID TO SEE?”

Yeah. See, nobody sets out to be the total and utter asshole who’s so clueless that she shouts her problems to the poor person dancing next to her at a rock concert. But problems have a way of feeling so big and loud they literally block out everything else going on. Problems are like perpetual earworms.

Only twice as annoying.

It’s like changing lanes when you’re driving. You gotta check and signal first. Otherwise, either you or the friend you’re trying to talk to are going to become road kill. I recommend trying, “Hey, I really need to talk to someone about some really heavy shit. Can I talk to you? Is now a good time?” And then goddamn respect it if they say no.

I used to hang out with somebody who had the irritating habit of waiting until the very last second and then launching into an extremely important conversation. We’d spend hours together, and then when I was leaving at the end of the night, she’d follow me to my car and announce that she was pregnant by her boyfriend’s brother, who also happened to be her boss, and ask what I thought she should do about it?

Look, my brain is on a timer. It stops functioning at one in the morning. Don’t spring complicated things on me when I’m exhausted and don’t have time to talk. Especially not after we’ve just spent four hours bullshitting about the shows we’re binge watching, and gone eighty-six rounds of “You sure there’s nothing important you need to talk about? Because if so please tell me now, before I’m too tired to think coherently.”

Learn to read your friends. If they’re depressed or they’re dealing with some heavy problems on their end, yours might need to take a back seat. At least for tonight. Otherwise, even if they don’t come right out and say it, they’re going to feel like, “You self-centered asshole. You think YOU have it bad? My dog just died, my kid is being bullied at school, and my husband just knocked up his brother’s girlfriend! I don’t have time for this shit!” Because even if they love you to death, if you catch them in one of those emotional avalanches, it’s just bad for both parties.

Oh, and since I’m on that subject …

3

You Make It All About You

I once had a friend who was always talking about his problems. But he never ever listened when I needed to talk about mine. So I ghosted him.

Everybody’s got problems. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s sex. Maybe it’s bad stuff from their childhood. Maybe it’s their career, or family, or they borrowed six grand from a loan shark to start a poodle-fighting ring in their basement. The point is they’re dealing with life’s bullshit, just like you.

Do yourself (and the world) a favor: Stop thinking about whether other people’s problems are bigger, smaller, better or worse than yours. Is a 50-pound weight heavy or light? Depends how much you can lift and how fit you are. Also depends if you’re lifting from your legs or with your genitals.

The absolute worse kind of person to be is the kind who acts like other people were put on this planet as their personal, magic ATMs, to spit out advice, friendship, money, contacts the second we need them.

If someone listens to your problems, you’d damn well better be prepared to listen to theirs. Or at least find other ways to give back. Did you talk about your dog’s wedding all night? At least offer to buy a drink for the saint who patiently listened without suplexing you in half.

I don’t care what you do, just be grateful. Recognize that listening to people’s problems is a lucrative career for some people, and this mother fucker loves you so much they’re willing to do it for free. Don’t be a deadbeat. Friendship goes both ways. Also, don’t talk about your dog’s wedding. It’s weird.

2

All You Ever Do Is Complain

My absolutely all-time favorite moment of physical comedy is a scene from Frasier where Niles notices a wrinkle on his pants, and his attempt to fix it leads to him setting the place on fire and passing out in his underwear. There’s something very funny about someone who just spirals from one problem to another, constantly making things worse for themselves. On television.

In person, it’s a white-hot emotional hell. We all know those people who do NOTHING but bring up problems every time you talk to them. It’s like their entire life is catastrophe after catastrophe. Are they really that unlucky? Are their lives really that bad? Are they just making shit up to get attention? Maybe that’s unfair, but it eventually hits the point that when you see them coming the first thing you think is, “Oh great. What’s wrong now?”

Talking to friends is just a step in the process of fixing your problem. It’s not a cure. Sure, sometimes that will be enough and you can let it go and move on. Most of the time, though, you’ll need to take additional actions. You’ll have to actually get off your butt and apply for a new job, or find a new apartment, or break up with your girlfriend, or get your ass into professional counseling.

I won’t lie, sometimes all that extra work sounds daunting. Dragging your ass out of a hole can take a lot of time and effort, and you’re occasionally going to find yourself on the laugh-track side of a slammed door. But it is possible to find help.

Sometimes the key is as simple as knowing how to spread it out. You have five problems? How about not unloading all five on one friend? You have one minor problem? How about tucking that one away just this once and doing something fun with your friend? Maybe find a new person to fling that shit around with? If you keep piling problem upon problem on the same person, you will absolutely be put in their mental file marked, “I don’t have the energy for this today.”

1

You Don’t Give Them A Happy Ending

You know what feels amazing? (Not that, pervert.) Knowing you made a difference. So, when somebody helps you, TELL THEM.

As far as I’m concerned, if someone listens to you about a problem, you have a friggin’ obligation to report back and tell them how it went. Otherwise you’re just a human cliffhanger, and nobody likes that.

There’s a great feeling in finding out that your advice legitimately helped someone. But if you never get the follow-up, you never get to experience it. Instead, you just hear problem, problem, problem, without a, “Oh, hey, I wanted to thank you. That advice you gave me literally saved my marriage!” After a while you’re going to stop giving advice to anyone, ever. Because what’s the damn point?

Tell. Them.

Do it! Grab your phone, text the person who listened to you six months ago and say, “Hey, thanks again for being there, I’m so much happier banging his brother now!” Or “Thanks for listening to me freak out about that job interview. It was a total disaster! Haha! But I’ve got another one lined up in two weeks.” Even if people don’t like the ending to your movie, they at least deserve to make it to the credits.

If nothing else, doing that will help you focus on the positive. It will help you remember that most problems, no matter how bad, are temporary. Resolutions are a good thing. At the very least, they let the friend feel a sense of, “Thank God that problem is finally over with. If I had to hear about that goddamn dog wedding for one more second, I was going to adopt every dog on the planet, so nobody else could ever have one.”

Mags writes books about creepy stalkers, murder and kissing. You can bother her on Twitter @magsstorey.

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