How do I handle my best friend’s anger?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I’m physically disabled and neuro divergent with a best friend who is also neuro divergent and my aide. We’ve been best friends for seven or eight years, we have a dog together, we love doing things together, we’re roommates, and she has recently become my PCA*. A couple months ago, we hit a pretty big problem. I ended up having my first (visible to her) meltdown and said plenty of things I shouldn’t have, and I triggered something. I’ve long since apologized and have tried to take steps to clear up the situation. To this day I’m not entirely certain what it was that I triggered and while I can’t apologize specifically I definitely have generally.  There’s plenty of times where we’ve been doing great. The incident happened midway through September, and we’ve managed to do the holidays together and have fun and support each other….mostly…ish…

I am well aware my friend is dealing with depression issues (that have stemmed from the incident in September). I’ve tried to be supportive, to keep taking her out, to ask her opinion on things, and give her space when needed. I’ve also broached the idea of medication and therapy which due to health insurance issues is not an achievable goal at the moment. What’s happening a fair amount is that she seems quick to anger and then stews in her anger. It has been happening a lot. And while she says it is not my fault, I feel hugely caught up within her anger.

I don’t expect her to be a happy go lucky person all the time, and I know she is entitled to her anger, but often it feels that I have been on the receiving end of her anger whenever she has it. I’ve tried being comforting and trying to empathize and she repeats the words under her breath and it sounds very sarcastic. Sometimes it feels like she’s just throwing the words right back to me. She says she doesn’t know she’s doing this when I bring it up. I often try to take what I think is the safer route of being quieter especially as it feels like her anger seeps out until everyone knows and can clearly tell she is upset (I’ve had to keep multiple people from mentioning it  especially during her work hours because mentioning her being upset just makes it more stifling). When I’m quiet tho she gets upset again because I’m not being helpful or saying anything. I’ve asked her multiple times what she would like me to do but sometimes she says she doesn’t know what she wants me to say and sometimes she says she doesn’t want to tell me what to say. 

I’m just so confused and I keep getting hurt in her anger crossfire and I don’t know what to do. I love my friend so much and she’s also really good at her job, I just don’t want to have to keep walking on eggshells and being hurt when I try to help. I also struggle with trying to talk to someone about this as she also sees any sort of talk about her to other people as “talking behind her back”. But I don’t know what else to do. 

Sincerely,
Confused and Struggling 

*editor’s note: Personal Care Attendant.

Dear C&S,

What a rough situation for both of you. Anger is an emotion that so many of us learn is something to be shoved down, unacknowledged, glossed over, or vented and then never spoken of again. And the way your friend is expressing it sounds really agonizing: for you, and for her.

I wish you’d given me more detail about the things you said during the meltdown, and what you mean by saying you ‘shouldn’t have’ said them, but I’ll do my best, here.

You say that you have apologized a bunch of times, but this really stood out for me: “While I can’t apologize specifically I definitely have generally.” 

Why can’t you apologize specifically?

You don’t know what is going on her head (more on that later), but you certainly know what you said, right? (Maybe you don’t know what you said; I know that many neurodivergent people who have meltdowns have trouble recalling the specifics of the event.) If you can remember what you said, you don’t need to apologize in a general fashion. General apologies such as “I shouldn’t have said that” or “I’m sorry for my meltdown,” while sincere, don’t actually help to soothe sore feelings. Specific apologies such as “I’m sorry I said you were weak; I was lashing out and I know that particular word is really upsetting for you — it wasn’t okay or true but in that moment all I wanted was to make you go away” make more sense to people. You’ve acknowledged you hurt them, specifically, and how — and you’ve taken responsibility for your behavior.

If some of what you said was true, apologizing for the way you said them and acknowledging the specific hurt it caused goes a lot further than “I’m sorry you got hurt” or even “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

I think that’s really all you can do: sit her down, be incredibly specific, and offer sincere apologies. Cop to what you were doing. Tell her about steps you’re taking to prevent this behavior again (therapy, preventing sensory overload, etc.).

Although we all need to talk through issues we’re having with our friends, and I don’t actually agree that hashing this out with another friend is talking behind her back, she is the only person who really needs to hear what you are saying, and she is the only person who can tell you exactly what is going on, here.

As for her behavior: oh, boy. This poor person. No one has taught her to deal with anger in a healthy way, and she hasn’t learned it on her own. If I were to hazard a guess, she is still smarting from what you said back in September, thinks she’s over it, and then finds it bubbling up when she least expects it.

Whatever you said and however you hurt her, however, it’s not okay to mimic people and then say you aren’t aware you’re doing it. I’m guessing she’s doing it to hurt you the way you hurt her, but that is just . . . I mean, you know it’s grade school behavior, mimicking. Which tells me whatever happened did trigger some old stuff for her, and pushed her into that place.

If I am not careful, I can be like your roommate. And while I don’t know what is going on her her head, I can tell you what’s going on in MY head when I pull crap like this: I think I’m over something, I’m getting along with whomever hurt me, and then she does something else to hurt or anger me and suddenly everything else that is unresolved comes roaring back into my brain again.

I feel like a petty child for becoming so upset about a small thing, even though it’s actually the entirety of what has happened, and so I withdraw, and sometimes get snide and sarcastic, like she does with you.

That doesn’t make it okay. Even if she has a right to be angry with you, she doesn’t have a right to resort to tactics like this and especially cannot try to pretend she doesn’t know she’s doing it to get out of it.

Even if you don’t want to accuse her of lying about it, you can say firmly: “Well, you are doing it, and it’s not a way to talk to a friend, and you need to stop.” You are allowed to require respectful communication, even if you feel guilty for what you have said to her in the past.

I think wanting to help her and suggesting therapy and meds could be very provoking for her, as well-meaning as you are, since whatever you said was the precipitating event. Although I am certain you are suggesting these things because you’re worried about your depressed friend, it could conceivably come across as blame-shifting.

One thing that really stuck out to me in your letter was this: “Sometimes she says she doesn’t know what she wants me to say and sometimes she says she doesn’t want to tell me what to say.”

This sounds to me like someone who wants you to genuinely apologize and understand the harm you caused, on your own — and somehow she believes that telling you how it hurt would take away from the apology, somehow.

Shushing other people over her moods and walking on eggshells hurts both of you, really.

I think what you need to do is spend some time thinking specifically over what you said and, knowing her like you do, how it might have affected her in very specific ways. After you’ve figured out the extent of the harm you believe you caused, I think you should sit her down during a time you two have alone and tell her you need to apologize for something, and then do it: fully, specifically, completely, and taking all responsibility. And then tell her that you are sure you have missed something and to ask her please to give you the chance to apologize for other things you overlooked.

It will be very hard for her to be vulnerable with you, but if you have laid it all on the table and genuinely taken responsibility for what you know, and if you are asking her with an open heart yourself (which is also going to be hard after all of these months of alienation), you have at least given her the room to try.

Your sincere and specific apology might help, but I also think that if you have any insurance or money of your own, a counseling session or three with you two as best friends would be a great way to give the two of you a safe space to discuss this.

Counseling isn’t just for couples and families, although in a way you two are family to each other.

While a trained and compassionate facilitator is a help in dealing with seemingly intractable communication breakdowns (which is what this seems to be), another great help is the session format itself: if dealing with hurt emotions and having to feel vulnerable is overwhelming for either of you (and I think it is overwhelming for her, which is why she’s pulling away so hard), you will both know that it only has to happen an hour at a time. Sessions have a specific beginning, middle, and end, and a compassionate third party helping to guide you in the conversation may be helpful.

Last: have you told her all of the things you love about her lately? After the apology (this MUST come after the apology so that she can genuinely hear it and so that she doesn’t think it’s just you buttering her up), telling her how much you care for her and why can really help hurt feelings and strengthen your relationship.

I’m pulling for both of you. This is all just so incredibly difficult to navigate, especially when something from someone’s past has been triggered. And it sounds like she cares about you as much as you care about her — otherwise, you wouldn’t have had the power to hurt her so much in the first place.

4 thoughts on “How do I handle my best friend’s anger?

  1. I think this response assumes that the friend is acting in good faith, and several red flags make me think she is not. I seriously doubt that what happened September is The Cause of all this. This is probably the friend’s long-time M.O. It just may not have targeted C&S much before. That the friend is still holding a grudge, but refuses to be more specific about what was hurtful, uses (as you say) schoolyard tactics not just once but repeatedly, is problematic with her anger at everyone in the vicinity and not just C&S . . . these are all red flags. I don’t think it should all be on C&S to try to fix this, because you can’t fix other people, and frankly I think the problem is the other person.

    This situation, by the way, is why it’s not a good idea to enter into business/professional relationships with friends. You may think it will all be fine, but when it turns out not to be fine there is a reluctance to address the professional problem because of fear of damaging the friendship. Actual employees can be given course-corrections, and if they get bent out of shape about it you can fire them and get someone more professional.

    Honestly, I think there is a good chance that the friend is kind of an emotional abuser. C&S might want to read Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason & Randi Kreger.

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    • FYI, friends and relatives are often PCAs to people with disabilities, because they are doing the job already but they can get paid for it. I agree that the book you suggest would be great reading for C&S.

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      • I believe that it happens often, but I still think it may be a bad idea, if it can be avoided (and I realize that some people may not be able to avoid it, for financial or practical reasons). But if money is available to pay someone, why not pay a 3rd party and give the caretaker-friend a break? And give the friendship a chance to breathe. Maybe there’s stuff I’m not understanding about the situations people find themselves in. I would be happy to learn more.

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