Your phone rings. Up pops the name of your friend from college. You haven’t talked to her in weeks, or maybe months. So why are you hesitant to pick up? It’s likely because you know that this particular person only wants to talk about herself, the issues coming up for her at work, her relationship drama, all while seeking your advice and support without any form of reciprocity or care as to your own well-being.
My fiancé is a super compassionate, deep listener, and as a result I’ve seen a a number of people in her life leap at the opportunity to divulge all the aches and pains of their existence to her, often leaving her drained. These are very well-intentioned individuals, who are nothing but lovely for the most part, but they lack the self-awareness to instigate a give-and-take exchange. Every interaction is about them and their suffering, and thus, the relationship becomes one-sided. Having seen this dynamic take place in her and other relationships, I have been contemplating what one could do and came up with three possible roads to follow.
1) Keep an Open Mind
Yes, the last two dozen times you hung out with this person, they were pretty self-obsessed, but that actually does not mean that this time is going to be the same. When once asked about the very complex Buddhist notion of karma, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche responded quite simply, “Everything is predetermined…until now.”
In other words, all habitual patterns are just that, habitual. However, in this very moment, you have the opportunity to shift the dynamic into uncharted territory. You might expect this loved one to only talk about themselves, but even for the most self-involved that does get boring at some point. Like an energetic puppy put in a large field to run around, at some point, they will tire and, then you can interject and bring about a shift in view. Even if you remain somewhat passive, perhaps this particular time will be the one where this person notices your silence and says, “What’s up in your world, anyway?”
2) Remain Empathetic
Often when people can’t stop talking about themselves, it’s a sign that they have a swirling storm of negative thoughts whipping around in their own head. I know what that can be like when I can’t break out of obsessive thinking for an extended period of time. I am guessing you might be familiar with that overwhelming feeling, too. Because we all know what it’s like when we suffer, we can develop empathy for this individual and their suffering.
Sometimes a simple question can circumvent the whole situation: “How would you like me to show up for you right now?” This gives your loved one a moment to consider what they are doing. Are they venting for the sake of venting (i.e. you’re just the receptacle of their verbal vomit and they may as well be talking to a wall)? Are they looking to you for advice? Are they hoping you will introduce them to resources to help them solve a problem? This one question often cuts to the heart of the matter and gives them enough pause to consider how they want to spend their time with you.
At the same time, this doesn’t mean you play sponge and absorb all of their pain unendingly. You can acknowledge that this loved one is having a rough go of it, affirm that verbally to them, but then after a while shift the topic or get off the line. Which brings us to…
3) Practice Fierce Compassion
The Buddha never delivered a “lay down and be a doormat” sutra. At times, you need to stand up for yourself, or at the least make it clear that this person’s behavior is having a negative effect on your relationship. This is not being unkind; this may be the most compassionate thing to do, despite it looking a bit fierce.
Back in the ’90s, there was a show called Full House and one of the main characters on the show had a classic catchphrase: “Cut. It. Out.” At some point, we might need to adopt this motto for ourselves. If your friend or family member is going on and on, you may need to draw a line in the sand and say, “I know there’s a lot going on with you. And I want to be there for you. But I also feel like this relationship is getting a bit one-sided.” Note: this direct (perhaps blunt) way of cutting their momentum is often best done in-person, so your loved one sees for themselves that you are being open-hearted and caring toward them.
More often than not, you will get one of two reactions: shock and indignation (sorry) or genuine surprise. If the former, it’s important to clarify that you really do want to support them, but that the dynamic is feeling not so great to you and ask if they can hear you out on that front. This might mean you have a bit of temporary ugliness emerge, but that pain can vanish quickly if you affirm your support, while pointing out the reality of the situation. If they feel genuine surprise upon hearing that, they might be able quickly adapt and will be more sensitive to your needs from then on.
If you are unable to get through to them, you probably need to set up some boundaries. That might mean you only talk to them once a month, or once a year. If you talk to them more frequently, maybe keep yourself to a set amount of time. Or perhaps it might mean moving the relationship more to email or in-person get-togethers instead of long, drawn-out phone calls. Shifting the tempo and type of interaction may shake things loose and move your dynamic in a positive direction.
As the New York Times social columnist writes, “If clarifying the nature of your loving relationship causes people ‘embarrassment or shock,’ that’s their problem, not yours…Busting assumptions, one by one, you will be making the world a slightly better place.” If you traverse one or more of these three paths, you are opening the door to a new type of relationship with this person, while giving them an opportunity to shift away from their self-absorbed state and into a more giving and caring way of being. That’s a wonderful gift to offer to this person who may not even realize that they’re acting self-obsessed.