Are your friends bringing you down?

Are your friends bringing you down?

A problem shared is a problem halved — or is it?

By Heather Parker

Published: Fri 15 Jun 2012, 4:03 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:03 PM

According to global 
research published in 
July last year, women’s tendency to share and workshop our problems doesn’t necessarily lighten the burden: women are twice as likely to suffer depression as men

I really miss my friend Briony. She was simply the best when things were tricky at work, and when my rogue of a reluctant boyfriend was giving me the runaround. She’s the sort of person who’ll look penetratingly at you, ask the right question, listen quietly as the dam walls break, and then settle in for an hour, or a night, or a weekend of sharing, commiserating and topping up the tea or coffee cup.

Unfortunately, that 
was the only way we connected: workshopping problems. So in the end 
I had to break up with her. It was just too depressing to revisit the bleak parts of my life every time I saw her. I felt like permission wasn’t granted to move on until we had talked the problem to death. A problem shared is supposed 
to be a problem halved. With Briony, problems instead developed quite alarming weight.


When we’re in need, we look for friends who empathise. In fact, this can be counterproductive. Psychologist Belinda Train points out that professional therapists are trained to ‘hold’ what is shared with a calm, non-attached, but engaged state of mind — and also to be aware of how personal issues might be triggered. It’s a consciousness that means therapists can, to a large extent, avoid violating boundaries, allowing a person to process their emotions and find new perspectives.

Research from the University of Missouri suggests that this is not an uncommon issue among girlfriends — talking and revisiting problems obsessively may amplify them in our minds. In a series of studies involving nearly 2,000 children and adolescents, the researchers found that while boys (in full accordance with the cliché) tend not to see the point of talking about their problems, girls can be wedded to the warmth and empathy they find when they do.

Elise, a mother of two, has become wary of too-supportive friends. In the aftermath of her marriage breaking down, she found enormous relief in the company of a neighbour whose own husband had left her some years before. The two would sit down in their gardens on warm evenings and — with an ear cocked for sounds from sleeping children — would swap war stories.

In between, there’d be funny group emails between the two and other acquaintances in the same boat, text messages, some Facebooking — Elise found herself in a community of wittily angry women. But as the months passed and Elise began to recognise her own share of the fault for the breakdown of her marriage, her anger faded.

She began to find it strange that after three years, her neighbour still clung to anger. “I suspect the only time she felt confident was when she was acting as cheerleader for women going through the same loss,” Elise speculates. “Almost all her social interactions involved women who had been scorned or otherwise worked over. Her perspective on the issues — legitimate sadness, real loss, valid anger — had become warped; those negative feelings became her currency.”

The term sometimes used for this almost compulsive connection with problems is ‘co-rumination’, and social media has, potentially, made it a 24-hour activity.

Rumination is partly reflection, which is good, and partly brooding, 
which isn’t. Brooding tends to lead to a lack of action — it implies you’re dwelling on the negative and failing to act. Co-rumination, which involves reflection and brooding with receptive friends who’re willing to give their headspace and emotional energy over to your problem, can bring both parties into a negative emotional space.

Psychologists refer to this as emotional contagion. It can happen, says psychologist Belinda Train, when personal boundaries are not held with clarity. “Several factors are at play when we share: our own state of mind, that of the person we are sharing with, each of our relationships to the issue at hand, any interests each of us have in the outcome, and such like. When our own (often unrecognised) dynamics come to the fore when another person is sharing with us, we are in some way violating a boundary.”

For example, we might advise someone to do what we might have done in a situation rather than simply listening to the direction they are already taking. Or we might express anger towards someone who is hurting them when this is not where they are at — because we think they should be angry, or we feel angry about the situation. That’s why Elise’s neighbour was a poor confidante: she could not separate her own feelings from Elise’s very different emotional journey, and created a sense of guilt in Elise about healing and moving on.

In effect, Train says, emotional contagion is a result of not staying ‘present’ to the other person in the conversation, and being insensitive to their pace. This can leave the person who is sharing feeling they should be doing something differently, and render them even less able to digest experiences with which they were already struggling.

So where does this leave us? Simply with a warning: a problem shared can bring relief, but there need to be boundaries. Watch out for putting words in others’ mouths, or having them put in yours. If feeling down is starting to feel like your emotional default position, or if a problem is going on too long, or turning and turning fruitlessly in your mind, it might be time to get some professional help to see you over the hump.

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