Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I've realized that every time I talk to a particular friend, I come away exhausted from our interactions. She thinks she's a failure, she thinks all effort toward any achievement is a waste because she's doomed to fail, other people do better than her at some things, so why bother, etc.
I've tried to incorporate advice you've given before, like asking her what steps she wants to take, or recommending a counselor. But as soon as I ask, she no longer has an interest in continuing the conversation, and says, "Oh, I think once I find time to do X, it'll be better, so I don't need to stop saying mean things about myself now." But then she never does X.
And I just . . . I'm at a loss. I don't know how to help her or be a good friend. She openly pleads on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., that she's throwing herself a pity party, but I'm at the point where I just want to limit my interactions with her. But then that feels mean, because if she does need help, then I've abandoned her.
I don't know how to balance wanting to be a good friend with needing to not be around someone who drains me.
Answer: She may need help, yes, but is your presence in her life actually helping? She ignores your suggestions; she apparently never gets anything off her chest, since she keeps complaining. Right? So there's no benefit to her to "venting," at least not that you've noticed. Her social-media pleadings apparently are more about an attention fix than actually fixing a problem.
When you realize you're not doing someone much good, but they're doing you harm, the math is plainly in favor of your distancing yourself. Block her on social media, and when you see her in person, use the phrasing that apparently cuts off her complaint stream: "So, what have you done toward fixing this?" Stick to that, kindly, and change the subject if she keeps complaining. If she calls you on it: "Debbie, I'm in over my head here - I want to help, but neither my listening nor my advice seems to help. I hope you'll make an appointment with someone qualified to help you."
Comment: You might consider being more frank with her, since diplomacy isn't working. (Only if you genuinely want to, but it doesn't sound like you've totally written the friendship off quite yet.) Something like, "Actually, I think you do need to stop saying mean things about yourself. You said things would be better when you do X, but you haven't done X. Do you realize you've been complaining about this for the last [fill in the blank] months? What if one of your friends seemed determined to stay miserable? What would you say? All I've heard out of your mouth is misery! Do you want to live like this?" It may make her angry, but anger might snap her out of things. Or it might take the question of distancing yourself out of your hands.
Reply: I like it, thanks. A wake-up or a walk.
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