I used to have quite a few friends when I was younger, but for some reason I find friendships to be very difficult these days. I am constantly disappointed. I feel like I’m always there for other people and ask them about their lives, but I never get anything in return. I have noticed that if I don’t ask them questions, the conversation falls silent.
My father, for example, is older but still active. Every time I’m with him, we just have a good time when I ask about him.
I saw a good friend of ours last week and told her that my partner and I are going through some tough times. She put her arm around me, but she didn’t say or ask anything about it. He was stunned. When he was widowed we spent endless hours talking about his situation and other things that happened in his life. I would not dare to compare the death of the partner with problems in a relationship, but I never really talk to her about myself, precisely because she has lost her husband and I felt that most of my problems were trivial, but I just do not understand why there is no there was no reaction when for once I opened up on myself.
After my mother died unexpectedly a few years ago, I was very disappointed in people I considered good friends. I know everyone has their problems and I fully understand that the world does not revolve around me, but this seems incomprehensible to me.
I know it’s my problem and I’ve been told my expectations are too high.
I just crave a flicker of interest from anyone. When I say things to people (not just negative things, since I barely talk about them) there is never any follow-through. I feel pathetic about all this, but also very hurt.
You are not pathetic. You gave me many examples of friends who let you down or didn’t seem interested in you and it all sounds very difficult. But to try to find a solution for you, I want to remember when things changed, from being younger and having a lot of friends to when it got harder. I was wondering, and I may be barking up the wrong tree here, if it focuses on your mother’s death. Perhaps you felt that she was the only one listening to you?
Most people can relate to some of what you say: we all have friends who can be self-centered and not ask questions. Rarely is there a perfectly balanced friendship; we often “recover” from different people to whom we have given. However, since this is happening now with all your friends, I wonder if it would be worth seeing something that has changed in you.
I consulted psychotherapist Arabella Russell (bacp.es) who asked if you felt “really seen and heard as a child”. She says that “the extent of your pain seems to be very deep,” so we wonder if perhaps finding solace solely in friends was a greater request than they can fulfill at the moment. Sometimes this chasm, created in childhood, only begins to be felt in adulthood, and sometimes this can happen after a major loss. That’s why I was wondering when it started and if perhaps your mother fulfilled a need that now nobody does.
“I totally understand,” Russell said, “why your friendships seem so disappointing, but maybe you’re trying to fill a void with your friends.” This is an impossible question and can only lead to disappointment.
“Our friends should be interested in us and our ‘stuff’ should be important to them, but we also have to manage our own emotions,” Russell explained. “Friends should give us something but not everything; the resentment I see in you is a secondary emotion. I think the main one is really sadness.”
Who told you that your expectations were too high? Could you go back and ask them to clarify?
You know what would be a brave thing to do? Ask your most trusted friend, Russel suggested, “How do you experience me? Can I feel difficult to take care of sometimes? How does it feel when you’re trying to help me?
It may be that your friends feel like their help isn’t really “catching up” with you and aren’t sure what to do now. Do you have any friends from the previous time, when it was easier for you to make friends and you could ask them if they feel that something has changed in you? It is always very interesting to discover how our own behavior impacts that of other people.
Each week, Annalisa Barbieri tackles a personal issue submitted by a reader. Annalisa herself regrets she can’t get into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: view theguardian.com/letters-terms
Conversations with Annalisa Barbieri, series 2, is available here.