"is it ok to psychoanalyze your friends?"
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column dedicated to self-understanding—not necessarily self-betterment. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
Hi mixed feelings,
I'm afraid that I've picked up some of the toxic tendencies from a friend (let’s call her Lisa) I had a falling out with. She had a very dominant personality and went to school for social cognition. I felt she always forced whoever she was interacting with into the role of "the patient" while she took on the role of the "expert." Lisa was very manipulative and lied to me many times…but I put up with it because there were moments when she was a good friend.
I fear that our friendship was built on some sort of codependent trauma bond, where she conditioned me to be vulnerable so that she could get high on her own insights by psychoanalyzing me. This isn't to say that it wasn't sometimes helpful; Lisa did allow me to see certain patterns in choices I’ve made, but sometimes I felt like she was reaching, trying to force connections that just weren't there, or unfair to other people involved.
Recently, my partner told me that his best friend thinks that I psychoanalyze him. I was angry, not because I felt it wasn't true, but because it partially was. I enjoy talking about why human beings do the things we do…but I worry I am doing all the same things [to my friends that] Lisa did to me.
There are so many people nowadays that are trying to better themselves by entrenching themselves in mental health content—how does one turn off the urge to psychoanalyze a friend and just be there for them? Are there ever instances where psychoanalyzing a friend is ok?
Best, Overthinker, she/her/hers
I once had a toxic friendship. I thought this friend was cooler, prettier, and more impressive than me, and I was willing to do anything—even sacrifice my sense of self—to get her to like me. For a lot of reasons, she thought I played the victim in our friendship. I thought she played the perpetrator.
When I look back now, I see my own toxicity in the relationship. She was right; I did like playing the victim. When she groveled to mend our friendship, it was a way to get her to prove she liked me. I now realize that changing myself (or allowing myself to be “de-selfed” as psychologists call it) to fulfill her needs was a choice I made rather than something she forced me into. I could have set boundaries, distanced myself, or confronted her before things boiled over. Although it’s never our fault when someone harms us, being passive to toxicity is a choice, just like perpetrating it is.
I sense your fear of psychoanalyzing masks a deeper one: of being similar to someone you saw as toxic, and consequently, being toxic yourself. To tackle your desire to psychoanalyze, we need to untangle why becoming like Lisa scares you so much in the first place.
Calling someone toxic is often a form of “splitting”. Splitting means seeing someone as all bad or all good, and is often part of processing grief around the end of a friendship. Splitting soothes our grieving because it convinces us that there’s nothing to miss, that our righteous, bitter, and sad emotions are all justified, and that the other person is fully at fault. But splitting has its costs.
There’s nothing to ponder when we label someone toxic because splitting reduces a narrative and crushes wondering. It keeps us from investigating our role in a dysfunctional dynamic. What if instead of seeing Lisa as someone who “conditioned [you] to be vulnerable,” you saw yourself as someone who was vulnerable to the wrong person? This may feel lousy, but it grants you agency and control—that you can consent to relationships, rather than being dragged into them.
Rehumanizing Lisa, seeing her as flawed but human, can also help you acknowledge—rather than shut off—the parts of you that identify with her. When Lisa psychoanalyzed you, you may have admired the side of her that was intellectual and knowledgeable, but were put off by the side that was judgmental. Knowing this is useful because shutting off sides of who you are doesn’t work. Eventually, those sides sliver out, sometimes possessing the rest of us in their desperation to be seen.
There are times when we’re so put off by someone that we live our lives trying to be anti–them. My father was dominating, and I hated it, so I’ll be submissive. My aunt was critical, so I’ll never speak up. But in shaping our personalities to emulate someone or be their opposite, we abandon who we really are. According to Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
I know you’re probably afraid that if you acknowledge the Lisa side of you, you’ll end up like her. But that’s not how it works. Jung argues that “everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is." When we confront this shadow side we often feel shame, as we realize some qualities we detest in others, we find in ourselves. But the more you reflect on your shadow, the more you get to decide how it shows up.
You Can’t Bury An Urge
I’m sensing psychoanalyzing may be fulfilling a need from your shadow side. Once you understand your need, you can meet it in ways that feel better to you and your partner. If you find that psychoanalyzing comes from a desire to feel superior, you can choose to do other things that give you a sense of superiority, like playing a sport you’re good at. If it’s to understand things deeply, you can analyze your favorite television characters. You can find ways to honor the part of your shadow side that wants to psychoanalyze without psychoanalyzing your friends.
In relationships, psychoanalysis is something I generally avoid. We were corrected by our professors in graduate school when we psychoanalyzed too much, because when we did, we were often more concerned with feeling helpful than being helpful. Have you ever felt like a friend was trying to fix a problem for you when you just needed to vent? Their solutions might have rung hollow because they didn’t acknowledge what you really needed: to feel heard. To really be helpful, we need to give people agency. Instead of solving their problems for them, we need to sit alongside them as they struggle to figure out their problems for themselves.
“How does one turn off the urge to psychoanalyze a friend?,” you asked. The urge to psychoanalyze is like any urge. We don’t overcome urges by burying them. We overcome them by acknowledging and understanding them, then being mindful when they bob up. Doing so will require you to acknowledge that you and Lisa may share a shadow side. To know yourself, even your shadow, will set you free from being controlled by it.
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