making plans

Plans, changes, anxiety, depression, and conflict

I have anxiety and depression and probably some other shit I get very scared and panicked when someone says “I’ll be right back” and walks away from me and if I’m supposed to meet someone and they are late or don’t show up. I guess it’s abandonment.
So my question is: how do I keep from flipping out on my boyfriend when he accidentally distresses me, like when I’m supposed to pick him up but he finds another way home. His phone is off so he can’t tell me.
And I guess my other question: is it fair for him to get frustrated and angry with me when I tell him that doing this is inconsiderate? He said he thought he’d get home before I left to get him so it wasn’t intentional, but I still feel disrespected.
realsocialskills said:
   
This doesn’t sound to me like it’s just a depression and anxiety problem. It sounds to me like either something is going wrong with your communication with friends, or people aren’t treating you well, or a combination of both. It’s hard for me to tell which from a distance.
   
Having anxiety and depression does not mean that you are wrong every time you are upset about something. Sometimes, you’re going to be upset because something is actually wrong. 
  
It is not unreasonable to want people you make plans with to either show up or let you know that they’re not going to make it. It is not unreasonable to want people to tell you if they are going to be late. It is not unreasonable to want people you’re supposed to pick up to let you know if they found another ride. Those expectations are normal, and not something unusual caused by mental illness. Most people would be upset if others habitually made plans and failed to show up.
 
(It might be unreasonable to expect people to refrain for saying “I’ll be right back” and walking away, depending on the context. For instance, that’s sometimes a euphemism for going to the bathroom. So if you’re, say, eating at a restaurant and someone says that, it’s probably not reasonable to object.  But if they’re, say, leaving you in the middle of a crowded park without any clear plans for how you’re going to reconnect, that’s a problem. There are any number of configurations for that; it’s hard for me to tell just based on the phrase.)
 
It is entirely reasonable to want people to care that they flaked in a way that was distressing. Even if they did it for a reason or thought it would be ok, they should care that they flaked on you and apologize if it caused you distress. They should also be willing to think about how to avoid that problem in the future. In close relationships, people make mistakes from time to time that cause one another inadvertent distress. If someone gets angry and defensive every time you feel upset about something they did, something’s going wrong.
  
That said, it’s not ok to regularly flip out at people close to you for making mistakes. It’s hard for me to tell from your description if that’s what’s happening. Like, I could see a few possibilities:
 
Possibility #1: You’re actually flipping out in a way that’s not reasonable. Eg:
  • You: WTF?! Why didn’t you show up?! You’re a terrible boyfriend. You always do this. Why don’t you respect me?
  • Him: I thought I’d get home first. I’m sorry.
  • You: That’s not good enough. You’re awful. Why can’t you be considerate ever?

If this is what’s going on, you flipping out may well be part of the problem (but not the whole problem, because wanting people to either keep plans or let you know that they’ve changed is entirely reasonable even if the way you react is not.)

If actually flipping out on people is part of the problem, then it’s important to learn how to distinguish between how it feels to have anxiety triggered and what someone actually did. If you’re freaking out, it might be best to hold off on talking about what’s going on until you’ve calmed down. It might also help to say explicitly something like “I’m not rational right now; let’s talk about this in a few minutes.” (This is also the kind of issue that a lot of people find therapy helpful for. I don’t know if you’re someone who would find therapy helpful, but it might be worth looking into.)

But even if you are doing things that look like flipping out, that may be misleading. It’s possible that he’s intentionally provoking you in order to make you look unreasonable to avoid dealing with the problem. That brings us to possibility #2:

Possibility #2: He’s accusing you of flipping out as a way to avoid dealing with the thing you’re complaining about. Eg:

  • You: I went to pick you up and you weren’t there. What gives?
  • Him: Chill. I thought I’d be home by the time you got here. Why are you flipping out on me?
  • You: Can you please call me if plans change?
  • Him: Why are you accusing me of being inconsiderate? I didn’t do anything wrong.

For more on that kind of dynamic, see this post and this post.

Possibility #3: You’re responding to a pattern, he’s insisting that you treat it as an isolated incident, and that’s pissing you off. Eg:

  • You: I went to go pick you up and you weren’t there and didn’t call. Can you please let me know if plans change.
  • Him: Oh, sorry, I thought you’d come home first and see that I was already here.
  • You: Ok, but this happened last week too. Can we figure out how to stop it from happened?
  • Him: That happened last week. That’s over and done with.
  • You (raising your voice): This keeps happening! I need it to stop!
  • Him: Why are you flipping out? I *said* I was sorry.

Possibility #4: You both mean well, but you’re setting off each other’s berserk buttons inadvertently. Eg:

  • You (visibly close to melting down): You weren’t there?! You are here? Why weren’t you there?
  • Him (freaked out by the idea that he did something seriously upsetting, also visibly close to meltdown): I tried to be there! I did! I thought it would be ok!

If that’s the problem, finding an alternate way to communicate about problems might solve the problem. For instance, it might mean that you need to type instead of speaking, or use IM in different rooms, or talk on the phone. Or it might mean that you need ground rules about how to communicate in a conflict without setting each other off. For instance, some people need to explicitly reassure each other that this is about a specific thing and not your judgement of whether they’re a good person (sometimes judging people is appropriate and necessary. This kind of reassurance only help if that really *isn’t* the issue).

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other patterns of interaction that could be going on here. But whatever is going on, it probably isn’t just your depression and anxiety making you unreasonable. It is ok to expect people to either keep plans or let you know when they have changed.

I have a friend with depression who frequently cancels plans or doesn’t message me back, and even though I know it’s because she has a limited amount of emotional energy and not because she doesn’t care about me, I end up feeling really neglected and hurt every time. We’ve talked about it and she knows how I feel, but it isn’t getting better. I keep thinking I might have to just stop talking to her to protect myself from getting hurt, but that feels mean. What do you think I should do?
realsocialskills said:
I can’t tell you whether or not you should keep talking to this person, that’s a deeply personal decision.
The first thing I want to say is that it’s ok to decide you don’t want to spend time around someone who regularly hurts you, even if the reasons they hurt you aren’t entirely their fault. Your needs matter.
That said, I think part of the problem might be that you are expecting things from your friend that aren’t possible right now, and that it might be possible to salvage the friendship by changing your expectations. 
Here’s a dynamic that may or may not resemble what’s going on with you, between friends I’ll call Cathy and Debra:
  • Cathy and Debra are in a culture in which the assumption about how friendship works is that Good Friends regularly make and keep plans, and answer each other’s messages in a timely manner
  • Debra has major depression, and isn’t currently capable of doing either of those things
  • Cathy wants to think of Debra as a Good Friend and give her the benefit of the doubt, so she keeps trying to make plans, and sends messages assuming that she will get prompt replies
  • Debra wants to think of herself as a Good Friend, so she keeps trying to make plans even though she’s not actually capable of keeping htem
  • Debra can’t actually keep most of the plans or reply to most of the messages, so she doesn’t
  • This hurts Cathy’s feelings, because she’s counting on Debra to act like a good friend, and Debra is doing things that signal that she doesn’t really care about or respect Cathy
  • Neither of them talk about Debra’s actual capabilities, or make plans taking them into account
  • They keep assuming that, somehow, being Good Friends and trying will solve the problem
  • And meanwhile, it doesn’t, and Cathy gets more and more hurt

If this is what’s going on, I think that making stuff better has to start from the assumption that, no matter how much your friend cares about you, she’s not currently capable of doing some of the things that you currently think of as central to being a good friend. If depression means she can’t do those things right now, no amount of talking about how much this hurts you is going to fix that. If those kinds of conversations gave depressed people more abilities, no one would be depressed. 

That might mean that you can’t be very friendly to one another right now, or it might mean that your understanding of how friendship works needs to change to account for her capabilities. I don’t know which answer is the right one for you. Both are possible. 

But, as far as shifting understandings and assumptions:

Regarding messages:

  • I think your current assumption might be that replies are more-or-less automatic
  • And that if someone doesn’t reply, it’s because they’re actively withholding a reply
  • Which is the case in some kinds of relationships, but it’s probably not what’s going on when your friend doesn’t reply
  • Replies are probably really, really hard for your friend right now, and she’s probably often not up to making them
  • So, with this friend, it might make more sense to assume that not replying is the default, and that sending a reply is something hard that she does when she’s up to it
  • What if when you sent your friend messages, you assumed something along the lines of “My friend will probably like getting this message, but she will probably not be able to reply to it this time”?

Regarding plans:

  • I think it is not a good idea to keep making plans that you will be upset if you friend breaks
  • If she’s not capable of keeping plans reliably, then making them and expecting them to be kept just hurts both of you.
  • So what if you didn’t make plans, and instead only did things spontaneously on rare occasions on which she was up to replying immediately to suggestions?
  • Or what if you made plans with the assumption that she might not be able to keep them, and found a way to be ok with that?
  • Eg: inviting your friend to a group activity, and still going and having a good time with the other people if she cancelled?
  • Or making plans to go to a movie, then going by yourself if she wasn’t up to it?
  • Or planning to go over to her house, but assuming that there was a good chance she wouldn’t actually be up to it, and not making that plan often enough that it would prevent you from doing other things that are important to you?

All of that said, I don’t know what you should do, and I’m not telling you that you have to keep talking to this person. I’m saying that, if you do want to try to keep interacting with them, I think this might be an approach that could make it possible to do so and still feel ok. But it might not be. What I have suggested is not going to work for everyone, and that’s ok. It does work sometimes for some people, though.

Any of y'all have other suggestions?