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Ask Dr. Andrea is a series from The Lily with Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and advice columnist. She will be answering questions about relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Bonior, please send us an email.

Dear Dr. Andrea,

A couple of weeks ago during what I thought was a supportive conversation about stress in our lives, two of my friends told me that they felt that I had become very negative. I was surprised and hurt. At first I thought they meant just in that particular conversation, but then it became clear that they think I have been moody and judgmental and even hard to be around at times for a while.

I went from feeling stung to feeling ambushed and angry that this is the way that they brought it up, as it didn’t seem fair or even helpful. They backtracked a little and said they didn’t mean to “hurt me” but they also didn’t take back anything they had said.

I am sure that I have not exactly been my best self during this past year. But has anyone? I was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic and eventually found another job that I don’t like. I live alone and haven’t seen my parents or sister in a year, and barely am able to see friends.

I don’t know what they expect from me. I am willing to hear feedback, but I don’t really know that they did it in a helpful way, and I am not sure how seriously even to take this feedback (my sister says to just ignore it). And if I do need to change, I don’t know how to do that either.

— Stung

I am sorry that this happened to you in this way. Negative feedback is never easy to hear, whether it’s valid, invalid or anything in between. And when that feedback comes from people you are close to, after opening up and being vulnerable and not expecting it — especially on the heels of such a stressful year — then I completely get why the word “ambush” would come to mind.

But I also don’t see major benefits in ignoring it (though I can imagine your sister was trying to make you feel better). Not only would this squander the opportunity to learn something from what they’re saying, but it also risks turning that prior conversation into a two-ton elephant in the room, ready to crush you at any moment (or at the very least, spray water at your face.) Would you really be able to just pretend those comments never happened, even if that were somehow a good idea?

So I’d recommend revisiting, but being more prepared for it and setting the stage so that at least the conversation can happen on your terms. Think about what would feel like the most helpful way to do this. Is there one of the two friends that would be easier to talk to than the other? Would it be helpful to schedule a phone call? Could you write out some of your thoughts in advance? Could you introduce the discussion over email, where you’d have more time to compose your thoughts (and more time to reflect before responding?)

Then think about what you want to get out of the discussion, as specific as possible. A chance to convey to them that you are hurt? Examples of what exactly they meant in the first place? Suggestions from them about what they would do in your shoes? The opportunity to let them know that you want to work on things, but also that you are struggling more than they may realize and you need compassion? A recommitment to the positive aspects of the friendship you share?

Remind yourself that just because something is tough to hear, that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid either, and you’re under no obligation to constantly be your best self around those closest to you, especially when you’ve been through so much. All three of you have your own unique lenses that you’re using to look at your interactions, your relationship, and that original conversation itself. Hearing their perspectives further, though, can only add to your insight, and it could be that they really did mean their words not as an accusation, but as a suggestion — a suggestion that you need more support than you’re getting, and more than they are capable of providing.

If you can bring yourself to reenter this conversation with an open mind, then you can choose what to take from it — while letting your friends know that you value them, and their viewpoints, enough to face some discomfort.

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