Whether your friend needs too much attention, money, or a place to stay, you’re probably feeling a little drained having to bear the weight of their responsibilities. Confronting a needy friend may end badly, but there are ways around it that get them off your back without sacrificing the friendship itself.
There’s nothing wrong with being generous, but sometimes you give someone an inch and they take a mile. We’ve all had a needy friend, but because they’re your friend you don’t want to confront the situation and offend them. Instead of confronting them head on and hurting their feelings, try some more subtle tactics that will get you the same results.
Be There For Your Friend’s Troubled Times
The Law of Association, which you can learn about in David J. Lieberman’s Get Anyone to Do Anything, states that “by pairing yourself with pleasurable stimuli another person will begin to associate you with this feeling”. In other words, if you’re present for your friends’ good experiences, like fun parties, promotions, and so on, they will associate you with the feelings they experienced at the time. If you think back you can probably remember someone you liked just because you were in a good mood or having fun at the time. The same works for negative experiences, Lieberman explains:
Conversely, research in this area shows us that when you have a stomach-ache, for instance, those around you become unconscious victims of circumstance, and you tend to like them less. Of course there’s more to liking than just this pairing of pleasant stimuli with a person, but it can generate powerful feelings, either good or bad, toward you.
If your friend is too needy and wants attention, make your presence known during their bad experiences. The friend will slowly but surely start to associate you with negative emotion and want to spend a little less time with you.
Be careful to keep coming around during the good times too so your friend doesn’t only associate you with bad experiences and start to dislike you. During times when you feel like their neediness is a little overbearing you can use this rule as a quick way to ward them off for a bit.
Introduce Your Friend To Other Self-Sufficient People
If you have other friends who are happy and able to rely on themselves, start bringing your needy friend around and see how quickly their behaviour changes to match that of the new group. You can easily look around your own life and see patterns between you and your closest group of friends. You all probably have similar eating habits and work ethic, among other things. Social Psychology: A Glimpse of Social Conformity Through the Ages explains how peoples’ need for approval of others influences them to conform to societal standards. This even works in smaller groups.
Your friend will also be affected by the social norms of your group and then start to conform. If the new group of friends all pride themselves on being financially stable, for instance, then your friend will likely not want to be considered the “cheap” one of the group and work to move on. Or if they all have a habit of making their daily complaints quick and saying “but I don’t want to drag you guys down with this. Let’s just have a good time!” then your friend will start to adopt similar sentiments after getting the hint that excessive complaining is frowned upon versus a quick expression of a bad day and moving on. Our desire to fit in is powerful, and your friend might go to surprising lengths to fit in with other, more self-reliant, people.
Follow Up Your “No’s” With A Self-Sufficient Alternative
You probably blow your friend off here and there, and it feels bad to do it. Some needy friends are exceptionally good at making simple problems seem like emergencies, and guilt tripping when they don’t get their way. When you say no to their invitations to hang out or help, gently offer a more self-sufficient alternative to push them in the right direction. They may have rebuttals to your solutions, but stay firm. This is a subtle way to encourage your needy friend to seek out more independent options that don’t involve draining those closest to them. For example, if a friend asks you for money, say, “I don’t have it. I’m sorry. Maybe you can pick up an extra shift at work?”
Make Yourself Less Available
If it gets to the point where you feel used, drained, and taken advantage of, take a step back. Set clear boundaries to help them understand that you won’t be around as much as you used to be, so they’re ready and don’t feel like it’s out of the blue.
You can be forward and concise with your boundaries or you can be more subtle. About Relationships gives one example of subtle boundary setting with a friend who calls after hours:
Let’s say you don’t enjoy phone calls at night after you get home from work. If your phone rings, you have the option to let it go and have voicemail or an answering machine get it. The next time you talk to your friend, you could mention something like, “I’m so tired after work I just veg out and don’t even answer the phone. Can you try me before dinner?” This will let your friend know where you stand with phone calls.
Being subtle is less risk for a fallout in the end than sitting your friend down to have a talk about how needy and overbearing they are.
Reinforce The Positive
Teach your friend how to treat you and themselves by reinforcing positive behaviour in whatever way you can. Tell them you’re proud of them for landing a job, happy that they found another outlet for their many emotions, and glad they’re branching out and meeting new people. Take them out to celebrate for promotions and other accomplishments they wouldn’t work for before. By helping them feel good about the hard work they put in to be happier and independent, you’ll be helping to keep them motivated to continue along the same path.
If All Else Fails, Speak Your Mind
Subtlety can work, but some people may have a difficult time getting your point. If all else fails gently tell your friend that you think they rely on you for too much, and you would like them to branch out and meet new people, as well as learn to be a little more self-reliant. It might be a difficult conversation to have, but sometimes those are the most effective ones because your criticism comes of clearly. Hopefully your friend will understand, cut you the break you need, and work on their own happiness and independence.