Dilemas: Approach friendships in a spirit of giving, rather than taking

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Gill finds she can make friends easily but constantly destroys the relationships by finding fault and sulking. She has had to reorganise her life socially and at work to avoid ex-friends she has hurt deeply. She says she was spoilt as an only child, but how can she stop this destructive behaviour?

THERE were two great sulkers in history. One was Achilles who, after Agamemnon had pinched his girl, Briseis, during the Trojan Wars, sulked in his tent and refused to fight; the other was Eeyore, the grumpy donkey in Winnie the Pooh who got even more sulky than usual when everyone in the Hundred Acre Wood forgot his birthday.

Interestingly, they're both male, because generally sulking is seen as a female characteristic. Achilles was thought to be womanly because he sulked. And sulking is a typical manipulative weapon used by people who feel powerless or feel that others aren't taking them seriously - in other words, understandably, women and children.

Sulking, with its potent mixture of anger and unhappiness, is something you experience only over personal slights; you wouldn't sulk about the Conservative Party, for instance. And sulking is always damaging to everyone around you, including yourself as I, an arch sulker, know to my cost. It's as if you find yourself exuding poison gas, but gas which unfortunately you have to inhale yourself. Many is the happy dinner party I have completely ruined by sulking.

And the worst thing about sulking is that it's so difficult to get out of by yourself. You feel you've shoved yourself down a railway siding and until someone tows you out - usually by being very kind to you or apologising - you're stuck up a dead end, stifled by your own misery and rage.

Gill is right to worry, however. It's highly unlikely that every friend she makes really puts her down at any time. There are very few sadists around and on the whole we prefer to make people happy rather than sad or angry.

So why does she behave like this? When she says she was spoilt as an only child she may be speaking the truth. But "spoilt" in this sense usually means indulged rather than damaged. But the indulgence shown to an only child can be damaging. It can be extremely difficult, if you have no brothers and sisters, to learn the skill of being with other people, and to realise that when they make a chance thoughtless remark or are five minutes late that they're not trying to make you feel small or unwanted.

Since it's so rarely happened to you that anyone has been thoughtless, when it happens you interpret the incident, quite understandably, as a huge insult.

Sulking, however, is also connected to fear. A courageous person would stand up for themselves when they felt put upon and sort the situation out on the spot. Sulkers are frightened of showing their anger directly - partly because as "spoilt" only children it was difficult to be angry in a family in which there were no other children on your side against two adults..

I think few people except only children quite understand the terror that can be involved when being so alone and vulnerable in a family world consisting entirely of adults who, because there aren't enough children to make their presence felt, can often behave very selfishly.

Gill could go to a counsellor to find out why these feelings arise; she could learn the art of apology, at least, when she's finished sulking; or she could resolve, in future, never to ask what her friends can do for her but rather, what she can do for her friends.

When she approaches friendship in this giving rather than taking state she may find she never sulks again. But she must find out why she has this fault in her system - for that's all that it is - that prompts her sulking, if only to prevent the horrible damage she is doing not just to her friends but to herself.

what readers say

How about taking preventive action in future and warning future friends of her propensity to sulk?

I did this and funnily enough it never happened again, but at least my friends would have been prepared for it if it had and could have joked me out of it.

Gill should see this as a weakness like an illness. If you're epileptic you'd warn friends you might have a fit, after all, so why not warn them about sulking so at least they're prepared and won't take it so personally if it happens.

J Flood, Bristol

Gill should grow up fast. She's no longer a child, though she's behaving like one. Why not try behaving like an adult?

She should write to all the friends she's hurt, asking their forgiveness. She should also say that she's now realised it's a pattern which she's trying hard to break.

She should then say she'd like to meet these friends individually so she can not only discuss what went wrong - she'll learn a lot from that - but also so she could apologise in person. No, not all the friends will respond immediately, but I'm sure Gill will feel better just by writing the letters and getting some control back in her life.

Sulking is usually a very self-destructive, passive emotion indulged in by weak people. You'll get far more respect from your friends and maybe get some of them back.

Caroline H, Derby

Get some psychotherapy, privately if necessary. If you cannot find out on your own why you are behaving this way, you need professional help if you are not to continue this pattern throughout your life.

It is currently fashionable to rubbish all forms of therapy/counselling. I self-destructed for the first 35 years of my life - I then went through psychotherapy and frankly, it saved my life. Do it, you won't regret it.

Sara Bulmer, Lincolnshire

Why continue sulking? What is the connection with being spoilt as a child?

Gill already has a great deal of self-awareness about her behaviour and this will help her understand and change it. The difficulty is that the behaviour was probably an early childhood defence, perhaps against anger or guilt; a defence which has long since become inappropriate to her needs.

Gill recognises her sulking to be cyclical in nature and becoming increasingly detrimental to her life. Gill needs to recognise that she needs to change in order to be able to move on. But old habits die hard.

Gill has made the initial steps by recognising she has a difficulty. She is beginning to take responsibility for herself. However, I think she will need outside help to make further progress. A counsellor will listen and appreciate and understand without giving advice, or minimising what is involved. A counsellor would hear everything Gill says and be non-judgmental. This process might go some way to helping her understand her behaviour and change it.

Nicholas E Gough, Swindon

next week's dilemma

My nephew is a plump child; his parents, my sister and brother- in-law, give him free access to the biscuit tin and snacks.

Although well-educated they appear to have a blind spot when it comes to diet, to the extent that one parent eats no vegetables and the other doesn't believe in fruit. Consequently the children are being fed a diet of fat and starchy foods; each Saturday night they go to McDonald's.

They are delightful children and it is breaking my heart to think of the dietary and health problems which are being stored up for the future. I dare not say anything as we have a good relationship with them and don't want to rock the boat. Eva

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182), by Tuesday morning.

And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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