Joseph Burgo Ph.D.


The Toilet Function of Friendship

Some people use social conversation as a way to "unload" painful feelings.

Posted Feb 16, 2013

Do you have any friends who “unload” or “dump” on you, who dominate phone calls or monopolize dinners together by talking about their problems forever and showing no interest in you?  Do you dread these encounters because you always feel “shitty” afterward? Welcome to the toilet function of friendship.

When Freud first developed the “talking cure,” he recognized that his patients experienced emotional relief after psychoanalytic sessions during which they discussed their difficulties; what he didn’t at first understand was that many of his patients were unconsciously using those sessions as a way to evacuate their pain and unhappiness rather than to gain insight. I’m not sure that he ever truly recognized this phenomenon, though he did grow more pessimistic about the possibility of psychological change over his lifetime. Other theorists have since described this problem; many psychotherapists have the experience of very devoted clients who come into the office overflowing with pain, who fill up the session with endless words about what’s bothering them, go away feeling relieved then come back for the next session and do the same thing all over again. You can think of it as a type of projection.

In my new book about psychological defense mechanisms, I explain that projection is actually a normal part of communication in early childhoood development. Infants, with little capacity for understanding or bearing their own experience, have a way of projecting that experience into their caregivers, especially through crying. Appropriate response from those caregivers both gives infants what they need and also teaches them what their discomfort means. When parents are consistently unable to give infants what they need, children never learn to tolerate or understand their own experience and often keep projecting it for the rest of their lives. These people grow up to be the kind of friends and clients I’m describing.

At least in the context of a psychotherapy session, we have the opportunity to help our clients recognize what they’re doing and hopefully assimilate the understanding we provide, rather than merely pushing out their pain. In friendship, it’s quite a different matter. Because I’m a good listener (and because my mother used me as her confidante in this way), I spent many evenings as a young man listening to friends retail their relationship problems and other difficulties. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do as a good friend. It took me a long time (and years of my own therapy) to understand that true friendship involves reciprocity, and that there’s a difference between a dinner out with friends and a session with your psychotherapist.

For me, it raises the issue of what it means to be “supportive.” If you continually listen and make sympathetic noises to your friends as they dump all their distress into you, you’re “supporting” a process that offers temporary relief but never leads to personal growth. Over time, this friendship may grow tedious and unsatisfying for you; you’ll begin to feel frustrated that the person repeatedly makes the same mistakes, gets romantically involved with the same wrong person or gets hurt again and again in the same predictable ways.

Now that I’m older and more experienced, I avoid this kind of friendship. People who communicate almost exclusively this way aren’t really my friends, nor do I have the conditions to help them since they’re not my clients, either. In the past, as I grew less tolerant of being used as a toilet, once I started to point out patterns or question new relationship choices, these “friends” would drift away. They were stuck in a very early kind of communication — evacuating — and didn’t know how to do anything else.

Do you have friends like the ones I’m describing? If so, how do you deal with them?  When you feel true empathy for the suffering of others, it may be difficult to take your own needs into account. Are you the type of person who feels you’re supposed to be a good listener, that if you’re don’t, you’re not a good friend? It might be a relief if you recognize that in many cases, you’re not really helping your friends if all you do is listen with a growing sense of frustration or boredom.

The metaphor that comes to mind for an alternative style of communication is a “sounding board,” because it means that when you transmit information about a difficulty or question, something comes back. To go beyond mere listening is a risky thing to do; you may be experienced as “unsupportive” or judgmental if you say something truthful and difficult, but for me, that’s what real friendship means.