Q. My six friends and I have known each other since college. In our group, I'm the mediator. Whenever someone's mad at someone else, they call me to vent and get advice. It makes me uncomfortable, but I don't know how to break out of the role. What should I do?
--Kara S., Saint Louis, Missouri
A. You clearly care about maintaining connections, and I admire your compassionate heart. As you sense, though, channeling your empathy this way isn't exactly supporting your joy.
Friendships, especially in groups, present complex dynamics, and it's extremely common for these types of intrigues to happen. For your own sanity, though, you need to put the focus back on you. You know what your friends want: a confidante, a sympathetic ear, a sage dispenser of advice. But what do you need and want? In constantly talking about their own issues, they keep the spotlight on themselves -- and put you in the awkward position of having to mediate. What about you? Before you do anything, you need to make a mental commitment to staying true to yourself -- and getting what you need.
Of course, to be fair, you should honestly assess your role in the dynamic, too. Personally, I get a little thrill from listening to other people's troubles. It makes me feel like I've got my life so together. What are you getting out of being the mediator? Does it make you feel needed, smart, or in-the-know? Be truthful about what hidden needs, if any, this role fulfills. You may have the good fortune of learning something valuable about yourself in the process.
If your self-inquiry does nothing to solve the problem (and you're still at your wit's end), you might consider the bolder step of taking a break from the group for a month or so and seeing how that feels. With everyone complaining about each other -- and behind each other's backs -- the dynamic doesn't sound particularly pleasurable or supportive anyway. When you do reconnect with everyone again, notice how you feel. If you're instantly overwhelmed by that caught-in-the-middle anxiety, it might be time to move on altogether.
If, on the other hand, reuniting with your pals feels more good than not, perhaps you should give things another chance. Your group may serve as a family of sorts for you -- complete with the occasionally dysfunctional dynamics, but generally loving all the same. Continue working on asserting your needs, especially when you find yourself falling into your old role. In the end, there are worse things to do in the world than trying to create peace and understanding.
Jennifer Louden is the author of six books, including "The Life Organizer: A Woman's Guide to a Mindful Year." She leads workshops on self-care and creativity around the country. Visit her at jenniferlouden.com. If you have questions about some of the life issues you face today, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.