In my childhood years, I meandered into the territory of anti-vulnerability. After being informed that my feelings and how I expressed them were an exact representation of my strength, I began to practice the most facile of solutions: I buried them.
As much as I naively believed they would, grief, trauma, and unresolved pains do not just dissipate – they simmer. I think it would be safe to equate myself to the likes of a dormant volcano. Years of suppressing emotions would lead me to this inevitable explosion. The most painful moments were in the midst of situations that could have otherwise remained casual. A conversation where perhaps a word was misplaced, or something brushed me the wrong way. A slight misunderstanding that could otherwise be rectified with a question seeking clarity, would instead lead me into a state of fight-or-flight.
I can’t say I have this entirely sorted, though I am a far more open and vulnerable person. However, there remains a fear inside me of burdening others who have their own struggles, with mine. Part of this Most of this is entirely patriarchal. This fear of being too much, overly sensitive, or weak, is an intentional strategy taught in order to “keep women in their place” but has at this point, become the norm.
All of this aside, it got me thinking about depth within relationships and emotional support versus emotional dumping. Anyone who knows me well enough can agree when I say intimate conversations are my kryptonite. I’ll forgo any party, event, or what have you, for a night-in where a friend and I can just sit and talk (or cry). Whether it’s conversing about relationship struggles, mental health, our thoughts, dreams, insecurities, ambitions, these discussions are what keep me feeling deeply connected. With an individualistic landscape having us feel isolated even among company, vulnerability holds the power of not only nourishing our relationships with others, but also with ourselves.
But then there exists another side of connectedness, a grey semblance of emotional support that sways towards unhealthy territories. There have certainly been moments I’ve been on the receiving end of emotional dumping, and other times I felt I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on any venting of sorts. Sometimes, the way the information was being communicated became overwhelming or, dare I admit, draining.
Where exactly is the line, then? When does the act of emotional support become emotional labor?
Well, it honestly varies from person to person. Having a network of support is important, but in my late teens and early twenties (sometimes even now), I often found myself over-extending. I wanted to be the person people went to when they needed help, and so I became exactly that. If my mom, colleague, friend, mailman, or even the neighbor’s cousin’s hairstylist needed me, I would show up. Makes me look like a good person, right? That’s what I thought, too.
“A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.”
Having grown up with an immediate family member who struggled with addiction and still does, I spent most of my youth crafting methods, alternative solutions, and relaying options in order to save them, but I couldn’t. This desire to save the people around me stems from what I deemed as my own failure or inability to “fix” the problems of someone I love.
These good intentions are also very self-serving. When I try to “fix” or “save” someone, I, therefore, believe that they are incapable of helping themselves, which in turn makes me superior. This “noble” gesture also enables the person to continue feeling helpless. It doesn’t allow them to take responsibility for their actions or develop the motivation internally to create alternative solutions for themselves. My desire to fix everyone’s problems might look like support, but it actually halts their growth.
When I begin to feel drained, irritated, or worn down by connection, I’ve now begun a practice of asking myself the following questions:
Have I been avoiding my own problems by focusing on someone else’s?
Am I meeting my own needs right now?
Am I frustrated because I’ve offered advice/solutions that have not been listened to? (see more on this below)
Over the years, I’ve also reframed my approach to giving advice of any sorts. I often find most of us, myself included, have used this offering of advice as a means of control. I.e. If I don’t feel in control of my life, give me permission to control yours. We all make decisions based on the information we have at hand, and so I’ve set up some rules for myself when it comes to advice or input of any kind into someone else’s life.
They have to ask me for it. The worst kind of advice is the unsolicited kind. Sometimes, people just want to feel heard without judgment, opinions, or problem-solving techniques. If it’s unclear, you can always ask your friend what they need: If they just want someone to listen to them, if they want another perspective, or if they need help brainstorming what their options are.
Accepting whatever they choose to do next, whether I personally agree with it or not. The truth is, you’re not always going to agree with every choice someone makes, and that’s okay (so long as it’s not murder – I don’t condone violence of any kind!) Just like how I have and will continue to make decisions that not all my friends will like, I want to them to continue to make choices that are authentic to who they are. If I, for instance, decide on a road that leads me down a path I don’t want, then I’ll change course. Why shouldn’t I allow others to do the same? Making mistakes is okay, that’s how we learn.
Advice is expanding someone’s options. When you’re asked to discuss you’re perspective, there is a chance that the person will not follow it (and this is very normal and okay). The point of offering solutions is not to tell someone what they have to do, but giving them another option to factor in. We don’t know what’s best for everyone. What we assume will be a huge mistake could also be a decision that changes someone’s life for the better. Or perhaps that decision will lead them to the detour they needed. Regardless, this expectation our ego fuels itself off of needs to be diminished.
With these barriers in place, I’m able to support the people in my life without “saving” them or carrying the weight of their problems on my shoulders. Setting boundaries for myself and making them clear to others allows me to be an anchor for my friends, while also maintaining the time and space I need for myself.