The emotional toll of playing therapist to your friends

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I tend to assume the role of “The Listener” with my friends and loved ones. It’s not always easy. Don’t get me wrong — I want to help them through a tough time. But sometimes, I’ll scroll through walls of text or sit through long phone calls with little energy to spare for myself, let alone others. Between a devastating pandemic and flaming trash heap of a presidency, I’ve found myself in this situation more often, and more exhausted, than usual. Since I want to be supportive, but also don’t want to burn myself out, I asked Alison Nobrega, a therapist in Oakland, California: How do you deal with someone who keeps emotionally dumping on you?

Nobrega tells me she’s noticed more emotional dumping lately, too. These days, emotions are running high, and we don’t necessarily have access to many of our other coping skills, she says. As a result, we all need more support, and we’re leaning on loved ones more than we used to. In other words, the conditions are ripe for emotional dumping.

Before we get into setting boundaries around emotional dumping, let’s distinguish it from healthy venting. When someone engages in healthy venting, they’re open to taking responsibility for whatever they’re venting about, Nobrega says. They may want you to give advice or just listen, but they’re mindful of your time and bandwidth, and respectful of your boundaries, sticking to a time limit when they call or text.

In contrast, someone who engages in emotional dumping has no accountability, Nobrega explains. They constantly play the victim, or get defensive when you point out how they might’ve played a role in a situation. They don’t respect for your time or boundaries, texting incessantly or falling into a cycle of calling you, say, every few hours or days with their problems.

Something I’ve struggled with is gauging when I’ve begun overburdening myself with others’ problems. When I ask Nobrega for guidance, she suggests recognizing whether you’ve taken on this role before. If you were, say, forced into the role of caretaker for your younger siblings as a child, you might’ve been told your needs don’t matter, which might’ve led you to assume the role of fixer or helper as an adult, and feel valued only when others need you — like when they want to vent to you. Other red flags could include feeling resentful or anxious when your emotionally dumping friend or loved one contacts or talks to you, or avoiding them altogether.

Constantly dropping everything to help someone process their drama isn’t sustainable. “Chances are, if this is happening with a friend or loved one, it’s happening with more than one,” Nobrega says. “I think it can be easy to fall into the trap of playing this role in all your relationships.” Doing so can affect your ability to communicate your needs and be honest with yourself. You might experience high levels of stress and burnout not only in your relationship, but other areas of your life, too, which can cause you to react in unhealthy ways.

Setting boundaries around emotional dumping, on the other hand, can enhance your self-esteem and self-confidence, giving you a strong foundation to work from in an anxiety-provoking world, Nobrega says. Just as not setting boundaries in one facet of your life probably means you’re not setting them in others, setting them with a friend who texts you heartbroken novellas on the reg can lead to setting them with family members, coworkers, and others in your life.

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That said, it does take a ton of practice and might be easier to do in some contexts than others, Nobrega says, so show yourself some patience and compassion. This is hard.

Once you’ve decided you need to set a boundary with a friend or loved one who tends to emotionally dump on you, first ask yourself whether you have the capacity to listen to them, Nobrega says. Be honest with yourself. If you still have the time to engage in the activities that fill your emotional cup, then maybe you have time for to help this person. A week when you’ve had barely enough time to sit down and eat, or go on your morning jog, probably isn’t ideal.

And if it happens to be one of those weeks, be honest with this person, Nobrega says. You can set firm boundaries in a loving way. Try something like, “I want to be there for you, but I’m unable to support you today in the way that you need,” and maybe even follow up with another date or time that’s less busy. If you want to be proactive, ask if they could check in before confiding in you, maybe explaining that this can ensure you’ll be fully present when you speak.

Encourage them to seek support in other ways, rather than relying on just one source (i.e., you), whether through other friends or loved ones, or therapy, if they have the means, Nobrega adds. This way, “you’re still supporting them, but in a way that feels more manageable to you.”

Also, remember that “silence is definitely a boundary,” Nobrega says. If setting boundaries still fills you with dread, you can choose not to answer that call or respond to that text. But ideally, you want to move toward setting boundaries verbally. Besides creating healthy communication with your friend or loved one, “you’re modeling for them, too,” Nobrega says, which can be a way to help them manage their issues. Plus, silence leaves a lot of room for assumption, and it can be harder for them to assume positive intent if you don’t call or text back.

Be realistic, and acknowledge that your bandwidth might shorten as your roles and priorities shift — if you become a parent or start a new job, for example, Nobrega says. And if you set a boundary in a loving way, and your friend or loved one still can’t respect it, “that’s on them.”

Talking to therapist, if you can swing it, can help with managing any guilt or other negative feelings that might emerge when you set a boundary with someone who tends to emotionally dump on you, Nobrega says. If you don’t have access to therapy, read up on setting boundaries (Nobrega recommends North Carolina-based therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Instagram account), or practice meditation and mindfulness. Maybe journal about what boundaries mean to you, how setting a boundary would benefit you, or a time when someone set a boundary for you. Consult a friend who’s really good at setting boundaries, and take notes.

As with any new habit, getting used to setting boundaries takes time. I need to remind to myself that enduring the initial awkwardness of telling my friends and loved ones I don’t have the bandwidth to be there for them in the short-term will allow me to be there for them for the long haul. With white supremacy, fascism and a pandemic still threatening us in the foreseeable future, I need to protect my energy. We all do.