Why You Should Ask Before Unloading Your Problems On Friends & How To Do It
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Let’s say you’re feeling stressed out by something happening in your life right now. You really need to vent and talk about it with someone, and you’ve got a friend who you know would be a great listener or who would be able to understand what you’re dealing with. Do you simply send them a bunch of texts about what’s going on right then and there, or do you first send a text to ask if your friend is available to talk?
Now pretend you’re a person going about your day, and you suddenly get a bunch of texts from a friend who’s freaking out about something they’re dealing with right now. Let’s say that in this moment, you yourself are also dealing with a lot of stress over something in your own life. How do you respond?
For many people, the answers to these questions are very obvious and instinctual. But there actually seems to be a pretty sharp divide over the appropriate way to navigate these situations with friends.
Setting boundaries vs. being there for your friends.
A recent Twitter thread from wellness educator Melissa A. Fabello, M.Ed., Ph.D., has triggered a pretty heated debate on social media:
In the thread, Fabello praised a friend who texted her asking if she had the “emotional/mental capacity” to listen instead of just launching into a vent session without warning. Fabello noted that some friends are close enough that they don’t need to ask her because she’d always make herself available to help, and that sometimes when someone is in a true crisis they just aren’t able to check in first before asking for help. But in general, she believes it’s good practice to check in with someone to make sure they’re in a mental state where they’re able to offer support.
“Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice,” Fabello writes later in the thread. “Too often, friends unload on me without warning – which not only interrupts whatever I'm working on or going through, but also throws me into a stressful state of crisis mode that is hard to come down from. Unless it is TRULY an emergency, that's unfair.”
(It’s worth giving the whole thread a read.)
Some people criticized the idea of describing supporting a friend as “emotional labor,” suggesting it makes friendships feel transactional and commodifies our gestures of care as just another item on the capitalist market. Others wondered if we’re all starting to push away our friends and social connections in the name of “self-care,” further contributing to the loneliness epidemic.
“At what point does ‘self-care/self-preservation/boundaries’ cross into ‘being a bad friend with 100% immunity,’” Fashionista.com’s editor-in-chief Tyler McCall tweeted in response to the debate. “I have a really hard time imagining telling a friend who needed me like, ‘sorry dude I'm at capacity! Can I refer you to someone else?’ as though I were an in-demand facialist or something.”
What the experts say.
We reached out to three therapists to get their takes on this.
All three therapists agree that, yes, friends should ask permission before initiating conversations that require emotional support.
1. Sometimes taking care of friends is hard.
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“Supporting a friend in need is emotional labor,” states California-based therapist Alyssa Mancao, LSCW. “By calling this emotional labor does not in and of itself make it ‘bad’ or transactional.”
The term emotional labor was originally developed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s to describe the work of regulating and masking one’s own emotions to manage a customer’s emotions, usually in reference to service work. Some people argue the term is meant to be a critique of capitalism and the way it commodifies our very emotions, and it thus should not be used in other contexts. Other people believe the term has now expanded to become a general way to acknowledge any invisible emotional work, in any part of our lives.
Specific terminology aside, what’s most important to acknowledge here is that taking care of people—even people you love—can sometimes be difficult, stressful, and disorienting. “Emotional labor is the process by managing and regulating your own feelings in order to perform a task; in these situations, the tasks at hand are to listen, provide support, and problem-solve depending on what the asker is looking for. In order to do this, the friend has to be fully present and be able to momentarily put their own issues to the side in order to engage thoughtfully and mindfully. Doing this is not easy,” Mancao explains. “Now imagine doing this often and without warning.”
2. There’s a way to set boundaries while still being loving and supportive.
“Friends are not your therapists, and being a good friend does not mean abandoning your wellbeing to take care of others,” says sex and relationships therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT. “Yes, friends will extend themselves and make sacrifices for the people they love and care about, while simultaneously needing to honor their boundaries and take care of themselves.”
Francis says we can set up expectations and agreements with our friends about the best ways to support each other. Some people are totally willing to drop everything at any time to support a friend. Some people are only like this with certain friends. Others may only be able to offer this type of prioritization and support depending on their own mental state. Just like with any relationship, a conversation can help clarify what you each want and need.
“Simply because someone is our friend does not mean we are entitled to their emotional and energetic space at random,” Mancao says. “It’s important that we don’t take this personal or to mean anything negative about the friendship.”
For the person who is being asked to provide support at a time when you’re not able to do so, Mancao says it’s okay to offer another time where you’ll follow up. This can still be an act of care for the friend in need: “By them setting the boundary and saying ‘I can’t be there for you right now,’ they are also communicating to you that you deserve to have a fully present and emotionally available person at your side, and they cannot be that at this moment,” she says. “They still respond with warmth and care even when they are unable to hold space at the requested moment.”
3. Boundaries don’t make us more individualistic; they make us more empathetic.
“It is not the sign of an individualist culture to care about the emotional and mental capacity of those around us—on the contrary, it is an example of empathy, a necessary part of living interdependently,” Francis explains.
If you’re the friend who needs support, it can be hard, sometimes impossible, to consider the needs of the friend who you want help from. But friendship is a two-way street.
“Everyone is dealing with their own issues, and sometimes we can be triggered by other's stories or situations,” says marriage and family therapist Patrice N. Douglas, LMFT. “We need to be accountable for how we can contribute to our loved one's mental health.”
“All of our relationships are opportunities to practice consent and compassion,” Francis adds. “It isn't that we shouldn't expect care and emotional labor from our friends, but our friends do not exist to be on-call to fulfill our emotional demands the moment we want their support. Asking if this is a good time to talk about certain material is a gentle way of negotiating for our needs.”
4. Both people are better off when the friend being asked to provide support is able to be fully engaged.
When you’re in crisis, you need someone who can really pay attention to you—not someone who is distracted or feeling emotionally fragile themselves. “It is crucial for whomever we talking with to be available to listen, understand and support,” Douglas explains. “The amount of support we will receive will be priceless versus them not engaging or looking interested in our conversation.”
The bottom line? When we're in crisis, it doesn't mean we have the right to pull our friends into crisis too. Friendship does mean feeling able to ask for help, and it also means being understanding with each other when we can't always be there.
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