Should You Get 'Emotional Consent' Before Venting to a Friend?
DEAR DR. JENN,
I'm seeing a lot of conversation online about the idea of seeking 'consent for emotional labor' from your friends. I've never thought to ask 'permission' before unloading my problems on a close friend — it seems extreme. Should we all be getting the green light before leaning on our friends for emotional support? —Don’t Wanna Be a Burden
DEAR DON'T WANNA BE A BURDEN,
After social justice activist and educator Melissa A. Fabello, Ph.D. tweeted about a friend asking her, “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical weight-related for a few minutes?”, Twitter went crazy. The idea of friendships being 'emotional labor', or of being 'at capacity' to support a friend, might be meme-worthy, but jokes aside, it opens up an important conversation.
We’ve all had the experience of dealing with a friend who is constantly in crisis, or whose life seems to be filled with endless drama. But in a day and age where we're all being encouraged to practice good self-care, setting boundaries in our relationships — and not taking on more than we can handle emotionally — is a part of that.
So yes, you should get the green light first. Making sure that we are respectful of our friends' emotional limitations so that we don’t drain them dry is always good practice.
The best way to do this is by simply checking in before we unload. Even something as simple as asking, “Is this a good time?” can be helpful. If you’re going through a serious crisis, someone who is your true friend will want to be there for you. But they may not be able to help you when they’re in the middle of a meeting with their boss or while they are dealing with a serious crisis of their own.
And, reminder: Launching into a tirade about your dating drama (or any other stressful experience in your life) without so much as a “hello” to take the temperature of your friend isn't being a great friend.
When it comes to discussing something that you know is a hot button or very triggering for a friend (for instance, something weight-related), it's always a good idea to check in before. That's just being considerate and sensitive to your friend's emotions.
It's important to remember that sometimes when we go through a serious crisis — a health issue, a divorce, a death in the family, a serious depression — our need for support and help talking through our issues can be overwhelming. Even the best of friends can get burnt out.
If you find that you are spending hours on the phone every day with one or more of your friends, people are starting to avoid you, or you’re just starting to get the feeling that your friends are getting depleted, it's important to get professional help. Reaching out to a therapist or even a hotline to get support can be an important step for your health and for preserving your friendships.
And while it may seem counter-intuitive, but it can actually benefit your mental health to be on the giving end of support during a tough time. When you're going through a crisis, getting out of your own pain bubble can help give you perspective. There’s no better way you can do that than by being there for someone else.
If you are on the other side of this and feeling drained by a friend who is a constant drain or who is in crisis, it's important to set some boundaries. You can doing this in a loving way. Here's how.
1. Set some time limits.
What you can say: “I am free to talk for a half hour after work, but I have a dinner at 7.”
2. Recommend professional help.
What you can say: “I love you but I feel like I am a little out of my league helping you with this issue. You may want to talk to a therapist."
3. Pace the conversation.
What you can say: “I am swamped today, can we plan to talk tomorrow?”
4. Let them know where you are at emotionally.
What you can say: “I am having a really bad day, too. Can I vent first?”
5. Tell your friend if a topic is too sensitive for you.
What you can say: “I don’t think I am far enough into my eating disorder recovery to talk about how fat you think your thighs are."
6. If your friend keeps having the same problem over and over and you are getting burnt out, suggest some introspection.
What you can say: “I have noticed that this keeps coming up for you in different shapes and forms and I feel like my advice is not helping. You may want to spend some time journaling, meditating, or just thinking about why this keeps happening.”
Obviously, if your friend is suicidal or dealing with something very serious, you don’t want to blow them off. At the same time, you may not be qualified to deal with those kind of serious issues. If you're worried about your friend harming themselves or someone else, it's important to reach out to a professional who can step in for your friend's sake.
Being a good friend is being sensitive and providing a give-and-take in the relationship. If you have a friend who isn't holding their end of the deal, you may need to make more significant boundaries. Let them know that the friendship is feeling unbalanced or that you need to take a little space. If it comes down to that, make sure you do it in a loving way letting your friend know the many things you appreciate about him or her, even though you need to take a little time away from the friendship. Someone who is a truly caring friend will want to know if you feel burdened and will want to even things out so you feel supported as well.