Do you have a friend (or coworker or family member) who leaves you feeling exhausted and emotionally drained after you interact with him or her? You're not alone. Empathy and sympathy are incredible skills to have and maintain, but practicing them can, at times, be overwhelming and emotionally (and sometimes physically) draining, especially if you are a highly sensitive person who tends to absorb the emotional states of others. A friend recently emailed me and asked for my advice. What should I do, she asked, when my best friend calls me and shares traumatic events she frequently experiences frequently as a result of her career? How do I cope with the negative emotions I indirectly experience as a result of listening to her? Is this just what best friends are supposed to do, allow themselves to be emotionally hijacked in order to offer support and comfort?
My first reaction to this was: no, friendship is absolutely not about being supportive and comforting at the risk of undoing your own mental wellbeing. My second reaction was: I've experienced this before, too, and I've heard others talk about similar situations as well, so it seemed like a great topic to dive into this week. If you haven't already, at some point you're going to encounter someone who feels emotionally draining but who, due to circumstances out of your control (or because you don't want to), you cannot completely remove from your life. Here are some of the best ways to deal with emotionally draining people.
STEP 1 : CREATE PERSONAL PEACE
First and foremost, you have to be in a peaceful emotional state yourself, or it's going to be really difficult to cope with others' emotions. Of course, creating personal peace is no easy task (it's kind of the point of this whole website, in fact, and I'm still learning how to do it!), but it's important to make the effort. Your life as a whole (when you're not interacting with this emotionally draining individual) influences your interactions with others, so it's important to do the best you can to take care of yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally so you're in the best possible shape to cope when others come to you for comfort or counsel. This will always be a work in progress so don't beat yourself up if you don't have this down. Just keep trying to create as much personal peace as you can.
STEP 2 : ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES
Once you have personal peace (hahaha, jk, that's a lifelong journey, but at least you're trying!), it's time to establish your boundaries for what you'll allow to penetrate that peace. It sounds like this wouldn't be too hard, but it's actually quite a tough task when it comes to people you love (or people you have to work with and can't just avoid). Years ago I wrote Preserving Your Perimeter: 4 Steps to Set Boundaries, and it's worth a read if you're struggling to identify, set, and maintain your boundaries with others. Learning about personal boundaries has been life-changing for me, and it's one of the best ways to combat emotional fatigue.
STEP 3 : BE HONEST + DIRECT
Now that you're perfectly peaceful (ha!) and you've identified what your boundaries are, it's time for the challenging part: communicating your thoughts and boundaries to those around you. It's important to remember that other people can't read your mind. Most of the time they don't have any idea that they're negatively influencing your emotional state. You don't have to be harsh or cruel when you communicate with others, but you must be honest and direct. You'll probably feel vulnerable (and maybe even a bit selfish) by expressing how you feel, but it's worth it to maintain your own mental health, and to ultimately be a better friend / coworker / partner / etc.
STEP 4 : OFFER AN ALTERNATIVE
After you've conveyed your feelings, it may be helpful to offer an alternative. For example, let's say a friend is sharing her heartbreaking experiences with emotional abuse, pain so raw and real that it's difficult for you to cope with. After explaining to her that the emotional burden is too much for you, do some research and offer her solutions, information, or suggest a professional who can better help her deal with her situation. While it's wonderful to be a good listener and a empathetic friend, if someone you know is going through deep emotional stress, the best thing s/he can do is seek the advice and guidance of a professional, not simply the comfort of a friend. Friends ≠ therapists.
STEP 5 : COUNTERACT THE IMPACT
If you have to interact with an emotionally draining person (and, despite all of your efforts to create boundaries and honestly convey your feelings, you will), one of the best things you can do for yourself is to counteract the emotional impact with positive experiences. If possible, bookend your emotionally draining experience with uplifting and inspiring ones. These don't have to be grand activities -- just reading an inspiring quote, for example, could count as a positive bookend -- but they should be implemented as much as possible. Know you're going to have a tough meeting with a coworker? Treat yourself to reading a chapter of an uplifting book beforehand and schedule a meeting with an inspiring colleague after to make the experience more bearable.
STEP 6 : CONSIDER DISTANCING YOURSELF
If you're dealing with a close friend, coworker, or partner, this can be challenging, but it's up to you to enforce your own emotional boundaries. It might feel like you have no choice (I can't dump my best friend! I can't leave this job! I don't want a divorce!), but you always have a choice. If someone drains you to the point that it's unbearable, you need to consider the possibility that this person isn't a good fit for your life. If you've done the five steps above and this person continues to drag you down emotionally, it might be time to remove yourself from the friendship / job / relationship. That's not easy to hear, but you'll know, deep down in your heart, if this person's impact is so great that it's preventing you from living an emotionally sane life. Yes, a great deal of your emotional state is up to you, but part of maintaining your own personal peace means making choices to eliminate the people who threaten the kind of life you want to be living.
If you're currently in a situation with an emotionally draining individual, it's my hope that these tips with positively impact that relationship in some way. Always remember: You can be a good friend without being a therapist. You can be a good coworker without being a therapist. You can be a good partner or parent or sibling or child without being a therapist. You are not required (nor qualified, in most cases) to be anyone else's therapist or emotional dumping ground, and you can, with kindness and compassion, often find a way to maintain a relationship with this person without sacrificing your own emotional health.