A friend of mine always tells me that I have the kind of face that makes people, even complete strangers, feel really comfortable talking to me (his exact words are "unload their emotional baggage on you," but I wouldn't go that far). It's probably a good quality to have as a journalist, and it genuinely feels good that some people trust me enough to tell me their secrets.
At the same time, as someone who also tends to take other people's problems on as my own, it does take a toll on my own mental health.
"When a friend comes to you with their problems, you feel like you want to lessen their burden and suffering and give some helpful advice," says Kristin Zeising, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist in San Diego. "However, it can feel burdensome, especially for people who have a caretaker type personality. They may feel like it’s their job to alleviate people's burdens and have a hard time saying no."
As much as you may love your friends and love helping them talk through their problems, it's okay to sometimes feel overloaded if you're the person everyone goes to for support. Vera Eck, MFT, an Imago relationship therapist in Los Angeles, says that there are healthy boundaries in relationships, and it's important to be aware of when you've hit that cutoff point.
As Dr. Zeising puts it, "We all have limits in how much we can handle."
If you find yourself starting to tune out other people when they start opening up about their problems, or getting frustrated that you're not getting a word in edgewise, you may have hit your limit.
"If life is particularly stressful it may be that you have less interest and ability to hear other people's problems," she adds. "You have to assess what you're available for. And ultimately, if it is not something that you’re equipped to handle then you don’t have to feel guilty and criticise yourself."
You might be able to get away with making your excuses to more casual acquaintances (like telling the grocery clerk you're in a hurry and can't stay to make conversation), but setting boundaries with people you're close to without coming off as insensitive can be tricky, and Eck says that outright telling someone that you're overwhelmed by them might make them feel criticised.
"Instead, it would be better to try to position oneself to receive support, to stop the giving and to share something," she says. "You have to make yourself vulnerable. Talk about things that are painful or that you’re worried about, and wait for someone to give some kind of support, and see how interested they are — if they ask questions, express concern, if they have empathy."
We all have limits in how much we can handle.
Eck says that if they don't seem receptive to listening to you or if they interrupt you, you might have to interrupt them back to let them know that you weren't finished talking.
"It’s going to have to be a conversation in the moment because otherwise that person generally is not aware of how narcissistic they are," she says.
But no matter what, Dr. Zeising says that you should definitely avoid letting the situation get to a point where you're so overwhelmed that you feel like you can't talk to someone about it, and you cut off all communication.
"[Communication] offers the other person an opportunity to fully understand what’s going on with you, and they may be able to offer support," she says. "When you just cut off communication with other people they may feel hurt or disrespected, or concerned about how you’re doing. It can cause more problems than just simply communicating that you’re going through a lot and you may be limited in how much time you can give to the relationship or spend with the person."
If there's a particular person in your life who always seems to be unloading on you without any reciprocity or even talking over you, Dr. Zeising suggests gently letting them know that you don't feel equipped to support them all the time. You might start by saying something like, "I've noticed you've been a little stressed, and I'd love to be there for you, but there's only so much support I know how to give."
If you're not quite ready to have that conversation, though, there are still ways to keep yourself from feeling overloaded.
"It’s important to look at self-care and look at the things you’re doing to replenish yourself," Eck says.
Whether you initiate time slots where you shut off your phone, or you find someone you can talk to about your own problems (without overloading them, of course), it's important to take care of yourself, too.