A Twitter thread written by user Melissa A. Fabello recently went viral after she detailed how her friend first asked for permission to unload some emotional baggage. The text she received read, "Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related in a few minutes?"
Fabello began her thread with a screenshot of the text message, and talked about how this was a good thing for people to consider doing. She ended the thread with a template to use when you can't offer your friend emotional support. That particular tweet went viral, proving that the internet can truly turn anything into a meme-able moment. The hundreds of reactions ranged from raised-hand emojis to crude comments. But... was Fabello onto something?
Since Fabello isn't a licensed therapist, we decided to ask an expert. Taking on a friend's emotional baggage can have an affect on you, agrees Nina Tirado, MHC-LP. But the proposed prompt might not be the best way to tell them that.
"I would not tell a friend asking for support that I can't hold space for them because I'm holding space for someone else," says Tirado. "This may lead the friend asking for support to possibly feel rejected or like their emotional needs are less significant."
That doesn't mean the intent of the message was necessarily wrong, though. "From my understanding, [Fabello's] purpose in offering the designed template was to guide others on how to keep yourself safe, extend honesty to a friend, and set healthy boundaries," Tirado says. "Word choice is where I think the mark was missed in this template, not intention."
Instead of "I don't think I can hold appropriate space for you", Tirado says it might be more helpful to say something along the lines of, "I want you to have support from someone who can hold this with you" and "I'm really sorry that I cannot be that person right now. If I had the emotional space to carry this with you, I would."
These statements are more positive and encouraging, and the "if I could I would" mantra aids in buffering the disappointment while offering sincerity behind the intention to help, Tirado explains
While many people on Twitter claim you should never tell a friend you don't have the emotional capacity for them — one popular Tweet in particular says, "If I got this from a friend I would literally never speak to them again" — Tirado disagrees.
"It's much more responsible to gently and warmly express the absence of emotional space to contain another person's pain than to, even if well-intentioned, bite off more than one can chew," she says. "Taking on too much harms both the self and the other."
For those who think their friend might not react well to this, Tirado says you should have a follow-up ready.
"Offer a genuine explanation behind your response," she says. "The explanation is not relative to your rationale behind not having emotional capacity... The explanation is relative to how one can best serve their friend."
The most important lesson from this particular viral moment? When someone asks for emotional support, it's okay — even healthy — to take a step back and assess whether you're capable of giving them your full, undivided attention. If you can't, there are ways to communicate that; and when you do, you may be doing both yourself and your friend a favour.