What do you mean “boundaries”???

These days a conversation blew up in my Twitter feed, started by what seemed to me a pretty thread about asking for help and emotional labour:

“I want to chat briefly about this text that I received from a friend last week:

“Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes””

Sounds pretty harmless, right? She talks about friends respecting their friend’s capacity, how amazing she thought it was for her friend to check in with her whether she could handle such a conversation right now, and after being asked for one, she provided a template for declining:

“Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect (later date or time) instead / Do you have someone else to reach out to?”

From some of the reactions on my carefully curated Twitter feed you’d think she’d proposed skinning live kittens. People accused her of being a shitty friend (because saying “that’s tough” is easy and all that is needed) to being so deep in capitalist thinking that she wants to make personal interactions transactional and I just thought “WTF”???

Because nowhere does she mention wanting something in return. Nowhere does she decline helping her friends in general. She’s probably a very good listener who is compassionate, providing her friends with emotional support, or otherwise that particular friend would probably not ask her for her time.

What struck me was how nasty the conversation turned and how entitled people felt to other’s emotional space. Because boy do I know what it means to be emotionally exhausted. I talk a lot about my job, and most of the time I take it with humour. I have good emotional hygiene, which is something that I had to build with time, and I have a loving family that can provide ME with emotional support. And still sometimes I’ll leave school feeling raw and overwhelmed. When you have to have long conversations about abuse. When you hear that a girl the same age as your daughter was raped. If you came to me to vent with something perfectly legitimate but less severe than that, I might blow and take it out on you. You don’t want me to call you a crybaby who needs to get a grip. Not because that’s what I think, but because it would be self -defense against you needing something I just cannot afford to spend. I would be a bad friend to you, but you’d also be a bad friend to me.

If you came with something equally serious, I might simply break down. Again, none of us would be helped by this. I have the suspicion that the people demanding 24/7 emotional availability from their friends don’t care about their side of the interaction. Maybe they have less stressful jobs. maybe they have a greater mental capacity. Or maybe they are usually the venting side, not the being vented at side. And maybe they just never thought about this. In that case: please do so now. Do reach out. You’re not a burden to your friends, but please don’t forget that right now, they may not be able to give you what you need.


  1. lorn says

    I guess the two sides break down around the question:

    1) Is it better to assume, or fake, capacity and end up resenting the unwanted burden while providing only nominal support and poorly thought out advice.

    2) Is it better to tell a person openly that you aren’t prepared to provide the level of support and attention necessary.

    In neither case is the person going to get the support, attention, and careful consideration necessary. The only real variable is that in case 1 you get credit for trying but no credit for self-awareness or honesty to yourself or a needy friend.

    In case 2 you get less credit for trying but points for self-awareness and honesty.

    So, for me, the question comes down to how you wish to see yourself and how you wish to be seen. In a nutshell: is it better to be well intentioned but feckless, or bluntly honest but functional?

    I lean toward the later simply because it saves time. Time that your needy friend can use to find someone able to give them what they need.

  2. voyager says

    I tend to agree with Lorn. Honesty does save time and allows the needy friend to find someone else, It also doesn’t burn you out. Feeling burdened and resentful can quite negatively affect a relationship, and they also deplete your own resources. An essential part of emotional self-care is recognizing your limits and respecting them. Tell your friends that you care, but that your own resources are low. A good friend will understand. I would ensure that it isn’t a crisis and gently suggest other supports, but I wouldn’t feel guilty for saying no to someone. I hope that my friends would be equally honest with me in the same situation.

  3. says

    Yeah, I don’t think anybody is talking about life or death situations. You will walk the extra mile if your BFFs partner died. But if your BFFs partner was just an insensitive ass, and you are already at the end of your tether, it’s better to tell your friend that maybe you should meet another time.
    @Lorn I know that I have sympathetically listened to Mr venting about his work week while actually not taking in anything he said. Sure he felt better afterwards. I felt worse.

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