How to emotionally support your friends without draining your own batteries

If you are an empathetic person, chances are you jump at the chance to help everyone around you. You probably thrive off of hearing your friends’ problems, giving them a shoulder to cry on and supporting them through anything from breakups, to bereavement to job loss.

While it’s great to be emotionally supportive, taking on too much can be exhausting and draining. You may find yourself struggling with your own self-care because you’ve spent all of your energy caring for others. This is not a great place to end up because you may end up not only resenting your loved ones but developing mental health issues of your own too. Compassion burnout is a very common problem, especially for young women. This is because we are raised to believe that it is our job to nurture others and to put them first.

Radical self-care is all about ensuring that you attend to your own emotional needs before others. This is not being selfish, it is being sensible. On aeroplanes, they tell you to fasten your own oxygen mask before assisting others: the same must be done with emotional support. Consider it this way: one person who is drowning cannot properly rescue another. You need to make sure your feet are on hard ground and that you can breathe before you pull someone else out. Otherwise, you will both just sink.

Caring for yourself does not mean you become completely uncaring to others either: Putting up walls and reducing your own vulnerability will not help anybody, because it will reduce your ability to grow and learn yourself. The best metaphor for what you should be, with regards to caring for others, is like a semi-permeable membrane: Let some stuff in, but keep out the things that may harm you.

Here are some tips for practising self-care while being a supportive friend.

Setting boundaries
It is not uncommon for a friend to become co-dependent. 3am phone calls, sobbing and pulling you into the bathroom every time you go out, maybe even getting jealous of your other friends. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to set some boundaries.

Setting boundaries is not the same as rejecting someone. It is easier to care for someone if you communicate your need for space with them. You should never be too afraid to speak openly, honestly and frankly with close friends.

An example of something you could say is:

“I really care about you and want the absolute best for you. Recently, however, my own mental health has been suffering. It would really help me if you would only vent problems to me between certain times, and if you would leave the evenings for me to unwind and destress alone. I want to be able to provide you with the support you need, but I need this space to do so effectively.”

You can alter the content of this depending on what boundary you feel is being crossed, and make it an open dialogue. If your friend reacts poorly, it is possible that they do not respect your needs and so you must consider whether it is a relationship worth keeping.

Asking consent
If you yourself get into the habit of asking for consent before you vent, it will encourage others in your circle to do the same. When your girl chat is popping off, you’re all vibing and discussing your weekend plans, and someone out of the blue begins a soliloquy about personal and heavy stuff, it can put the others into a really difficult situation.

If you simply say, “Hey, is it alright if I vent for a second? I just want some advice. It’s okay to say no,” You will show your friends the importance of asking before offloading. It also gives the asker the opportunity to express what kind of support they need in that moment. Sometimes people just want sympathy, sometimes they want solutions and sometimes they are open to hearing similar stories. Asking consent before venting will allow you to say if you don’t want a certain kind of response.

Making sure you have someone to turn to as well
A frequent problem for listeners is that they may feel unable to express their own problems. If you take on the role of always absorbing and listening, who is going to care for and listen to you when you need help too?

Make sure your relationship with your friends goes both ways, and that you can talk to them about what bothers you.

Checking in with yourself
External to your interactions with others, you should have a regime in place intended for you and only you. Check-in with yourself frequently by asking: “Am I okay right now? What do I need?” Always listen to what your gut is telling you, and whether you are close to being at compassionate capacity.

If you find this is the case, take a day out. Switch off your phone and take a walk in nature. Treat yourself to your favourite activities and really switch off. This will allow you to rejuvenate and continue to be the best possible friend you can.

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