When You’re The Go-To For Emotional Labor And Advice, Boundaries Are Essential

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I just listened to a very, very long voice mail from one of my friends. To be completely honest, I saw her name come up on my phone, and my head almost feel into my lettuce wrap. I knew why she was calling: she needed me immediately for something that was in no way urgent. But the only thing I wanted to do with my mouth was eat, not talk.
“I’ll call you later,” I texted her. “I’m busy.”
She’s my friend and I do love her. But I was right about her call: it was about a man she’s never even met before, and I wasted two minutes of my much-needed lunch break listening to her message about him. I felt agitated when I hung up the phone — and that was on me. I didn’t have to listen to it. I should’ve kept eating.
I like to be there for my friends and family, I do. I’ve been through a lot of shit just like everyone else, and we all need to be met with compassion and understanding.

But we all know that sometimes when you are open and willing to sit with someone and help them through their pain, sometimes you go from being a support beam to a dumping ground. There’s a fine line, and many people teeter on the edge of taking advantage of someone who makes themselves emotionally available.

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I’m not willing to give up my role as the supportive friend and family member, though. One, it helps me take my mind off my troubles and allows me to see the world is bigger than me and my problems.
It’s also flattering that people trust me enough to share their life and journey with me — I’ve been told many times I’m a great listener, and it makes me feel good that I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives.
I want to be available. I want to help. I want to be approachable because, when you think about it, if we don’t have “our people,” what do we have?
We all have our limits though. The older I get, the better I’ve been able to establish boundaries so I don’t have to give up my “Dear Abby” status altogether. Not being able to drop everything and run doesn’t make me a bad friend — spreading myself too thin and feeling resentful about it does.
If you’ve been the person everyone can rely on (you know who you are), it can feel heavy at times, but that doesn’t mean you have to go rogue and tell everyone to find a new person to lean on. It simply means you need to prioritize and set limits. People won’t know what those are if you don’t show them where your edge is. It’s not fair to expect them to know when we are, and when we aren’t able to be there for them.
After taking a step back, breathing, eating my lunch, and cleaning up a bit, I was ready to tackle the rest of my work obligations. Then, and only then, was my head in a much better spot to listen to my friend talk about how she wasn’t sure if she should go on a date with this guy who she’d been really excited about because he’d dated an acquaintance of hers a few years ago.
 
I realized while she was talking it out that she didn’t need me to fix it or give her any advice. What she needed was someone to cut through the drama to help her come to a decision fast. I’ve found an excellent remedy for that: When someone comes to you with a ball of shit they are trying to wade through and they don’t know what they are going to do and are so stressed they can’t see the big picture, you ask, “What are you going to do about it?”
 
It immediately takes the pressure off of me to feel like I have to fix it for them, but allows me to be there to listen without talking, which is a lot less exhausting if I do say so myself.
 
I don’t want my people to stop coming to me. I have really good advice to offer (when asked) dammit, and I enjoy the connection and communication. But by taking some space when I need it, realizing I don’t have to put their needs before mine, and not feeling like I am in charge of fixing it, I’ve been able to do a much better job of being present when someone needs to blow off some steam.
 
I guess you could say, those of us who are the go-to-person for everyone do it because we take pride in it and enjoy it. In no way do we want to give up our roles, but we do deserve to vent and bitch about the weight we carry every once in a while. Lord knows we’ve earned it.