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People Have Strong Opinions About This Tweet Regarding Emotional Labor and Friendships

This week, everyone’s been talking about this tweet.

By “everyone,” I mean the limited, mostly mental health advocates and friends I follow on Twitter. And by “this tweet” I mean a Twitter thread put out by writer and advocate Melissa A. Fabello, who was inspired by a real text sent by a friend. The text read, “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?” — she then went on to explain why she appreciated this gesture. Here are some key parts of her thread, but you can read the whole thing here.

“The person who sent the text is a very good friend of mine. We have the kind of relationship wherein YES OF COURSE I would make time for her and her needs – as I know she would, me. That is to say, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t “have to” ask for permission for my time….

But here’s why that text was really, really important: (1) It acknowledges that I have limited time & emotional availability. (2) It asks permission to vent, rather than unloading without warning. (3) It notes the content of the conversation, which could be triggering for me. (4) It gives me a clear sense of the expectations for the conversation. (5) It gives me an opportunity to say yes, no, or to counteroffer (e.g., “I’m busy right now, but I’ll call you later tonight, if that works?”)…

Asking for consent for emotional labor, even from people with whom you have a long-standing relationship that is welcoming to crisis-averting, should be common practice…

Too often, friends unload on me without warning – which not only interrupts whatever I’m working on or going through, but also throws me into a stressful state of crisis mode that is hard to come down from. Unless it is TRULY an emergency, that’s unfair…

She then provided an example of what responding back to a friend could look like when you’re not in a good place to give support.

I follow Melissa on Twitter, so I saw the thread without much commentary. I know she writes about her lived experience with an eating disorder, so I figured her friend was being extra cautious specifically about this subject matter. I’m also close to a lot of people in a lot of therapy (like me!) who tend to intellectualize and apply mental health concepts to our own lives so I wasn’t completely jarred by the language, despite it being a little formal — especially her suggested response, which reads, “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 you can reach out to.”

Yeah, not the words I would use, but in general, I got her point and it resonated with me.

When I mentioned the tweet to my co-workers, I was surprised to hear their experience of the Twitter thread was completely different. They only saw negative takes on Melissa’s statements — people saying it was insulting to use the word “emotional labor” in reference to your friends, who thought this implied that friendship was transactional and who found the whole concept of permission-asking ludicrous. Why should you have to ask your friends for permission to vent? They’re your friends, for god’s sake. Aren’t friends supposed to be there for each other?

As I sat hearing the other side I hadn’t even considered, I experienced a moment of panic. Was I a bad friend because this resonated with me? Why do I sometimes need space and time to be there for my loved ones, when other people can drop everything, at all times, and always be there, no matter what?

The answer, of course, is that it’s complicated. My own response has a lot to do with my personal experience with friends and family members and my memories of a time when I didn’t have boundaries. When a call from home only meant someone was struggling or suicidal, and every time the phone rang, I was on high alert. Of course, I was happy to be there for the people who needed support, but my lack of boundaries made some of my relationships one-sided. But because I loved these people, I thought this is what you had to do. This is what being a friend looked like.

As I’ve made more room for my emotions, I’ve discovered two things: it’s harder for me to be “on-call” for the people in my life, but our relationships are more mutually supportive. And yes, that sometimes involves getting a text like this. It’s not the relationship I need with everyone, but it does help me navigate some relationships I do have with people I love dearly, who I want to continue to support in the best way I can.

On the other side, I would never want someone I love to think reaching out is a burden, and I hope even the people who give me a heads up before “rant time”  know — when push comes to shove — they can call me when they need me, no heads up required. It all depends, it’s all nuanced and we can 100% be there for our friends when they need us, while also acknowledging that supporting someone can be emotionally draining.

Because the conversation was so divided, even among my co-workers, I asked Mighty staff members — all who live with different disabilities, mental illnesses and chronic illnesses — how they felt about Melissa’s thread. Here are their thoughts. Let us know yours in the comments below, head to the Thought I posted here to see what other community members had to say.

Would you appreciate getting a text like this, or is it too much?

1. “Aside from the commentary brought up by this tweet on Twitter, letting someone know that you want to discuss something heavy with them is a good thing. Wouldn’t you rather talk about something that matters deeply to you when you know you have their full attention? I think giving a heads-up at the very least allows the listener to both 1. Set a good time to have this discussion so they can be fully present with you and 2. Let you know if they won’t be able to do that so you can go to someone who can. If it’s an emergency, that’s different, but I’d rather be able to support my friend while not also trying to grocery shop or work on a deadline that’s due in the next hour, if possible.” — Heidi Cope, Community Associate

2. “I used to be ‘bad’ at asking for permission before just venting or sharing a crisis I was going through at the time. Now I make a point to ask my friends and loved ones, ‘Do you have the bandwidth or availability to chat about something right now?’ If I can, I try to give them a heads up on the subject matter as well. I realized that asking for permission is important because I recently had to set this boundary with a family member who kept venting to me and using me as a sounding board all the time. It got to be very emotionally draining to take on their emotional labor. Asking for and being asked permission to chat about something heavy before diving into it is something my friends and I all try to enforce with one another.” —Monique Vitche, Associate Mental Health Editor

3. “I’m kind of on the fence about this. Most of the time I like to call people vs. text them when I need to vent/talk about how I’m doing. When/if they pick up the phone, I’m pretty good at reading whether or not someone has the capacity to talk about something heavier. On the flip side, it actually feels nice to be needed from the people whom I love unconditionally when they’re going through something difficult because it’s usually not an everyday occurrence (unlike Melissa, I don’t have a bunch of people I’m constantly trying to be an emotional buffer for). From a chronic illness perspective, most days have something hard about them. While I don’t vent about those all the time to everyone, it does help to have a few people whom I can text saying, ‘Wow my pain levels are off the charts today.’ And they usually remind me of the same things: “breathe, take a break, etc.” I don’t expect them to respond back to me right away, but it does help to know that someone else knows something is weighing on me today. —Haley Quinn, Senior Manager of Community Impact

4. “For me, it really depends on the friend and situation. I think it’s healthy to put boundaries on that make both parties feel comfortable. For conversations that are going to be hard or heavy but aren’t urgent, I think asking them if they’re in a space to talk about it is healthy. For conversations that are more urgent, like when you’re in crisis, I don’t think asking should be necessary. However that’s part of the boundaries talk. Knowing if someone can be part of your crisis plan if need be and establishing it ahead of time so you know that you can talk about it when needed.” — Ashley Kristoff, Video Producer

5. “I tend to ask people first if they are able to talk, I think it’s a good practice. I usually try to give them some idea of what it’s about, so they know I’m not upset with them or anything, just looking for someone to vent to or ask for advice about what’s going on in my life. And then if they are busy, we can arrange a time to talk when we are both physically and emotionally available. The person I often go to about things is my best friend, and he works as a delivery driver at night, so I’ll ask him to call me when he’s taking a break. I’ll usually let him know if I’m struggling or if I just want to talk about a movie I saw or some other interest we have in common. I think it’s important to have at least one friend you can call in a crisis and they will drop everything and be there for you, but I also know not everybody has such a person in their life. And if you do have such a person, it’s important to not over-rely on them and to ask/schedule times to talk for less urgent matters to respect their boundaries. My best friend is that person for me, but I know he’s also that person for a few other people and some of them do just call him and emotionally spill their guts without warning. So I try to give him space, support and gratitude for everything he does for me and others. I don’t want to be emotionally exhausting for him, especially when I know other people can be at times. And anytime he needs me, I am there! — Karin Willison, Disability Editor

6. “I believe it’s so important to ask for emotional consent before unloading on someone for a number of reasons, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to be there at any time, no matter what. Even for those without their own mental health struggles, even healthy, able-bodied people have things going on in their lives and shouldn’t be expected to be there no matter what. Even if you’re in a crisis, you don’t know what the other person is dealing with in that moment. Their own crisis could be brewing. They could be dealing with something beyond their own capacity. When speaking to someone who likewise struggles, it’s important to be upfront and check if they are in a place to be able to cope. If they aren’t, then it’s important for there to be others to reach out to, crisis lines and emergency services alike. Acknowledging the nature of the problem is likewise important because, as Melissa says, it’s important to note potential triggers. At the end of the day, we need to be able to fit our own emotional oxygen mask before helping others. If we aren’t in a place to help, then we need to make that clear and likewise, need to understand when it’s the case for those we might reach out to.” — Matt Sloan, Contributor Editor 

7. “I’ve been thinking about this all day because I’m also on the fence. I struggle with a lot of extra guilt about everything, especially in relationships, and am never sure about boundaries. So with this in mind, I like the idea of asking people before I talk to them about something difficult because it helps me directly assess their boundaries and absolve guilt that I am talking about something difficult and putting that emotional burden on someone else. However, I am trying to get better about asking directly when I am not sure about something in relationships, so I would talk with my friends first to see what works best for them. As far as people sending me a text and asking if I have bandwidth, I don’t have strong feelings either way and appreciate that they’re coming to me with good intentions however they want to start the conversation.” — Renee Fabian, Features Editor

8. “I feel, like others have mentioned, it depends on the relationship and the circumstances. If you have a friend you know is going through something particularly hard or who may be triggered by certain situations, this first text seems like a great thing to do. I also can see how worrying your vent could be seen as an “emotional burden” may make you feel worse or less inclined to ever ask for help. I think you have to ask your friends how they feel. That way you establish how you want to communicate ahead of time and know if it’s someone you should check with first or if it’s someone you can call no matter what. I think, if you’re not in urgent need of help, it also helps to contextualize where the person you’re texting may be. If you know they’re at work and have a lot going on, you may want to wait until you know they have a break or are out of the office. But again, if you’ve checked with this person earlier if it’s OK for you to text when they’re at work, then you’d know if it matters to them or not. I have friends who know no matter what I’d never want them to hesitate to reach out to me, but those same friends know and make an effort to check in on me, too, to make sure I’m doing OK even on days when I’m giving support.” — Megan Griffo, Editor-in-Chief

9. “I’m fairly opposed to this template and I think that’s because I’m viewing it in the context of my friendships, which makes sense! General advice isn’t going to be relevant to all people and situations. If I received a text like this it would fill me with dread because even if I didn’t have the capacity to engage in a conversation, I’d have a very hard time saying that. I’d rather someone text me the issue and then I can respond when I’m ready. With texting, you’re not obligated to respond right away, which is something I realized only recently. I’d rather respond when I’m ready even if that response is something simple like ‘Sorry to hear that. I hope you’re feeling better now.’ As someone who historically prefers to suffer in silence, I’d also have a hard time sending a text like that for fear of rejection since opening up is hard for me.” — Jordan Davidson, Managing Editor

For more opinions, check out what The Mighty community had to say.

  • “I wish people would ask me questions like that instead of just dumping their issues on me. I would almost always say yes because I feel like I’m supposed to, but it would still be nice to be asked.” — Elizabeth
  • “I always tell my friends: You can write to me whenever, about whatever. I may not have the answers you’re looking for, and I might not answer you right away, because sometimes I need to think about what to say to you. But if it helps you, just getting it out, go for it.” — Veronica
  • “I would be insulted. I can’t quite articulate the emotions that come up if I got a text like this. I sense it being somewhat patronizing. If this was a true friend then they would know what state I was in to begin with, so they would not need to ‘text’ me to check. I cannot speak for others but I look for mutual respect and can reciprocate a listening ear when needed. I know I can be there for friends. I just have learned the hard way that some friends can’t be there for me. This text bring that kind of response in me that this is a text from someone that’s not a friend who is only thinking of themselves and the person they are texting they are judging that their ‘mental health’ get in the way of ‘them’ getting what they want.” — MoodFood21
  • “I think it’s OK to want to set boundaries and if a friend needs me to ask before I vent, I’m down. I don’t personally need that myself, but I get why someone would and I’d respect the hell out of it.” — Sarah S.
  • “I personally hate when people think I’m too fragile for them to vent to me. I don’t want to be treated like a child.” — Chey
  • “I’m not sure if I would mind it or not, but I think it’s unnecessary. Just simply ask if I have the time to talk about something that is heavy or important.” — Crose.cr7

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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