Love shouldn’t hurt – ever

Emotional empathy
Most people need an outlet to unload all the messy things that happen in their lives, and usually that outlet is a close friend. Helping those close to you work through their life complications can feel rewarding; however, it is important to monitor your own emotions in order to maintain objectivity and protect your own mental health. Sometimes, carrying the weight of friends’ problems can weigh you down. It’s easy to become emotionally burnt out by trying to be a good friend. So how can you continue to be a supportive friend but avoid emotional fatigue?

First, make sure your relationship is equal. If you are the one who is always showing up and supporting friends but they aren’t showing up for you, you may start to feel bad about the entire dynamic. “If someone is always the one that’s listening and absorbing all that stress, it’s really hard for them to feel like they’re getting their needs met,” says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., psychologist, author of The Friendship Fix. “The danger isn’t only feeling burnt out but feeling resentful when your friends don’t ask you how you’re doing.” We often see memes saying to “check on your strong friends”. What makes someone a “strong friend”? Are they considered strong because you can’t see any hardships they carry inside, or do they just appear strong to you because you haven’t taken the time to ask what may be going on in their life? It’s important to create a space for friends where they cannot only give support but receive it also.

Secondly, educate yourself on emotional empathy and how to avoid empathy burnout. The empathy one has for others is what psychologists call emotional empathy. That means you actually feel the weight of others’ experiences, both good and bad. If you are struggling in your own life, it’s hard to be the support for others. And sometimes you experience empathy burnout, which basically is when a person is regularly expending much of their energy to care for others to the point that they, themselves, feel exhausted. Madeline Lucas, LMSW, explains, “If someone spends all their time filling up other people’s buckets and holding space for their feelings and experience, there’s bound to be a moment when their own bucket comes up empty.” To help avoid this burnout, we must set healthy boundaries to protect our overall well-being. If you have ever been on an airplane you may have noticed that the safety instructions state that in the event of an emergency, you should put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. That makes sense. It is hard to help others if you are struggling to breathe yourself.

The same principle applies to supporting a friend who is struggling. In order to help them well, you need to take care of yourself first. Sometimes we must back off and rest and recharge, doing self-check in’s and realize when we are feeling stretched too thin or taking on too much of someone else’s burdens. Lucas reminds us, “By maintaining clear emotional boundaries, you are with the other person and their emotions, but aren’t feeling them for the other person.” This can help to protect one from empathy burnout.

Lastly, realize that friends experiencing hardships aren’t always looking for someone to “fix” things; rather, sometimes they just need to vent, sometimes they need words of encouragement, and sometimes they may want your advice. To make sure you are offering what they need, it’s okay to ask what support they’re looking for. Most of the time, they are looking for understanding and compassion from someone with genuine concern. That could be as simple as a supporting hug, encouraging text, or maybe lunch together, or finding outside resources with which to connect. At Crisis Services, we offer services to not on the victim, but those in their inner circle who are also affected by the experienced trauma.

Crisis Services of North Alabama offers free and confidential services to victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. If you are a victim or supporting a victim, we are here to support you. Reach out to our Jackson County office for an appointment at 256.574.5826. We also offer a 24/7 HELPline, where you can speak with a trained crisis counselor at 256.716.1000. You are not alone.

-Teresia Smith

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