Is this tweet about emotional labour sociopathic or just self-care?

It raises the question about when to prioritise yourself over your other people’s emotional needs.

by Alim Kheraj
20 November 2019, 7:30pm

Everyone has a limit to how much stuff they can handle. The threshold might vary from person to person, but ultimately when you reach capacity it can feel impossible to take on any additional emotional weight. So, just don’t – at least that’s what writer, activist and educator Melissa A. Fabello says. In a tweet that is being shared widely on the timeline, she lays out “how you can respond to someone if you don’t have the space to support them”.

“Hey! I’m so glad that you reached out,” her suggested template response read. “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 could reach out to?”

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with realising and acknowledging that you’re not in the right position to help a friend or person who may need support. Yet there seems to be something missing from Melissa’s tweet: empathy. You see, Melissa’s tweet doesn’t feel like a loving or caring response to a friend who is reaching out for assistance, but rather like an out of office auto-reply or an HR email thanking you so much for your job application but how, unfortunately, at this time you were unsuccessful because the company’s staff quota is at capacity.

Naturally, such a clinical and cold response to a cry for help was met with derision, with people replying to the tweet with comments about the strange bureaucratisation of friendship and repeated accusations that such a response was sociopathic. Taking the template at face value, even the Department for Work and Pensions looks more empathetic.

Of course, if a friend was in crisis and you replied saying that you had no capacity for them, the implications could be serious. It could also cause serious fractures in your relationships, your detachment and self-preservation viewed as self-absorption. It’s gutting when you’re in need and you have a friend turn around and say, “Soz, not right now.” It not only leave you angry, but isolated and alone.

However, Melissa’s tweet didn’t exist in isolation. It was, in fact, part of a longer thread which touched on requesting consent before unloading emotionally on somebody. It seems fairly simple, and usually by asking someone how they are you are inviting them to share their feelings, but given how communication has changed, often we can lead with with our problems or need to vent first. We rarely, if ever, check before. And while often these messages are usually one-sided monologues ranting, moaning or lamenting something, little thought is given to those on the receiving end of them.

“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,” Melissa wrote. “It sets the tone for the conversation; I'm now prepared for what's coming, rather than feeling barraged. It gives the listener the ability to do their best job; I can set myself up to have this talk, rather than being put on the spot. And it allows me to check in with myself and my own needs.”

Melissa even notes that sometimes people are in crisis or feel so overwhelmed by a situation which might not be urgent but feels humongous that we do require someone’s attention immediately and without preamble. Nevertheless, it’s raised some interesting questions about how much empathy is too much empathy, and whether hitting pause on your emotional availability is self-care or bad friendship.

Speaking to Glamour last year in a piece about friendship and emotional labour, psychologist and author of The Friendship Fix, Dr Andrea Bonior, noted that “[i]f 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”. This, she argued, could lead to resentment or feeling emotionally burnt out.

What the tweet thread perhaps overlooks is that fact that while someone might need to share something or vent, there’s not always an expectation that they want the person on the receiving end to adopt the feelings, mind frame or position they’re in. Indeed, there’s even research to suggest that engaging with other people’s emotions is actually beneficial for our own emotional wellbeing. A 2014 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience argued “that socially sharing emotional experiences is in itself perceived as hedonically positive and thereby contributes to the regulation of individual emotion”.

It makes sense, then, that our initial reaction to someone sharing their feelings with us is to attempt to soothe and solve any emotional difficulties: it makes us better human beings. The immediate recoil to Melissa’s tweet could, in fact, be a subconscious knee-jerk rejection to our socio-psychological conditioning.

That’s not to say that human beings are bottomless pits of emotional availability or empathy, and there will be times when you’re not in a position to take on or even engage with someone else’s problems. And of course it’s okay to put yourself first in those situations – it’s actively encouraged. In fact, even the sentiment of Melissa’s tweet is recommended. Speaking to Refinery29 in a piece about how to support your friends, clinical psychologist, Dr. Kristin Zeising said that communication is the most important thing. “When you just cut off communication with other people they may feel hurt or disrespected, or concerned about how you’re doing,” she said. “It can cause more problems than just simply communicating that you’re going through a lot and you may be limited in how much time you can give to the relationship or spend with the person."

The problem, therefore, isn’t that prioritising your own mental health and capacity above the emotional needs of others is frowned upon or somehow bad, but rather how we go about doing that. Clearly, the wrong way, given the reaction to the tweet, is to be dismissive. Rather, carefully selecting the language we use is obviously important. Acknowledging someone’s feelings goes a long way as it shows you hear and care about what someone is telling you. If you’re overwhelmed or, as Melissa would say, at capacity, instead of explicitly saying you can’t handle or deal with someone at that moment, suggesting another time to talk IRL might be a good way to diffuse any difficulty, giving you both the time to figure out how you’re feeling.

If that feels like too much, it’s also okay to not respond. Depending on the severity of the situation, it’s perfectly fine to put your phone down and leave communicating for later, or just flat out ignore the message. Whether you can do that or not depends on your own will. Likelihood is that the person messaging you will see no response and go to someone else. And that’s fine.

Being human is messy business, especially when it comes to our emotions. Gatekeeping them with layers of consent, or turning emotional engagement into some sort of transactional box ticking exercise is impossible. In fact, having a template with how to deal with situations or people’s emotional needs feels redundant; there are not clear cut avenues for how you may respond to someone, even if you feel at capacity. Rather, in the immortal words of Harry Styles, we should just treat people, including yourself, with kindness.

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