Ways To Ask For Emotional Support From People Without Draining Them In The Long Run
A social mistake a few people make is they share too much about their struggles and ask for too much emotional support from others. They might:
- Tell someone about a bunch of their problems soon after meeting them
- Have a ton of things to complain or vent about every time they hang out with a friend
- Go into upsetting details about traumatic events from their past with people who weren't expecting it
- Often be in a really sad, angry, or anxious mood, and try to get others to make them feel better
- Try to have long, therapy-style conversations with everyone about their troubles
- Go to a new friend for emotional support for many, many times within a short period
This behavior can bother people right away, in the sense of, "Uh, I just met this person and they're telling me how their mom abused them. I'm not in the mood to take this on." It can also wear them down longer term. Someone may be sympathetic and supportive at first, but start to feel drained and taken for granted when it seems their friend is constantly using them as a free counselor.
It goes without saying that there's nothing wrong with reaching out to someone when you're upset. Though there are ways to seek support that are also considerate of the other person. Even when someone's glad to do it, being emotionally supportive is work. You want to lighten the load for whoever's helping you as much as possible. Everyone wins that way. They'll feel appreciated and respected, and have more energy to continue supporting you, rather than slowly getting worn down and pulling away.
Below I'll list a bunch of ways you can adjust the way you ask for support. It's mainly aimed at people who have mental health struggles, often go to their friends, family, and colleagues, and have a real risk of damaging their relationships if they overdo it. However, the suggestions are useful for everyone to know, even if they don't need to apply them as often.
Some objections people may have to the idea of tweaking how they ask for support
You can skip this section if you're on board with the premise of the article and just want to read the hands-on tips. If its concept bothers you, I'll go into more detail about what it is and isn't trying to say.
This article isn't try to shame or attack anyone who asks for a lot of emotional support
People who share their struggles at inappropriate times are often looked down on. They can be seen as selfish, annoying, immature, energy vampires, and so on. And yes, it can be legitimately aggravating to have a co-worker who has poor boundaries and dumps too many of their issues on you. However, it's important to point out that people who act this way usually aren't being malicious when they do it:
- Sometimes they aren't aware they're making a mistake. They don't have the social or life experience to know what they're bringing up their problems in a less than ideal way.
- Simple naivety aside, someone may have even grown up in an environment where it was normal to complain, overshare, or expect someone else to do all the work of soothing them when they were unhappy. They may have learned things like, "Griping about your day is a good way to keep a conversation going" or, "If you're annoyed, then it's your family's job to make you feel better."
- They're often in a lot of emotional pain at that moment and just looking for a way to feel better. Another part of them may know it's not a good idea to ask their friend for support for the third evening in a row, but the part that's hurting wants some relief right this second, and isn't thinking about the longer-term dangers to the relationship.
- They may be trying to connect on a deeper level. They think discussing their heavy problems is a way to be authentic, bond, or have a more meaningful conversation. They don't realize they're taking an emotional toll on their friends and colleagues.
- They may believe the only way they can get love, caring, and support is if they seem like they're perpetually beset by one crisis or another. They think no one will care about them if they appear fairly healthy and together.
- They might be acting out an unconscious pattern where they didn't get enough comfort or nurturing as a child, and are constantly looking for it now. They often seek support from others, but what help they get never feels like enough, so they keep asking for more. They might dream that one day all their problems will be solved when they meet an uber-caring super friend who will offer them endless help and encouragement.
I think a handful of people who talk about their problems a lot are doing it from a self-centered, narcissistic, entitled mindset, but they're the exception. The majority are genuinely emotionally suffering and doing the best they can to get their needs met, even if the way they try to accomplish that could backfire.
Adjusting the way you ask for support doesn't mean you have to totally neglect your needs for the sake of everyone's comfort
Some people feel defensive about the thought of changing how or how often they ask for help because they see it as being told to shut up and put on a fake happy mask so they don't burden anyone with their inconvenient feelings. It's not an All Or Nothing choice between the extremes of asking for help in a completely unfiltered, unrestricted way vs. never asking at all.
I realize there are many harmful messages in society that discourage people from opening up or asking for help when they should:
- There are stigmas against mental illness
- There are cultural expectations that certain groups be strong and stoic, and that revealing any emotional struggle is a shameful weakness on their part
- There are abusive, selfish family members who push the narrative that everything is fine, and if you act upset about anything that happens in the household, or god forbid, want some help feeling better about it, you're an ungrateful, needy, melodramatic whiner
- Toxic workplaces may have similar unspoken rules
- There are societal trends like toxic positivity, or an expectation that to succeed in your career you have to act like everything is always going amazingly for you
Obviously those ideas are poisonous nonsense. No one should shut down their feelings or willingness to ask for support entirely. It's about finding a balance, where you're able to open up, but don't do it in ways that strain your connections.
Suggestions for how to ask for support in an appropriate way
Two quick dlsclaimers:
- I like being thorough, so there are a lot of points here. No one has to do all of these, especially if you only go to your friends or family for help occasionally. Though the more often you ask for support, the more important it is to package your requests in a way that conserves other people's batteries.
- Be compassionate with yourself if you can't follow these guidelines all the time. I think it's important to know them, and do your best not to put too much on your support system, but cut yourself some slack if you can't perfectly apply every idea below. Sometimes we just get upset and overwhelmed and end up oversharing or venting too much to a friend. You can always apologize and try to do better next time.
Don't bring up distressing topics with people you've just met in day to day places
Most of these involve people you've known for a while, so I'll get this one out of the way.
Even if they give off a really compassionate or understanding vibe, most people aren't willing or able to do the emotional work of providing emotional support to a stranger. In certain circumstances, like a therapy retreat, it may be fine to launch right into more personal material, but in regular situations, like meeting a friend of a friend on a hike, it's not the right move.
Directly ask for support, rather than hint at your problems here and there and hope someone steps up
It can wear away at people if they're hanging out with someone who peppers the conversation with lots of vague passing complaints. All the little doses of negativity can add up. I know it's not always easy to come right out and ask for help, but if something is bothering you it's usually better to be straightforward about wanting to talk about it.
Quickly ask before you bring up something heavy or upsetting
Another thing that people find draining is when a friend seems to take for granted that they can launch into talking about their problems whenever they want. Their friend never checks in to see if they're even in a headspace to be supportive or listen to material that might be disturbing. You can do it quickly, but it's best to ask first, e.g., "Hey, is it okay if I tell you about this huge fight I had with my wife right now?" If someone says they're not in the mood to lend an ear, then respect their decision.
Let people know they can tell you when they've hit their supportiveness limit for the day
This is especially important if you've got a ton on your plate and could vent about your problems for hours if given the green light. Say something like, "I really appreciate that you're here for me. I know my life's messy right now, and I understand if you don't have the mental room to hear about all of it. Let me know if you need me to stop for now." Of course, you need to be able to actually change the subject if they ask you to.
Have a rough sense of what kind of support you want from someone
This can help keep the conversation as quick and focused as it needs to be. Are you looking for advice, validation, understanding and acceptance, help calming your intense emotions, or a sounding board to bounce your thoughts off so you sort them out and come to some conclusions on your own? Once you know what you want, ask for it. This can save everyone time and emotional energy, as you can jump to what's important. You can avoid situations where your friend ends up tiring themselves out listening to you vent for half an hour, thinking that's what you wanted, when they actually could have cut to the chase and given you the direct opinion you were hoping for.
Be careful about bringing up heavy material during light, fun social events
It's not that you can never say anything serious or personal at a party or during Board Game Night, but consider the setting. If everyone's gotten together to have fun, joke around, and blow off some steam on a Saturday evening, they're probably not in the mood to hear how you're feeling super hopeless about the dating scene. It's better to wait until you're hanging out with one of your friends alone, or you could at least take someone aside during a quiet moment.
Spread your requests for emotional support around. Don't put everything on one or a handful of people
Even if they're very loving and willing to help, it can be a mental strain to have to give someone a ton of emotional support, or be the only person they rely on. They may seem fine with it at first, but it can suddenly feel like too much. If you're at a place in your life where you need plenty of support, try your best to split the load between several people.
Try to have most of the time you spend with a friend not focused on getting emotional support from them
There's not an exact ratio I can give you, and every relationship is different, but overall the majority of what you talk about shouldn't involve receiving emotional support from them. That goes for what you cover within any one conversation, but also across several interactions. If the last time you hung out you talked about your struggles most of the time, you should be able to meet up a couple of times in the future and not mention your issues much, if at all, to even everything out.
Again, I'm not saying you can never discuss your problems, or that you have to pretend everything is hunky dory when you're going through a rough patch. It's that many people have relationships where they'll go weeks or months without needing to get too negative or heavy. When we have a lot on our plate we can think we're giving our friends plenty of balance and breathing room when we only discuss our problems 30% of the time, but to them that's still way too much, and unsustainable long term. Knowing that can give you some perspective, and may make you realize you've got to diversify your support network more.
Be willing to use formal mental health services like therapists and support groups
If you're dealing with more serious mental health issues, or are just going through a ton right now, then when you spread your support needs around, a chunk of the load should be given to therapists and/or a support group. They're better able to give you the kind of help you need. Also, there are some mental health challenges that regular people just aren't equipped to deal with. They don't have the education, training, or experience to properly handle them. They may still be able to help around the edges, but can't be expected to try to do everything on their own. While therapy can be pricey, there are cheaper or free options, like government subsidized community agencies or free drop-in groups.
Try to be fairly succinct
The more time someone has to emotionally support you the more it will deplete them. You don't have to boil everything down to a single sentence, but cut out as much unnecessary detail as you can. Even though a venting part of you may want to be thorough and get it all out, that's often not needed. For example, you could simply tell your friend, "Ugh, I'm angry at my boss. He's really been micromanaging me this week." That's enough to get the point across. You don't need to give a blow by blow of every email of yours he nitpicked.
As much as you can, try to keep your energy calm and neutral
I know this is easier said than done when you're really agitated and discouraged, which is why I wrote "as much as you can". Much of the mental labor of supporting someone comes from being around intense, uncomfortable emotions. When a friend is angry and ranting you can't help but feel a bit agitated and annoyed too. The same goes for when someone is really sad and defeated, or whiny, or jittery and wound up.
It's easier to be supportive when someone's emotional energy is relatively calm, and the discussion of their troubles feels more abstract and theoretical. Again, no one's saying you need to be perfectly mellow before going to anyone with your troubles, but it will be less draining for your supporters if you can rein in or hide your emotions to a degree.
It's not possible as often, but if you want to go one step further you could even talk about an issue in an upbeat, positive, or amusingly exasperated way. Like you could deliver a mini-comedy routine about your messy, inconsiderate roommate, or explain a challenge you're facing, but with an air of, "I know I can handle it." You still get to cover what's bothering you, but the vibe is more enjoyable to your audience.
Try to be self-aware about any patterns you have regarding your issues or the way you ask for help
The next few points will touch on this as well. It's easier to support people through certain challenges if they're aware of what's going on, if they're able to say things like, "I'm sorry. I know I talk about my same boring worries over and over, even though they never come true" or, "I know I'm being a bit tiring and needy for wanting to talk about the break up again." It shows you're thinking of how things are from your support giver's perspective, even if you can't stop bringing up certain topics entirely. The idea isn't to get them to reassure you that you're not being boring or annoying, but to genuinely show you know how you can come across.
Be careful about bringing up the same problems again and again with one person
People are most understanding and sympathetic when someone talks about a problem for the first time. Their patience starts to run out when you bring up the same thing over and over. Even if they know on a logical level it's an ongoing concern you can't solve overnight, they can still start to get tired of hearing about it.
If you return to the same topic several times, it helps to acknowledge you're doing it. It's good if you can at least discuss it from a new angle. People can get especially fed up if you keep covering the same ground, but don't seem to make any headway on it. If you're pretty sure a friend is getting a bit miffed by you returning to a subject, it's good to apologize. You don't need to throw yourself at their feet and grovel, but say you're sorry.
For some ongoing, mostly manageable issues it can be better for you not to bring them up all the time
This is something people with chronic, though more-or-less under control, conditions have found for themselves. They could suffer from a physical disorder like recurring headaches, or a mental health one, like constant, low-grade anxiety. They often feel crappy, and a part of them wants to bring it up and vent some irritation or be comforted, but they've learned that ultimately they feel worse when they mention it all the time. If they complained during every instance they were in pain that's all their life would be.
Their thinking goes, "I know I get anxious about my health every few days. Everyone around me knows it too. It's not news. I've been like this for years. I hate how I feel in the middle of an episode, but it always passes, even though at the moment it seems like this is the time it's all finally going to fall apart. Bringing it up and devoting attention to it just amplifies the discomfort in my mind, and burns out my friends. It gives it too much power and importance. When I'm having an episode it's better to just get on with my day, and let the anxiety smolder in the background." As always, this isn't about putting on a brave front so as not to inconvenience everyone else. It's that deciding not to talk about it all the time actually lowers your distress and empowers you in a way.
People will be less sympathetic about your struggles if you seem to make the same avoidable mistake over and over
Someone might understand on a theoretical level how a person could repeatedly make the same mistake, but on an emotional level their sympathy will start to run out. They'll think, "Why should I keep offering them my support if they're not going to help themselves?" Like with a previous point, if you have to seek support for a mistake you've made again, be self-aware and lead with a quick apology.
People will also run out of sympathy much faster if you seem to bring your problems on yourself
It's one thing to be supportive of a genuine victim. It's another if someone seems to invite their issues into their lives, e.g., they stir up unnecessary drama with their co-workers then want to complain about it, or they're upset about being broke, while they constantly blow their money on dumb purchases. Again, some people who are educated about psychological issues may understand the complex unconscious dynamics that can cause someone to make self-destructive choices, but most aren't that knowledgeable.
Try not to seem like you're shooting down every last piece of advice someone gives you
It can test a support giver's compassion if a friend comes to them for help about a problem, then dismisses every suggestion they get to fix it. Having a reason one or two ideas won't work is understandable. It's another to claim nothing whatsoever could work. Once more, a handful of people are savvy about mental health issues and know why someone may feel hopeless and pessimistic to the point they become a so-called Help Rejecting Complainer. Your average person will just think, "They came to me for advice, then gave me a thousand and one excuses why none of it would work. If they're going to be like that, I'm not going to bother."
First, if you find yourself brushing aside practical suggestions because you never wanted them to begin with, and would just like someone to listen instead, let your support person know. If you did explicitly ask for advice, but realize you're explaining why nothing will work, try to contain the urge to pooh pooh everything. Even if you inwardly believe you're not getting top shelf counsel - and you might not be - be polite and act as if you're taking it all in and considering it. You can change the subject if you're tired of getting ideas that aren't doing it for you.
If you're struggling with an insecurity about a specific relationship then try not to bring it up around the person it involves
For example, you worry a friend doesn't like you and is going to drop you at any moment. It's okay to bring your fears up with them once and hopefully get some reassurance. Even then, it's arguable that it's better to try to sort out that insecurity on your own.
After that it's a bad idea to continually bring up your fears with your buddy and ask for confirmation they still don't hate you. They're likely to get tired of soothing you. Also, if you have these kinds of worries in the first place, odds are no matter how much direct reassurance you get, it won't stick, and you'll want more before long. Discuss these kinds of fears with someone else.
Try not to put supportive people in the middle of your conflicts
If you're annoyed at two of your friends, it's best to go to a neutral, uninvolved third party for any support about it. Talking about it with someone who knows one or both of them puts them in an awkward spot.
Be cautious about making too many fleeting, jokey mentions of your struggles
This suggestion isn't as urgent, but still worth keeping in mind. Some people know not to bring up their issues in a suffocating, gloomy way, but they'll still pepper their conversations with little jokes or comments about their problems. Like they'll turn down an offer of a snack with a line about still being on their Depression Diet.
If you do it every now and then it can be endearing to make light of your problems. It shows you're self-aware and able to have a sense of humor about your situation. However, if you joke around about it too much it can still start to subtly wear on everyone. For one, you're injecting tiny hits of negativity into your interactions. All those little reminders of your struggles can add up. Second, it can make people wonder if you're quietly trying to turn the conversation toward your problems, and hope someone will ask about them, but you don't want to directly say so.
Be willing and able to be supportive in return
One more common complaint is, "Whenever my friend is going through a hard time, which is every two days, they expect to be able to go on about their problems for hours, but god forbid I ever try to go to them with one of my issues. Their eyes glaze over after ten seconds, they say some tone deaf platitude, then change the subject." Obviously the dynamic will seem selfish and one-sided if you constantly ask for help, but aren't able to return the favor.
Don't turn the conversation back to your own problems if someone comes to you for support
To continue from the last point, an infamous way someone can fail to be supportive in return is if they dismiss someone's struggles, say they've got it way worse, then start going on about their own issues. If a friend comes to you for support, keep the focus on them.
Show appreciation to the people who support you, especially if they've gone above and beyond to help you out
Of course you can tell them how much you appreciate them, but you can also show it in more tangible ways. If you've met them for lunch, and spent the entire time venting, then pay the bill for both of you. If you're visiting their house, bring them a small gift or snack to thank them for being there for you last week. Really let them know you don't take their support for granted.
Make an effort to manage some of the problem, and your emotions about it, on your own before going to other people for support
I could have put this overarching point at the beginning of the list, but I wanted to give the hands-on tips first. There are also exceptions to this guideline. Like if your mom has just died, and you're bawling your eyes out in front of your friends, no one's going to expect you to try to calm down before going to them.
One more complaint people can have is, "My friend is constantly upset, calls me the instant something bothers him, and then expects me to talk to him for an hour until he calms down." They may not be able to put it into words, but what's bugging them is, "When my friend is unhappy the first thing he does is call me. He assumes I'll soothe his emotions for him. He's not making an honest effort to manage his feelings on his own first."
I'm not saying you have to become some stoic, ultra-self-reliant lone wolf cyborg. I also realize there's a type of comfort and practical assistance you can get from another person that you can't get on your own. That all said, you shouldn't over-rely on other people to do most of the work of regulating your emotional distress. You should aim to be roughly as capable of managing your moods and personal struggles by yourself as the next person. It may be a long, gradual process to reach that level of independence, but it's still worthwhile to work toward. No one can handle life completely solo, so it's fine to go to your support system for help for the things you still can't handle by yourself.
Some people chafe at this suggestion because they believe they truly can't manage their intense emotions on their own. They may get annoyed at the thought that they're being told to go away and do a bunch of cliched breathing or grounding exercises that haven't worked for them in the past. If that describes you, know you're capable of being much more resilient than it currently feels like you are. It's really hard work, but people can eventually learn to ride out emotions as bad as horrifying panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks, or waves of intense, deeply hopeless suicidal urges. They can learn to get through each day when they're completely dysregulated by old childhood trauma symptoms for weeks at a time. Yes, it's still easier with help, but if push comes to shove they're able to gut out even those awful feelings by themselves.
Someone may also dislike this point because on an unconscious level it's not really about whether they can technically manage their distressing moods on their own or not. They're so quick to go to others for support because they're afraid of feeling lonely and abandoned. They over-rely on their friends because they want to know someone is available. It feels good to be taken care of. Even more than that, they want to know someone will be there for them no matter how needy or helpless they act. The problem is their abandonment wound is often an infinite hole that can never be filled. No matter how much support their friends give them, it never feels like enough. Like I said, this is all happening out of their awareness, so that description is not meant to be a personal attack. For anyone who this describes, the solution is not to get such a deluge of support that you'll finally be satisfied. It's to heal the core wound at the heart of it all.
Finally here are two points about the mindset behind all the advice in this article, and some of the reactions to it that may get stirred up:
Do your best to accept that sometimes you will have to put on a fake front for the sake of other people's comfort
In an ideal world we'd be able to get all the emotional support we needed as soon as we felt upset. We'd be able to express ourselves whenever and however we wanted and be met with patience and understanding. In reality sometimes it won't be the right time to ask for help, and you'll have to swallow down how you're feeling and act like you're doing better than you are, because maintaining your friendships is more important.
For example, you really want to vent about the crappy week you've had with your best friend, but it's a Friday night and you can tell they want to unwind and have a good time. You also just asked for support a few days ago. So you pretend to be in a cheery mood for the night, and aim to complain to your online support group on Monday afternoon instead. You don't have the funnest night ever, but that's preferable to making your friend drop everything to console you when they won't be in the mood. Making that kind of concession doesn't automatically mean you're being inauthentic, denying your needs, or giving into toxic societal attitudes about keeping a stiff upper lip.
Do your best to also accept that people generally prefer their friends to be positive and fairly low-maintenance
Some people get angry at the idea that they should adjust how they ask for support. They believe if someone was truly a loving or accepting friend they should be available as a shoulder to cry on 24/7, and no matter how serious their issue is or how upset they are.
The fact is most people would like to have buddies who are fun and positive and have their acts together for the most part. They're happy to lend some support here and there, but they don't want it to be all day, every day. They're not looking to be free therapists in their relationships. It doesn't mean they're shallow, selfish, fair weather friends. That preference isn't meant to shame you for struggling right now. It's just an understandable desire most of us have. Ask for support when you really need it, but take steps to make sure you're not overdoing it with any one relationship.
There are people who really like playing the caregiver role, or who find it intrinsically engaging and satisfying to act as a kind of unofficial counselor. When a friend comes to them in a crisis they may relish the opportunity to make someone feel better in their darkest moment, and put their quasi-clinical skills to the test. Most people aren't like that though, and even caregiver personalities have their limits. By all means, savor a friend like this if you can land one, but still take steps to keep them around for the long haul.