How much emotional support is considered "supportive"
July 18, 2017 12:37 AM   Subscribe

What is -normal- in terms of providing/receiving emotional support in your relationships? How do you identify situations where it is healthier to self-soothe and self-process rather than seeking out support, reassurance, and validation from another person? How do you maintain good relationships with others when their emotional needs are higher or lower than you can reasonably provide?

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my relationships with/to others (specifically with family, friends, and romantic partners) and noticing that in almost all of my most significant relationships, there is a pattern/dynamic where one person is more emotionally "needy" and the other is more emotionally distant.

I can be extremely emotionally needy with my romantic partners. If too much time goes by without hearing from my partner, I start imaging that they are unhappy with me and that they might want to break up. If we have non-specific plans to see each other on a certain day but haven't solidified a time, I'm upset and wondering if we should break up when I haven't heard from them by noon. I often want my partner to assuage my feelings of boredom and intense loneliness, and I get upset when they aren't immediately available to do so (and hate myself for it). This isn't specific to any one person--I've felt this way in nearly all of my dating experiences and have only seen these issues go away in longer-term relationships where we lived together and saw each other every day.

Thankfully, I'm aware this is an issue, and I'm seeing a therapist for it. I do my best to recognize, process, and then stop any projections of my more irrational emotional needs onto the person I'm dating. The current person I'm seeing (only a month or two in) has no idea I'm a Needy Nelly; I think he thinks I'm a strong independent woman with a busy, full life (which is true), but I fall apart every time we say goodbye because I know it will be at least a few days before we see each other again, and he hates texting so we tend to text just once or twice a day. I do my best to follow his lead as far as communication is concerned.

At the same time, I've also noticed that I attract very emotionally needy friends, who regularly place expectations and demands on me that I find irritating and boundary-pushing. Among my closest friendships, one is constantly bombarding me with pages of messages about her latest relationship and personal issues (often very minor ones) during work hours and late at night, and is upset when I don't respond right away. When we talk on the phone, the call goes for hours; I don't enjoy lengthy phone calls, so then I dread and actively scheduling another call. Another friend gets resentful and mopey if I don't make concrete plans to see him at least once a week, but I am extremely busy so I only have time to see him once every few weeks. For several of these friends, I am essentially their sole emotional support system, and it is incredibly overwhelming.

I had an extremely codependent relationship with my mother as a child and young adult. I'm now in my early 30s, and she still calls me every day or every other day, but I usually only have the time to talk to her at length (over an hour or two) once a week. Though it kills her, we live a bit further apart now, and I think that distance has greatly improved our relationship.

Friends would describe me as highly empathetic, a good listener, and caring--but only when I haven't dropped off the face of the earth. Routinely, I turn into a total recluse where I do not return any calls or texts or emails or comment on social media; during these times I feel resentful towards people and stressed out. (It is worth noting that I still have an intense desire to see my romantic partner as much as possible during these times.) These same needier friends provide me with decent emotional support, so I feel extremely guilty for having negative feelings towards them, and for not reciprocating emotional support back at the pace and level they seem to desire. I want to be a good friend and good daughter, but I'm not sure I have the energy to be there for them the way they want me to.

Sorry for the wall of text. I think it boils down to this -- I'm looking for examples and anecdotal advice about how you've recognized unhealthy vs. healthy emotional dependencies in your relationships, and techniques you've used to steer relationships back to a healthier, more balanced dynamic.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hey look at you, taking responsibility for your anxious attachment and self-managing your behaviour and doing great self-care to make sure you can be a good partner in a balanced relationship. Why would you accept less from friendships that are too burdensome for you to enjoy?

You need to set boundaries. If your friends are upset, you do get to say "this is the best I can offer right now, things are very hectic.. It doesn't mean I love you less." You do get to say "I can't answer long texts at work or late at night when I need to sleep for work; my job takes too much out of me, I'm sorry."

In other words, you don't really get to tell other people what their behaviour can be, but you do get to dictate your own response to it. Maybe look back over your friendships and see if you have a pattern of enabling the exact behaviour you actually don't want to encourage?
posted by DarlingBri at 2:07 AM on July 18, 2017 [17 favorites]


I do not remember writing this. But it's literally me to the most agonizingly granular degree possible. It's astonishing, and a little unsettling, to see oneself reflected so absolutely thoroughly in the words of a complete stranger.

So I can only offer unlimited sympathy, reassurance that you are not alone, and ongoing support from a person who struggles daily with the identical situations you've described. I'll be following your post closely. Hugs from your random internet twin.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:45 AM on July 18, 2017 [22 favorites]


How do you maintain good relationships with others when their emotional needs are higher or lower than you can reasonably provide?

Higher: by reminding myself that

* as a free adult I am not automatically obligated to provide another free adult with what they demand simply because they demand it

* grinding myself down to a nub in an attempt to solve problems that actually belong to other people does neither of us any good

* a good relationship must involve mutual respect for boundaries; a relationship doesn't automatically count as good just because the other person likes me.

Lower: by reminding myself that a good relationship can but does not need to draw on all my available emotional resources, and that a low-drama relationship is actually a rare and beautiful thing to be nurtured and treasured.

Friends would describe me as highly empathetic, a good listener, and caring--but only when I haven't dropped off the face of the earth.

Likewise.

Routinely, I turn into a total recluse where I do not return any calls or texts or emails or comment on social media; during these times I feel resentful towards people and stressed out.

Personal sorting-out time is a biological need, like sleep. It's only natural to resent people trying to deprive you of yours.

These same needier friends provide me with decent emotional support, so I feel extremely guilty for having negative feelings towards them

Having negative feelings towards other people - even good people we actually really like - is perfectly acceptable. Everybody does it some of the time.

We generally try not to tell our distressed friends when they're pissing us off, because that would be unkind; important to realize that the same goes for them toward you. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and no way to avoid it. It's just a natural consequence of the fact that each of us is the only one with full access to our own life and our own stuff and our own history.

and for not reciprocating emotional support back at the pace and level they seem to desire.

Love does not keep accounts. Doing the best you can and no better is all that can ever reasonably be asked of you.

I want to be a good friend and good daughter

As I'm sure you are.

but I'm not sure I have the energy to be there for them the way they want me to

Luckily for you, no such requirement is mandatory.

Among my closest friendships, one is constantly bombarding me with pages of messages about her latest relationship and personal issues (often very minor ones) during work hours and late at night, and is upset when I don't respond right away.

That friend has work to do on accepting delayed gratification like a grownup. If you happen not to have time or energy to respond to one of their demands, and they get pissy because of that, then that pissiness is entirely their problem to solve and they have no right at all to demand either that you solve it for them or that you make yourself available 24x7. You're their friend, not their mother.

When we talk on the phone, the call goes for hours; I don't enjoy lengthy phone calls, so then I dread and actively scheduling another call.

It would be perfectly reasonable for you to say, right after the exchange of hellos, that hey so you can only talk today until X time, then at X time say that you have to go now and end the conversation. That's not even rude.

Another friend gets resentful and mopey if I don't make concrete plans to see him at least once a week, but I am extremely busy so I only have time to see him once every few weeks.

His resentful moping is his issue to deal with, not your problem to solve. If he's blaming his emotional state on you, he's not helping himself. Nobody else is in there with him. His unpleasant emotional experiences are something that he, and only he, is actually capable of addressing; it's therefore his sole responsibility to do that work. And it requires work.

For several of these friends, I am essentially their sole emotional support system, and it is incredibly overwhelming.

If you became a little less reliably accommodating on that front, then if they actually needed more emotional support than they could then get from you, they would be forced to widen their support bases. You're not the only person that any of these people knows. You might well be the most recent person in a long line of people they've already worn out.

I understand that all this advice sounds like it would require you to turn incredibly callous, but it really isn't about that. It's about treating your own life and your own emotional stability with as much care and kindness as you're currently extending to your friends. The fact that somebody else trying to climb up you to get to the air will drown you is not your fault.
posted by flabdablet at 3:49 AM on July 18, 2017 [20 favorites]


It's hard trying to figure it out; you're not alone in this. And it requires regular recalculation as people's relationships, stress levels, and mental health all change. There's not exactly a cutoff point, but there are some questions that can help you figure out when the balance is skewed:

- Is the supportee relying primarily or exclusively on the supporter to provide emotional support, or are they seeking it in other places as well?
- Is the supportee making a genuine effort to improve their mental health and/or any situational factors contributing to their stress?
- Are conversations and interactions dominated by the same emotional support giving/receiving dynamic?
- Is there an overall sense of balance? Even if one person has been needing extra emotional support recently, have they been willingly giving it in the past?
- How would a boundary-setting conversation go? If the supporter told the supportee (kindly and gently, of course) that they found the current dynamic overwhelming, would the supportee understand or feel abandoned/betrayed/etc?

If you feel like there's an imbalance, there usually is. If you feel like you can't set boundaries in the face of that imbalance, the relationship is unlikely to be healthy.

With regards to seeking solitude for self-care, I've found that it's always better to give people an idea of what's going on even if I need to be alone. It also helps if you have an estimate of how long you need. "I'm having a rough day and I'll be fine, I just need to hang out alone for the rest of the day" is more understandable than just disappearing.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:14 AM on July 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


I still struggle a bit with similar issues (I also drop off the face of the social earth randomly, although I'm getting better.) But they improved immensely when I....how to word this. I think when I dropped three big ideas:

1) That my worth as a human being was defined by my relationships.
2) That my imperfections were something I could not share with friends
3) That being alone was the ultimate end horror, as in, I don't want to die friendless and alone

The first is still hard...I want to be a good mum, friend, partner of course. But growing up my entire life literally depended on pleasing those around me, especially my mother, and as an adult...that's not the case. I still have friends from pretty much every stage of my life but I will say that when I profoundly got that I do not have to be the ultimate Good Friend, I ended up quietly dropping my neediest friends because...it kind of turned out that those relationships were more about both of us depending on me being A Good Friend than actually...relating.

The second...I still remember the feeling I had the first time I said to a friend "I'm kind of a flake about staying in touch" and she said "yeah it's really annoying but you're great when you show up, and I know if I really need you you'll be there as soon as you actually check your voice mail" and...it was fine. I felt loved and seen and still a bit ashamed but fundamentally ok. I led up to that with what felt like excruciating statements like "I'm burnt out today" and "my bathroom is a mess." Once again this was more about my mother's response to any mistakes growing up than whether my friends would care if I am - human. In fact they love me that way, that is what makes us friends in some ways...and we negotiate like I ignore Facebook but not text...and some friends...didn't. And that's ok too, if you need instant response or thank you notes then I am really not the friend for you and it's ok.

Which comes to...when I felt fatally flawed, I often felt like my husband was the only thing keeping me from a miserable, recluse existence. After our first child died, I lived in profound fear that he would die next...like about to have a stroke daily fear. I wish I could find a formula for what shifted but I think a lot of it was realizing...I am strong enough that if Everyone Leaves or Dies, then I will rebuild. Being alone is not a state of perpetual loss, it is a season of life. And it's not a - passive, no fun state. I used to think things like "when I'm with Mr. Warriorqueen, we'll go to the beach." But now I think "I want to go to the beach...maybe Mr. Warriorqueen would like to join me." I built that up by doing things alone.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:40 AM on July 18, 2017 [19 favorites]


It sounds like you're on the right track with therapy.

I recommend Attached, a book about attachment styles. I have found it very helpful. I suspect that you may have an anxious attachment style (so do I). The book talks about navigating relationships with different attachment styles, and how to determine if your partner can meet your needs.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book has been that I do not need to change my attachment style, but I can recognize it and look for a partner who has what I need to form a healthy bond.

As for friends, it sounds like right now you're playing the role of therapist in your friendships. You can quit that role - this question might have ideas for you. Do you have any friendships that are fun, balanced, playful, mutual - that make you feel enlivened and not as if all the life has been sucked out of you? Focus on those, or look for them if you don't have them.

When a friend presents you with their problems, do you try to solve their problems and give advice? You don't have to. You can say (kindly), "That sounds rough, what are you going to do?" and let them do the work. You can also say "It seems like you've been having a really hard time with X. Have you thought about going to therapy to get a handle on this?"

Also note: Some people have a habit of telling their woes as a way to bond. I used to do it myself - probably still do more than I would like. That something that can change, but you can't really force anyone else to change. What you can do is work on setting boundaries and on recognizing that there might be some sort of payoff in these friendships or some other reason that you keep finding yourself in them.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 5:41 AM on July 18, 2017


I just had a conversation about this with my son, who made an independent choice to pursue therapy last year. ALL of us have to work to overcome negatives in our lives, emotions, habits. Some of us need help to do it, some of us don't, but it's necessary for EVERYONE. Help comes from friends, family, work, and therapy. Some of us choose to do this (very very difficult) work and some of us choose to not do it. To me, it sounds as if you have chosen to do the work, but are surrounded by people who decided not to. As we age, that line becomes much more apparent. And I can tell you, as I passed 60, I have many peers who still choose not to.

To be a good friend to these people, you need to kindly help them find their way to doing that work. By endlessly listening to them and not setting boundaries, you are giving them a "false" outlet that probably keeps them from moving toward their own self work. This is not doing them any favors and does not help them in the long term.

Set boundaries. Take care of yourself first. Be compassionate and kind to your friends. There IS a middle road there and you just need to find the spot that's most comfortable for you.
posted by raisingsand at 8:21 AM on July 18, 2017 [8 favorites]


I have learned that letting your brain fall into an anxiety spiral feels better at the time, but it actually just feeds the anxiety and makes it worse.

When I say "anxiety spiral" I mean the sort of thinking that goes like this: "I haven't heard from Sam in [2 days or 5 hours or 3 minutes]. That probably means he hates me. He probably wants to break up with me, so I should text him and ask him if he still likes me. Maybe he decided he hates me because of the way I was eating noodles last night. Maybe it was because I was wearing the wrong color shirt..."

The only thing that works against this kind of anxiety is something I learned from David Burns, who wrote the book, Feeling Good, which might be worth looking into. Anyway, here's what you do:

When you are feeling anxious and worried about something, examine the evidence. The only rule is the evidence has to be real. So things that you imagine other people are thinking about you are off the table; things people have said to you out loud are fair game.

So, with the above example of anxiety, you'd work through it like this: "Do I have any evidence that Sam hates me? Was he scowling at me? Did he say any nasty things? Did he cut off our date so he could leave early? Well, no. On the other hand, he bought me an ice cream cone and gave me a goodnight kiss and he also told me he was really looking forward to seeing me tomorrow. So maybe he doesn't hate me. He probably still likes me, because those are things you do when you like someone . And even though I felt awkward eating those noodles--like I was making a mess--I don't know anyone besides Jerry Seinfeld who has every broken up with someone because of how they ate noodles. Do I? No. I don't. Same goes for the blue shirt. And if Sam decided he hated me because of those things, then I probably wouldn't want to date him anyway. So, we're probably ok and he's probably just busy with work. I probably don't have to be anxious about this, so I'm going to go for a walk instead of waiting at home for my phone to beep."

Anyway, this sort of thinking feels really awkward and mechanical at first. But it does help if you keep doing it.
posted by colfax at 9:55 AM on July 18, 2017 [7 favorites]


1st. I think it's very great that you can see both sides of this, see yourself treating people in a way that you yourself don't like being treated. But also understanding that needing a lot of reassurance is something both you and others do. That's a big deal.

2nd. Therapy is great place to be for something like this. Learning about your real needs, triggers and limits.

The worry here that you touched on yourself is codependency, which you've had unhealthy early exposure to. Read about it. Talk to your therapist about it and watch out for it. Boundaries might be hard for you to develop but start small and build.
posted by French Fry at 12:59 PM on July 19, 2017


This is off on a slight tangent but may prove helpful to you. When someone asks you to listen to them, start by asking something like this: "Do you want me to just listen, to also respond to what you say, or to also give you experiences from my life that compare to what you're going through?"

This is a very giving statement to begin with. It means you're listening. And, when you want to talk to someone about your issues, you can explain to them what you need from them.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 12:11 PM on July 20, 2017 [3 favorites]


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