Should we be more mindful before dumping emotional baggage on our friends?

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  • Ever sent a torrent of texts to a friend without thinking what they're dealing with? Olivia Foster debates if we need to permission to vent before offloading

    Be honest with yourself: have you ever, in a moment of emotional madness, sent a friend a barrage of messages about something that’s troubling you without thinking about what might be going on in their lives? If you’re anything like me, or any of my friends, or – anecdotally – any of my friend’s friends, then the answer will be a resounding yes. And we’re not alone. In fact, two viral tweets got us all dissecting whether it’s OK to tell a friend you don’t have time for them… right now.

    First there was Melissa Fabello, who tweeted a long thread about a message she’d received from a friend that read, ‘Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?’. Melissa went on to say that – unless someone is truly having an emergency – she appreciates messages like this; messages that recognise she has ‘limited time and emotional availability,’ and asks permission to vent, ‘rather than just unloading.’

    Then, a couple of weeks later, Twitter user @YanaBirt posted a similar sentiment: ‘I just want to say, a lot of y’all dump information on your friends at the wrong time without their consent. If you know it’s something that could hurt them, ask permission before you decide to be messy. Please.’ The tweet received 58,000 likes.

    However, both posts also received some heavy criticism, largely for the template messages they suggested you send to your friends before offloading. Melissa’s mock text read, ‘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 don’t think I can hold the appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead/Do you have someone else you could reach out to?’. While the image attached to @YanaBirt’s tweet showed a message screen that read, ‘Are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?’

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    And it’s true; in an online world where it’s easy to jump on and ‘cancel’ people, it’s easy to see why these posts could have been triggering – no one wants to believe that they could potentially be the receiver of one of these out-of-office style messages from someone they consider to be a friend. But when you take a step back from the example texts and look at what they’re actually saying – that, if you’ve got a friend who already has a lot on their plate, you should check before offloading – I’m inclined to agree with them (even if I won’t be copying the texts word-for-word).

    Personally, there are times when I simply do not have the brain capacity to help someone. Take, for example, a friend of mine who was having a career crisis at a time when I had so much work on I could barely think straight. Her endless messages would go unanswered for hours as I sat in meetings, leaving her feeling abandoned and me feeling anxious because I was letting her down. Eventually I had to be honest and say that although I couldn’t respond right away, we could meet to talk about it a few days later. Do I wish I could have been there to help her at the exact time she needed me? Of course. Could I be? Unfortunately not.

    And I’m guilty of being the unloader myself. When you’re having a personal crisis – be it about work, relationships, or just about life in general – it’s easy to feel that you’re the only person who’s ever felt like this and it’s natural to want to reach out for reassurance that you’re not. The thing with friendships is, they’re like any relationship: brilliant, life affirming and, generally speaking, fundamentally good for our happiness. On the flip side though, they can also be messy and complicated and difficult to navigate at times.

    And, unlike romantic relationships, where you might feel comfortable telling a partner you need some space, the rules around how we communicate with our friends are more blurred. So would I send an OOO-style message to my mates? No, but would I be OK – when it’s not an absolute emergency – for them to send me a message saying we can speak at a time when they’ve actually got the capacity to listen? Yes. Maybe that’s something we all need to think about more.

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