You’re the kind of person all your friends go to for support.
You’re great at listening. You’re great at creating a safe space that makes others feel accepted and understood.
You’re so good, in fact, that no one ever asks you what’s going on in YOUR life.
If you try to talk about yourself, the conversation always turns back to your friends and THEIR problems.
Which is fine, you reason, because my problems are nothing compared to theirs. They need to talk more than I do.
And so you’re always there, smiling, open to anyone who needs a friendly ear.
You can’t shake the suspicion you’re being taken for granted.
You know your friends love you, but you wonder what would happen if you refused to be an emotional dumping ground for their problems anymore. Would they still call you?
Nice people are in a difficult position.
They want to help other people. They know everyone could use more kindness and understanding.
But their exceptional ability to empathize and encourage turns their relationships into one-way streets…
Where they’re a reliable shoulder for everyone else to lean on, but no one offers a shoulder to them.
The more sensitive and empathetic you are, the more you can find yourself taking on other people’s pain for them.
You may be comforting a friend through a recent breakup and feel your own heart hurt. You may be soothing a friend who’s angry about some injustice, and later find yourself snapping at people in a way that’s very unlike you.
Some people are so sensitive that they can even pick up other people’s physical pain. Sitting with a friend with a broken leg can make your own leg ache. Spending time with a migraine sufferer can leave you with a headache.
Nothing spooky is going on. Rather, your mirror neurons are firing.
Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that fire in response to seeing someone else perform an action.
We feel as if we’re experiencing the same thing we’re seeing happen to someone else.
If you feel someone else’s pain, you can feel quite personally motivated to help them. Relieving their pain relieves your own. You breathe a sigh of relief when you see them smile and laugh again.
But there’s a dark side to being so emotionally supportive:
You end up getting hooked on other people’s drama.
You feel as if it’s happening to you, after all. You become personally invested in a situation that has nothing to do with you.
You can’t live another person’s life for them. You can’t make them take your good advice. All you can do is wait on the sidelines, hope and cheer.
That’s a pretty powerless place to be.
It also takes a TON of emotional energy.
You can get so wrapped up in other people’s conflicts that your own life pales by comparison. You’re spending so much time fixing other people that you don’t think about yourself. You don’t have any energy left for you.
You end up drained, listless, unhappy, even overweight.
So what can you do?
Stop listening to people?
Of course not.
But what you can do is learn to spot when a conversation is beginning to take an emotional toll on you. Become a master at excusing yourself or changing the subject.
Many of us focus so deeply on the person we’re talking to that we ignore our own intuitive signals. We forget to check in with ourselves. We can start to feel uncomfortable, even anxious, but we feel obligated to see the conversation through to its natural end.
We don’t have to.
We all have the right to end conversations that are taking an emotional toll. The rules of politeness don’t dictate that we must stay as long as the other person wants to talk.
If someone is bombarding you with negativity, then find a way to excuse yourself. You don’t have to be their audience. Don’t worry—they’ll find someone else to talk to!
An alternative is to change the subject.
Tell your friend that you have an idea. Talking and thinking about these problems is just making both of you feel worse, so why don’t you take a break for a few hours? You can both go and do something fun and get your mind off things for a while.
As you begin to set limits on the amount of emotional energy you’re willing to absorb from other people, you’ll find your own energy levels rising.
You’ll discover so much more mental space within yourself. You’ll even find time to start thinking about things that you’d like to do for you.
Sure, it can feel like you’re missing out by not being in the thick of the drama, but living other people’s lives vicariously is a poor substitute for living out your own.
Because, if there’s one thing most nice people forget, it’s how to be nice to themselves.