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Carolyn Hax: Everyone’s favorite helper has ‘no support left to give’

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I’m 50, and after a pretty good run, have had three really cruddy years with one health crisis or traumatic event after another. Unfortunately, I realized while going through this shish kebab storm that all the people close to me — family, friends, co-workers — are dumpers. They come to me with their troubles and I listen and empathize. The problem is that none of them were particularly interested in letting me dump to them.

I understand, it’s been a colossally bad time for a lot of people. I’m actively trying to get a therapist, but what I need is advice about is how to shut off the flow. I can no longer listen to their woes and keep a semblance of sanity. Please give me some words to use. I have no support left to give.

— Hmm

Hmm: Oh, I feel for you. And I’m glad you’re ready to say your piece, because it’s not merely okay to be honest with your people — it’s essential. My first thought is to stop them upfront, and say you’re doing it: “I’m going to stop you upfront: I know you’re struggling and count on me to help. I am dealing with one crisis after another myself, though, and I have no capacity right now to provide comfort.”

This audience has excellent conversation-script-writers, so I’ll include their suggestions, too.

I hope your people surprise you with the compassion you need and deserve.

Audience ideas:

· “I’m sorry, I know you need to talk but I’m on overload right now and I can’t handle it.”

· “Listen, I care about you and want to support you, but my own stress box is overflowing these days. Can we talk about ___ instead?”

· “This is hard for me to tell people, but because we’re so close I know you’ll understand: I’ve been going through a lot of personal crises, and my capacity to give other people support/comfort is just tapped out right now.” And if they don’t get the message, repeat shorter versions as needed: “I’m sorry, but remember what I said about not being able to give support right now?” Or drop the “I’m sorry” — that’s my own reflex.

· “I need to cut you off. I’m not really in a place right now where I can process or help you with your issues, and I think perhaps some professional eyes might be better suited toward them.” If they want to still be friends after that, fantastic. If not, then the basis of the friendship was problematic anyway.

· The “I just can’t right now, sorry” is a vital first step. After that, consider whether your self-image is helping foster one-way support relationships around you. It took me decades to realize I never asked for support, so it mostly didn’t occur to people that I needed it.

· Embedded in CH’s response is the idea that if you stop “dumpers” before they’ve finished unloading their stress, then they won’t get the release they sought by calling you. That might curb their impulse to call you in the first place.

· One piece of advice from my therapist was to practice being “warm and closed” vs. “warm and open.” So you can be your kind, warm self, just not open to their stories: “Wow, that sounds terrible, good luck with that.” If the other person is really dense you can follow with, “Oh honey [that’s me — it’s a verbal tic], I just don’t have the bandwidth. I’m dealing with xyz. Come sit with me and let’s think of happier times.” It is a skill and takes practice.