How to say NO to an emotionally needy friend when you feel drained

This video was posted in 2016 but I still get questions on that video. Here is a question from April 27, 2021.

QUESTION: What would be your advice when that person starts attacking your character and causing you emotional distress when you don’t have the energy for anyone else because you need to deal with your own issues? This is my situation as they usually phone me 4 times a day when I’m working and expect me to be their therapist 24/7. I never get around to sorting my own issues and I’m going through a really difficult time, bereaving a very close family member I have lost to covid as well as many other pressures like housing, work performance in my new role etc. I just feel so mentally, emotionally and spiritually drained. I don’t think it is a friendship I can continue when all this person wants is to take all the time, expects me to be empathetic all the time and when I need a bit of space and compassion, suddenly I’m labelled a crap friend for not speaking to her for a few days when I’m drowning myself. just wondering how you/others would cope with this?  Told her straight that her expectations are unrealistic, she’s ungrateful and that I’m going through a lot myself but in her opinion, they’re just excuses.

My Response: It sounds like this person is in survival mode and has become dependent on you as one of their key support systems. However, even a professional therapist (who has the skills and bandwidth to help), must set boundaries for how and when they wish to work with someone. Calling you four times a day without your consent, is clearly breaching your personal space, energy and boundaries. When they call you a “crap friend” or dismiss your boundaries as “excuses”, it is their survival mode talking. They are terrified of losing your support so they are acting from their deeper wounds. In other words, they are interpreting your need for space as an act of abandonment or unkindness because they are wounded. Because they are in pain, they cannot see your pain or your needs. They are in a survival headspace so will interpret all that you say and do from their woundedness.

As you’ve seen already, it’s draining to acquiesce to someone’s wounded interpretation of reality. This is where your own inner work comes into play. This situation is hard because their accusations are dredging up old wounds from your past. (maybe about not being seen as a good person or not being appreciated). I encourage you to see that you DO have integrity as a friend BUT you currently require all your energy for your own mental health. As I mentioned in the video, you cannot help anyone if you are drowning yourself. You must maintain (or repair) your own vessel in order to one day support others again. Don’t allow their survival mode reaction determine your choices. You do care and your boundaries are NOT excuses. You need to stand behind these truths without guilt or confusion so that you don’t submit to this person’s incorrect interpretations.

Boundary setting is a science and an art – but the key is to recognize that your boundaries are valid without having to explain everything or get approval from someone. Your goal is the expression and honoring of your truth. For example, let them know with a brief communication, that you must address some important things in your life and that you cannot be their support system during this time. (You can say you will be in touch once you’re ready to connect again) Or, you can set very clear boundaries for how much you can give to them right now. e.g. I can talk to you once a week, for an hour by phone. Ultimately, your time, skills and energy are YOURS to give and no one has the right to choose for you.

Don’t get roped into a debate or try to prove the worthiness of your reasons. A clear and direct communication about your boundary is enough. When someone is respectful, it’s okay to share more context if desired but when someone is reactive or desperate, it requires a firm energy. Do not waiver (due guilt, fear, doubt) and keep your word to yourself. If they call you more than you wish, ignore the extra calls and if needed, block the calls. The more desperate they are, the more firm you must be. This is not done with hate in your heart, it can be done with the discipline of your own self-care and integrity. They may kick and scream for your attention, but you must stay true to your boundaries and needs, without succumbing to their survival reactions.

Lastly, as I said in the video, it is dangerous to believe that we are the only source of support for someone. This creates co-dependency and amplifies the false idea that they have no other means of help. This is not true. We are each more powerful that we realize. However, if we succumb to their belief that they have no one else, then we become the perpetual “Rescuer or Martyr”, and they become the perpetual “Victim”.

Well, ain’t nobody got time for that!

When we are tapped out, we need to take stock and replenish. We must trust that this life has infinite channels and that we are not the only channel of support available to our friends and family. When we are nourished, it’s easy, natural and joyful to share our time, energy and skills. Hope this piece will help you and others who tune in.

Sending you much love! 

xox little woo

P.S. To stay in touch with me is via email (yes i’m old-fashioned and still use emails to stay in touch). Look for the octopus on this page to join my private email list and receive updates directly in your inbox!

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