Ping. My phone screen illuminated, informing me of a new notification. I’d thrown it to the foot of my bed in an attempt to focus on my task at hand: completing a close reading of some text for some literature class.
Upon opening the message, I received a barrage of information far too heavy for the depth of the relationship I shared with the sender; details about their family life, drama with past lovers, and their current state of exhaustion overloaded my brain. My eyes widened and my brows raised in alarm and annoyance as the oddity of the situation settled into the corners of my room.
This wasn’t the only time I’ve been force-fed unnecessary emotional baggage, either.
Take the example of a girl I know and am friendly with. We met through campus extracurriculars and have shared some of the same professors, though never at the same time. We have mutual acquaintances, though we aren’t in the same friend circle by any means. We often smile at one another and gift a wave when we pass each other on the street. I might even talk to her in that moment, too—if it weren’t for her tendency to unload her past month of emotional struggles onto you the moment you make eye contact with her. Her cheerful disposition is laced heavily with self-pity and something about the way she speaks begs you to pity her, too. Interacting with her is energetically depleting. I always want to take a long nap after I bump into her.
It’s impossible to discuss emotional baggage without bringing up the gender discrepancy, either. Women are generally viewed as the more “emotional” gender, which leads men to often drop their emotional baggage onto the shoulders of the women in their lives. Ask any woman; I can guarantee she has a story about a time that she exerted excessive emotional labor in order to support a man and help him grow in ways that, quite frankly, should not have been necessary. Women should not have to raise men who aren’t their sons. From a young age, boys learn to rely almost completely on their mothers, sisters, female friends, and girlfriends to pick up their emotional slack. So what happens when a man has no close female friends, lovers, or family members to drop their trauma on to?
They turn to the nearest female they find suitable for the task and dump it on them. I can’t tell you how many times guys have brought up weird, way-too-deep shit in our conversations.
One evening, I was hanging out with an ex-boyfriend of mine. He offered to show me a baby photo, which I agreed to (because cute baby, duh). I remember holding the thick, once-glossy photo paper in my hand. There he stood, a teetering two-and-a-half-foot-tall version of his adult self whom I at one point loved, reaching out to stroke the soft petal of a crimson flower. His father stood behind him, adorned in a white t-shirt and jeans, his eyes obscured by a dark pair of sunglasses. The next words that floated past his lips were ones I wasn’t prepared for: “I don’t remember my father’s face anymore. I look at his obituary when I want to see him.”
Once upon a time, when he and I were romantically entangled, his relationship to his deceased father would’ve been something I was not only willing to, but glad to help him process. Now, though? Not so much. I wondered why he didn’t bring this to his actual girlfriend instead.
We’d prefaced the night with a relaxed “excited to hear how your semester’s been.” Our intentions were to catch up, nothing more and nothing less. When I followed his obituary comment with “this isn’t really the type of thing you bring up during a chill hangout with a friend,” he agreed, insisting that he had “no expectations for [me] to say anything.”
That’s absurd, right? Someone can’t just follow up a cannonball of emotional baggage with the phrase “no expectations,” as if those two words will instantly cancel out all of the shit they’ve thrown at me.
Overstepping emotional-energetic boundaries happens between close friends, too. I have a few gal pals here at Columbia with whom I used to be tight as ever, like peas in a pod, before one of them started going through something. The one I’m closer to began confiding in me, confessing how draining it was to have become an emotional crutch for her best friend.
At a school like Columbia, which absolutely underserves the issue of mental health, it’s so damn easy to turn your friends into your personal therapists. With girls’ nights in, spent laughing and crying and eating Oreos together under the covers of dorm room beds, it’s so damn easy to forget that they can’t always handle the weight of every single one of your problems, nor is it right to assume that they’ll continue to do so.
I reminded my friend that it’s OK to take a step back from her friend for the sake of her own mental health, that her journey and her friend’s journey might not travel in parallel lines and they probably don’t run at the same rate, either. When it comes down to it, it is not one person’s job to fix the problems of another. It is not anyone’s responsibility to heal wounds that aren’t their own, no matter how close they may be.
Emotional support is a part of life. Leaning on others is part of a relationship of any kind. If we’ve established a bond deep enough to not only withstand, but support out-of-the-blue emotional sharing, then great; I’m happy to listen to you vent and to offer advice if you seek it, and I hope you’ll respect me when I say I need space. Until then, please Venmo me for my emotional labor.
The author is a senior at Barnard who has involuntarily become an emotional dumping ground for others more times than she’d desire. She thinks maybe it’s her Virgo energy that makes people think she’s their mother, but regardless, she’d like it to stop. Drop her a line at email@example.com. Please Remove Your Shoes runs alternate Wednesdays.
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