Best friends provide powerful emotional support — but boundaries help friendships thrive

The next time you want to approach a friend about a problem you’re having, try checking in with them first.
Illustration of two people resting their heads against each other.
When relationships are founded on mutual respect and compassion, they root more deeply.K.L. Ricks / for NBC News
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By Melissa A. Fabello, writer and educator

Recently, while I was walking to yoga class, my phone buzzed with a text from one of my life-long friends.

“Do you have the emotional capacity for me to vent about something weight-related for a few minutes?” she asked.

It made sense to me that she would ask this question. Because I’m an eating disorder survivor, sometimes conversations about weight can be uncomfortable — or even dangerous — for me. She also knew that I was dealing with other crises already, so her thoughtfulness was appreciated.

It made sense to me that she would ask this question. Because I’m an eating disorder survivor, sometimes conversations about weight can be uncomfortable — or even dangerous — for me.

I shot back a text to let her know that I was about to pop into yoga, but that she was welcome to text me and that I’d respond when I got a chance. She counter-offered, asking if I could call her. Realizing that I still had ten minutes before the start of class, I said sure, I could be available now. And we discussed her recent negative experience with being fat-shamed at the doctor’s office that morning, ending with my checking in on how she planned to take care of herself that day.

It was a simple exchange — but it stuck with me.

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I’m an educator. And a major focus in my work is helping people cultivate healthy relationships of all kinds. Friendships often fall to the wayside in these conversations, as we tend to prioritize romantic connections over platonic ones, but this is a mistake: Friendships are as hard as they are powerful. And they deserve equal respect and attention.

Healthy communication is a cornerstone of all relationships, not just the ones we have with our partners. And the more I thought about this conversation with my friend, the prouder I was to have nurtured a friendship where there is space to express both our needs and our boundaries. Because the toll of emotional support is real.

It takes effort to be emotionally present and problem-solving — effort that we each only have so much capacity for.

Our emotional availability is like a gas tank: Sometimes, when our lives are spacious, we’re full of fuel for others. Other times, when we’re going through a crisis or a bout of mental health pain ourselves, or when several people in our lives are already depending on us for support, we’re running on fumes and have to triage how our reserves are used.

Of course, many of us, myself included, have built into our day-to-day capacity a core group of loved ones for whom we want to always be available when duty calls. (Hopefully, this inner circle relationships is equal and mutually beneficial.) But even so, emotions can and do overwhelm.

This is especially for those of us, like me, who work in service-providing professions, wherein our emotional reserves are being tapped day in and day out — an experience known as compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a form of emotional burnout that describes the experience of a lessening or otherwise disturbed ability to express empathy, usually due to putting out more emotional energy than we have opportunity to replenish.

We tend not to ask for consent before venting, or even dumping, because we haven’t been taught that such boundaries are useful and because we’re so afraid of being rejected.

And because of how we tend to conceptualize close relationships — expecting that our loved ones can and should drop everything to comfort and support us — the idea that someone can say no or not right now can be devastating. We tend not to ask for consent before venting, or even dumping, because we haven’t been taught that such boundaries are useful and because we’re so afraid of being rejected.

But boundaries are healthy. And forming relationships wherein boundaries are acknowledged and respected can create firmer bonds — because it encourages honesty.

The next time you want to approach a friend about a problem you’re having, try checking in with them first: Give them a heads up about the nature of your problem, the degree of crisis mode you’re in, and what you need for support. It’s simple, but it’s a surprisingly compassionate way to respect their limited capacity.

Of course, if your problem is relatively small (e.g., your supervisor undermined your opinion in a meeting again) or if you’re experiencing a legitimate crisis (e.g., you’re in the hospital, someone just died, your partner broke up with you), this check-in might not be appropriate. But for middle of the road asks, wherein you need time, space and attention from someone else, it can be a helpful way to get you both on the same page.

And when your relationships are founded on mutual respect and compassion, they can root more deeply and ultimately, nourish you more fully.