Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D :
It's pretty normal that we let a friend know that we're in need of advice or need to share about something significant in their lives . . . we used just to call a friend and say something like, "Oh my God! You won't believe the day I had. Do you have time to talk?" Or, "I just got fired, friend! Are you up for dinner or a drink so I can bitch about this terrible thing that just happened to me?"
Friends should feel comfortable reaching out to one another about their lives-friendship isn't some sort of pseudo-therapeutic relationship-it's simply a mutually supportive relationship between two people who respect and care about one another. Friendships should be all about support seeking and unloading. Once upon a time, friends would just seek support with no preamble. If schedules didn't work, and your "support friend" couldn't meet you where you are, you'd understand and try and pick a time when you could meet up and unburden your heart about whatever troubling situation had occurred.
It's a good thing that folks are showing awareness of the busyness of their friends and are giving a "heads-up" that they need some intensive friending, but it's hoped that people aren't looking for "politically correct" ways of blowing off their friends as a result of too much self-absorption and too little interest in stretching their emotional bandwidth to help a friend out. They say that the worst excuse you can ever use to pass on an invitation from a friend is "being too busy," which totally communicates to your friend where they rank on your priority list. Of course, work and family and unexpected emergencies do happen, but if your "emotional bandwidth" never stretches enough to make time for a friend, then it would seem that the friendship isn't really the mutual support-giving relationship that it should be.
Are Trigger Warnings Necessary?
Our world is so aware of potential slights and triggers that it does make some sense in some relationships to give a "trigger warning" that a topic is going to be super-heavy, sensitive, or emotion-laden. For whatever reason, people take offense more easily in some situations and being sure that you're not going to unintentionally say something that could be hurtful or overwhelming is a thoughtful thing to do. However, I'd like to think that friends who are going to be doing some "deep dives" into "difficult topics" already have a strong foundation for their friendship and would have a good idea of what is and isn't "too much" or "off-limits," in terms of conversations and sharing.
With "not-so-close" friends, if you're an "over-sharer," it probably is good to offer a warning before diving into something heavy or personal or disturbing. It totally depends on the audience. Some people have nerves and guts of steel, while others are easily offended or disgusted by some topics. Letting a person know where the conversation is headed prior to it landing somewhere the other person can't handle is being thoughtful to others' sensitivities.
Should We Warn Our Friends When We Need to Broach a Heavy Topic?
If you really need someone to give you their full attention, then it's only fair to let them know what you need. In romantic relationships, a person often states that they have something they need to talk about with their partner. In a friendship, it's not going to be the relationship that's being addressed most likely, but it's good to make sure that your friend recognizes that you need more at that moment than a quick chat or casual conversation.
Do You Need to Stretch Your Emotional Bandwidth?
These days, everyone is super busy and super connected to the world at large. While we all imagine that we are well-trained, high-output multi-taskers, the truth is that our brains aren't actually "multi-tasking," we've just trained them to jump from task-to-task and focus-to-focus. So when we are being asked to be "here" and be "present," it can take a lot more effort than we typically spend focused on any one task. And when it comes to giving someone 100 percent of our attention-and 100 percent of our empathy and concern-it can actually feel like we're out of emotional bandwidth, because people are a bit out of practice.
Friends, though, should make an effort to offer their full attention when it's needed by a good friend. Even though a lot of relationships now seem to develop and function in a virtual, electronically mediated manner, there is a basic human need to connect with others and to be heard and understood.
When a friend is truly in that space, it is important to find the 'bandwidth" to offer support to your friend. Friendship is totally about mutual respect, mutual affinity, and mutual support. If you can't offer these basic aspects of a healthy friendship to someone, then it's not really much of a friendship.
How to Approach a Friend for Some Empathy Time?
The majority of us have spent a lifetime connecting with friends, spilling our guts with friends, asking friends for moral support and advice. Friendships are essential to our emotional well-being-in fact, it is social support and a sense of belonging that are the strongest predictors of life satisfaction.
With good friends, there's nothing wrong with calling them up or texting them and letting them know you need to talk to about something important or stressful or scary. If a friend isn't available, then trying to find a time when you can connect is a good idea. If the friend is clear that they just can't "be there" for you like you need them to be, then perhaps that's a bigger statement about the relationship than just their unavailability to connect.
Here are some ways that friends can easily reach out without having to rely on a template of support-seeking: Send a text with the message, "Just had a horrible fight with DH. Can you talk?" or a phone message, "Hey, I really need a friend. Can you meet for coffee this week?" or just knock on your neighbor friend's door and say, "These snow days are killing me! I need some adult conversation, and the kids' dad just took them out to the movies. Do you have a corkscrew? I've got a bottle of wine."
Friends can't always drop everything and offer their friends emotional tourniquets or sutures, but friends shouldn't be made to feel that it's an imposition even to make the request. If reciprocity isn't part of the friendship equation, then it's not really a mutual relationship.
All of the above responses, though, are built on the expectation that the "friend in need" isn't always in need and is an equal partner in the relationship. If an emotional vampire is sucking the life out of the relationship, then finding a way to make that clear-rather than just bandying about phrases like "emotional bandwidth overload"-is definitely advised.
(Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University).