Mental health, for example. Your job at work is to help others with their challenges, to connect them to services, to support them in identifying and communicating and processing their feelings, but often it’s just to listen. Teaching — you plan, you guide, you grade, you pay attention not only to how students are learning the material but to how they’re growing as human beings, which means, among other things, infinite attention — and listening. Doctors and nurses examine and treat, but to do that they need to listen to their patients’ concerns, complaints, contexts. Youth workers, social workers, geriatric workers, a whole host of nonprofit professions…all requires, sometimes in a very big way, listening.
And the listening can be draining.
So when it’s time to be a friend, outside of work, sometimes you just can’t be available in some ways. And that’s alright. You learn to tell people, I can’t have this conversation today, I’m sorry. I can’t help right now, I’m sorry. Give me an hour. Give me a day. Try later in the week. Write it out for me and I’ll read it later. It’s work, whether you want it to feel that way or not.
But what do you do when someone needs to express themselves, just to get it out, and they don’t see the harm in it? That’s a need that shouldn’t cost you anything for them to fulfill. They aren’t expecting anything in return. But the sheer act of hearing some things expressed does just drain you even further - chips away at whatever you have left for yourself.
It’s an uncomfortable balancing act between self-care, this work, and being a friend. Sometimes you can’t do all three. And sometimes, even when you say it outright, people still don’t understand.
So if you know someone who works in any field that requires them to give of themselves so fully — whether it’s mental health, education, other helping professions medical and otherwise, try to hear them out when they tell you they just can’t. They aren’t saying they don’t care. They aren’t saying they don’t want to be there for you. But these jobs often leave a person with nothing left, and even just talking at them could put them right back at work again. Sometimes they need that break. So write it down for them to look at later, or find another source to tell, or hold onto it for when they can attend. And they’ll be ready and willing to listen once they can recharge.