Signs You're Carrying The Burden Of Emotional Labor In Your Friendship

At best, friendships are a give and take of emotional support that should feel intimate and rewarding for all parties. However, even the closest of friends can fall out of sync from time to time. When things become unbalanced and one friend needs a lot more support than the other, it becomes a problem.

Friends are a huge part of our life, and when one of them isn't working it can take a serious toll. "The impact that an unhealthy, or 'toxic' friendship can have should not be underestimated," Phil Jackman, an addiction therapist, told HuffPost. "In fact, they can have a catastrophic impact on one's long-term emotional health, leading to stress, depression, trouble sleeping, low self-esteem, and anxiety."

Even though they are such an important part of our lives, understanding the nuanced differences between healthy friendships and those that are emotionally draining can be tricky. If you think you might be at the brunt end of an emotionally toxic relationship, you've come to the right place. Below, we break down the signs that you're doing the work — and what to do about it.

Your boundaries aren't being respected

Boundaries are the key to a healthy relationship, and a good friend won't have any problem respecting your boundaries. A toxic friend, on the other hand, well that's another story. A friend should respect your boundaries whether they are explicitly stated or socially dedicated. For example, if you find yourself dodging unwanted calls from a friend during your work day, that's a red flag. It's an even bigger red flag if they guilt trip you when you don't pick up.

According to experts, an easy way to spot an emotionally entitled friend lies in how they respond to boundaries regarding your availability. "Even if you've told them that you have prior commitments or can't be available, they'll still ask for your availability and make you feel guilty for not showing up for them at the time they want," therapist Karina Aybar-Jacobs told Today.

Try and give people the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe your friend just doesn't realize they are imposing. If the friendship is worth salvaging, take the time to clearly explain your boundaries to the other party. If however, they still don't respect your needs — even after spelling them out — it might be time to reconsider the future of your relationship.

You're exhausted

A simple way to measure the health of a friendship is by taking note of how you feel after spending time with each other. Ideally, catching up with friends should be an easy way to unwind after a grueling week at work. A positive interaction should leave you feeling relaxed and happy. If you don't, that's a big red flag. Listening to someone complain about their problems or demand your emotional energy when you're already exhausted from your own day-to-day life isn't healthy.

Additionally, emotionally draining friendships can take a toll on more than just your mental health — they can also cause serious physiological responses. "Pay attention to your body when you're with a friend and when you think about reaching out to them," Elizabeth Cohen, a clinical psychologist, told Well+Good. "Our bodies have a lot of information about how comfortable we feel with another person." Your body reflects your mental state, so if you find yourself wanting to crawl into bed and turn off the lights after hanging out with your friend, that's probably a sign that something is wrong.

You only have so many hours — and so much energy — to give in a day. As a rule of thumb, emotionally supporting your friend shouldn't take up the bulk of your time or energy. Remember: You can't be your best if you're surrounded by people who dampen your spirit and zap your energy.

You can't depend on them

Friendship is give and take. If your friend feels comfortable venting to you, you should feel comfortable venting to them. Ideally, both parties should hold the same amount of emotional space for each other. Few things feel worse than a friendship in which you are expected to offer emotional support, but not welcome to seek it yourself.

Of course, sometimes people will require a little more support than other times, but if it's not generally an even split, something is wrong. Even if your friend is having a hard time, do they check in with you? Or is it all about them? Do they ever ask about your job, your life, your relationships? If the answer is no, then it's time for an overhaul.

"It's important that we understand that friendships be flexible," Andrea Bonior told Women's Health. "But if the pattern is so ingrained that you always feel like you're giving, giving, giving, and there's no reciprocity over a long period of time — that's a sign that it's not gonna be very sustainable." If you notice this pattern, this is your chance to talk to your friend and either set some boundaries about the amount of emotional support they require from you or tell them that things aren't feeling equal. Sadly, if they aren't receptive to that feedback, it might be time to move on.

You're the adult

Everyone needs to lean on their friends from time to time, so it can be tricky distinguishing between what is a normal amount of support and what is asking way too much. A friend going through a tough break up and needing to vent, for example, is perfectly normal. However, if you find that it's not just after the occasional breakup or bad day at work that your friend needs a shoulder to cry on, then that's a sign that you're doing the bulk of the emotional labor in the relationship.

Marriage therapist Sarah Spencer Northey suggests checking in with yourself about the state of the relationship. "Are you feeling like you are helping your friend more than they are helping themselves? Do you feel like their therapist where the emotional support only goes one way?" she asked when speaking to HuffPost. "These are some questions that may help you determine whether or not this relationship is worth the energy." At best, your friend is lacking in self-awareness. At worst, they're using their own issues to manipulate you.

The good news is, the sooner you recognize this dynamic, the sooner you can take steps to fix it. "Once you recognize a pattern of them weaponizing their emotional or mental state to make you feel guilty, you can try to offer concrete examples to them of how you can help, and then set your own boundaries," Karina Aybar-Jacobs, a licensed therapist, explained when speaking to Today.

You make the plans

Emotionally one-sided friendships are about more than whose venting to whom — they also play out in terms of who makes the plans and how often. Pay careful attention to who takes on the responsibility when it comes to getting together, and what those hangouts look like. In most relationships, even the healthiest ones, there's usually a friend who is just a little better or a little more excited about making plans. When the friends get together though, things feel equal. If you find that you reach out to your friend more than they reach out to you, or if they only reach out to vent or when they need something, that's a sign that you're doing most of the emotional labor without getting much in return.

"Take note if you initiate all the plans and are responsible for changing them to suit your friend's moods and impulses," clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen said to HuffPost. "If you're doing all the work in the relationship, you're an employee, not a friend," she clarified. "Time to go on strike." A simple way to handle a situation like this might simply be to stop making plans with that friend, and see how things progress from there. Maybe they will get the hint? Maybe they'll start reaching out more? In the meantime, start investing the time you were spending supporting and planning for this person on forging and cultivating other friendships that actually make you happy.