My colleague wants more attention than I can give. How can I manage this with kindness? | Leading questions

Letting this continue might not be best for either of you, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Try using distance as a boundary

I’ve got a colleague who I get along well with – we are “work friends” but not outside of work. I like her a lot but recently I am feeling that my boundaries are being encroached upon. I’m also feeling guilty for being selfish. When she first joined she shared a very traumatic personal experience her family suffered. I think I’ve become an outlet for support she is not getting elsewhere.

Recently I can’t go five minutes without her wanting more of my attention than I can give. I just don’t reply when I’m busy, but it’s complicated: she seems to be constantly in conflict, so the conversation is almost always negative, and she isn’t really interested in empathy – she just seems to want a punching bag.

I am not losing patience yet – but it is starting to become stressful for me. I am quite sure that raising firmer boundaries will simply turn me into one of her personal conflicts.

Please help! How can I manage this with kindness, while maintaining being a source of work support, while not being detrimental?

Eleanor says: Sometimes you try to fill someone’s emotional support bucket and find out it’s more like a sieve.

You’ve asked two different questions here – one about how to handle someone else’s emotional experience with kindness, and one about how to establish firmer boundaries at work. Unfortunately each question here is going to inform the other; you can’t give her the full support and empathy of a bona fide friend because that would undermine the work boundary you’re trying to set, and you can’t just send a curt email because you want to act with kindness as well as professional propriety.

So how can we find you a way to do both?

One thing to keep in mind when you find yourself becoming an emotional crutch is that this might not be as helpful for the other person as they think it is. When we are seriously suffering from lack of empathy and patience, we can get immense succour from even small amounts of either: when you’re starving, crumbs feel like a meal.

But the risk is those small soothing mechanisms mask what is really needed: making changes. It sounds like vent sessions to a wearying colleague are not actually what this woman needs. You say she’s been through a great deal and needs supportive relationships and possibly a professional to talk to. Trying to get the comfort of those relationships from work is not going to be an emotional success in the long-term. The good news for you is that, since this isn’t what she needs long-term, it isn’t as cruel as it might feel (to both of you) to phase it out.

This is really important to keep in mind when people start relying on us more than we feel comfortable with, especially at work: you are not a therapist or a best friend, and allowing your relationship to replace one or the other can be fraught for both of you. It might help to focus on that when you’re feeling guilty about giving her less.

So, how can you establish firmer boundaries without causing a conflict? The best thing would be if she could think it was her idea: if you slowly became a less satisfying person to vent to. Perhaps you could focus on slowly winding down the amount of time you spend together – if it was three hours this week, make it two and a half next week. Slowly introduce excuses that mean you can’t spend time together (maybe you have to call your mum on your walk today?).

Distance can be its own boundary. You could make it less rewarding to come to you, too; fewer smiles, fewer “oh nos!”, fewer things that feel good to get from an interlocutor. The occasional conversational blocker could work, too: “Yes, you told me.” “I remember”; impassive conversational “reflectors” that don’t reciprocate with emotion.

It can be very difficult to feel you’re the only thing keeping a person afloat, but it’s not sustainable for either of you if that’s what is going on. Perhaps by making it feel a little less good to come to you in the short term, she might make the changes she needs to feel better in the long run.

This letter has been edited for length.


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