It's great to have friends at work—really, research proves it!—but when friendship means your coworker's personal life takes up more of your mental space than that report due next week, that's an issue. In this week’s Good@Work column, career expert Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—tells a woman how to handle her work wife's draining demands for her time and energy.
One of my coworkers (with whom I’m also friends) is having a hard time right now personally and at work. I want to support her, but she also messages me (or pulls me aside) constantly to complain and vent. It’s getting to the point where taking care of her at work feels like almost a full-time job, and interferes with my ability to do my own job. How can I set boundaries with her without causing offense or making her feel like I don’t care about her (because I do!)
It sounds like this coworker is a two-hour friend. A two-hour friend is a person you love and want to spend time with but can only do so for a maximum of two hours. A two-hour friend requires too much emotional labor for the interaction to be enjoyable for any longer. We all have two-hour friends, and admitting you have two-hour friends doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad friend. In fact, it makes you a better friend because you’ll be able to set limits instead of feeling like you need to withdraw from a relationship completely. If another person drags you down with their own never-ending white water river of bullshit, you won’t be able to counsel them on said bullshit because they’ll have transferred that bullshit over to you. And then you might feel like you need a 24/7 emotional crutch in the form of another person. And someone who needs her own emotional crutch will probably not be the most effective emotional crutch for other people.
I use the term “two-hour friend” as a catchall, but of course if your workday is eight or nine or even (god forbid) ten hours long, you’re probably not going to give two hours a day to your needy coworker. So, the first step in managing this relationship is acknowledging—to yourself—that you can’t give this person everything she wants from you. The next step is to figure out what you can give her. Maybe you decide you can have lunch with her twice a week, or make two 20-minute coffee runs a day with her. Maybe you’ll sign onto Gchat to talk to her for 15 minutes a day. Come up with a time management system that will feel good to you instead of draining.
The first step in managing this relationship is acknowledging—to yourself—that you can’t give this person everything she wants from you.
When you do spend time with your coworker, remember that, as your friend, she’s supposed to be there for you, too. So your time with her shouldn’t be relegated to only solving her problems or taking about her life. Talk about your problems or your weekend plans or your work bullshit. If this person aspires to be a good friend to you, she ought to engage with the things on your mind in addition to those on her own. Two-hour friends can be wonderful, supportive, hilarious, good people, so don’t fall into the habit of assuming that just because she’s living life at the center of a tornado of her own problems, she can’t or doesn’t want to be the kind of friend to you that you’ve been to her. Most people, like yourself, take pride and pleasure in being good influences on other people. In fact, one of the best things you might be able to do for her is tell her that she’s a good friend, that you value her advice, that she’s had a positive impact on your life. Imagine how nice you would feel if someone said that to you. It’s like a little cuddle for even the coldest and hardest of souls.
Once you decide how much time you can devote to this relationship, and that you will proactively make it mutually beneficial, the next step is to decide how to message this transition to your two-hour friend. I would probably not sit her down and tell her that she sucks all the oxygen out of your relationship and that your work performance suffers as a direct consequence of near-constant and onerous interaction with her. Telling her she’s the problem (even if she is) is only going to add to her crappy self-image and dreaded mounting list of problems.
That being said, when you decide to set this plan in motion, you should tell her that changes are coming. If you don’t tell her you’re going to pull back from your relationship, she’ll sense instantly when you do, and then you’ll both worry about what the other person is thinking, and then you’ll resent each other and quite possibly endure a passive aggressive falling out that will make you both feel awful.
When you tell her changes are coming, make it about you, not her. When you sign on for your daily 20-minute allotted bitch fest or when you go for your daily short coffee, say something like, “I’m feeling really under water at work right now. It’s a more intense suffocation than usual because, as you know, this place is horrible (work is just so horrible, isn’t it?!) and I’m getting a bunch of shit for missing deadlines and not having anything seemingly insightful to say in meetings. So I’m going to have to work through lunch every day/stay signed out of Gchat/limit my coffee runs so that I can catch up and I don’t miss out on a raise at the end of the year. Do you want to grab a drink Thursday so we can catch up properly, though?” Let her know you’re there for her, hate work as much as she does (even if you don’t, which you probably do—let’s be honest, jobs usually suck!), but can’t be there for her on her exceedingly demanding schedule.
If she reacts negatively to this, then it’s time to downgrade her from a two-hour friend to a zero-hour friend. Because people who can’t support you are not worthy or your support.
Amy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.
Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and sign up for her newsletter here.
Have a career question for Amy? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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