Feeling Emotionally Depleted? Here’s a Hidden Cause to Consider

I invested in my relationships like others invest in stock.

I transformed my talkative nature into being an adept listener. I learned breathing exercises to stay calm during conflict. I became more collaborative with others by using the skill of “yes, and” I mastered during a year of improv classes. When conflict brewed, I leaned into listening to their point of view rather than advancing my own. I focused on what I loved about others, giving plenty of space for their humanity, even when it ignored my own. I gave patience and understanding, sometimes swallowing my own pain. I made sure others felt understood even when I didn’t feel the same. I was proud of being emotionally generous with others. I became known for it.

Being emotionally generous felt good, until it didn’t.

One night something inside me split. I was tired of always giving, always being the bigger person. Suddenly all my friends and family seemed selfish. “All of you are selfish. It’s all about you! It’s never about me.” I raged at my partner. Then I stopped. Wait. How could everyone be selfish? Either I had really bad taste in relationships or I was the problem.

I realized I’d gone too far. I was constantly putting others’ emotional needs over my own. I gave emotionally but wasn’t receiving enough myself. My emotional well had run dry. Something had to change.

That night I turned off my notifications and climbed into bed with partner at 6pm. We sat next to each other watching our own shows. It felt like togetherness without having to give. Just what I needed. The next morning I got up early, put on my morning playlist and pulled out my journal, furiously putting down all my feelings onto those pages. I wrote about all the ways I felt taken advantage of, all the times I felt like an overflowing cup to that never got replenished. I made a list of things that would get you booted from my life: always blaming others, feeling constantly depleted after interacting with them, consistently being mean during conflict, continually centering their needs over others. Then I made a list of what I wanted from the relationships in my life. I wanted those who were: emotionally aware, willing to examine their own behavior and make changes, sought to give as much as they received. Writing it down made everything clear. My relationships were tilted dangerously out of balance.

I started making changes. I hadn’t unfriended anyone in five years. It was time to check in. As I went through my list I let go of anyone who: a) I didn’t feel comfortable to be myself with b) I couldn’t recall a single instance of real connection with c) always seemed to ask for favors yet never returned them. I unfriended 90 people in two weeks. I felt lighter, rejuvenated. I was reminded of all the people in my life who were also emotionally generous with me. I needed to spend more time cultivating those relationships. Then I found some new communities where I met like-minded people, where I didn’t always feel the need to give. The anxiety went away, I felt appreciated in my relationships. Connecting with others now felt like a joy.

I realized that being emotionally generous is a relationship builder but can also destroy the most important one if not careful: the one with yourself.

What does it mean to be emotionally generous?

Being able to regulate your own emotions is a sign you have a capacity to be emotionally generous. You do this to calm your own emotional state and on behalf of others. Regulating your emotions means being able to stay open when others’ are elevated. This makes it less likely for the conversation to devolve into a shouting match, which can damage the relationship and lead to intractable conflict.

You might be emotionally generous if you’re willing to listen more than you talk — especially when tensions are high. It’s human nature to make sure we feel understood instead of understanding others. We all want to feel understood. Rather than preparing to make the next point, in arguments the emotionally generous listen openly and with curiosity.

Finally, emotionally generous people center the relationships in their lives over themselves. Rather than being right, they’re more likely to be gracious over small slights, ensuring small squabbles don’t turn into all out conflict.

These characteristics are why we love the emotionally generous. It’s also what puts them at risk for burnout unless they find a balance. Unless they’re careful, they might just end up like me that night, ranting at my partner that everyone was selfish. My dad puts it this way: Your assets in excess become your liability. In other words, being too emotionally generous with others might be a detriment to your own well-being.

Three signs you’re too emotionally generous

  • You feel depleted at the end of the day. You might check out in front of the tv mindlessly watching episode after episode of your favorite show. You dread when the phone rings or when a new text comes in. If you give a lot at work, you might dream of changing jobs to something with less people-oriented demands. Consistently feel depleted? Create a criteria for who you want in your life. Let go of anyone who doesn’t fit it. Don’t feel bad about it for even a millisecond.
  • You constantly put others’ needs ahead of your own. You answer other’s calls even during designated “me time”. You rarely ask for support from others, you feel guilty or focus on their needs when you notice even a slight concern in their voice. Your calendar is your biggest asset here. Schedule time for you that is inviolate. Put it on your calendar in ink. If you need help, find someone who will hold you accountable to taking this time. It doesn’t matter what you do, just that it’s time you do things that replenish you.
  • You feel resentful. You feel like others are selfish, they’re never there for you. Being generous emotionally only goes one way — out. Emotional generosity goes over the line when the output and the input are mismatched. You’re not completing the cycle of giving and receiving which is why you feel resentful, maybe even angry at pretty much everyone. Stop giving for a bit — at least a week. This will help you reset. Then look for others who are emotionally generous, those relationships are more likely to be balanced.

Where my emotional generosity stands today

I’m still emotionally generous. More likely to turn to curiosity than yelling when frustrated in my interactions. When others are having a tough time, my instinct is to listen. I’m also more balanced now. I have clear boundaries for myself and others. I let people know when I don’t have energy to listen. I don’t answer the phone or a text when I’m feeling low energy. I rarely feel the kind of emotional depletion that leads to burnout. I can’t remember the last time I felt resentful. I have many fulfilling relationships. Being emotionally generous feels good.

P.S. Don’t forget to look at your professional life. Emotional generosity can build powerful work relationships too. Just make sure you’re getting enough back in that environment too.

Leadership coach for new technology leaders. Fast Company contributor. Former COO Travis CI. www.suzanbond.com Twitter: @suzanbond

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