The world is not your counsellor’s office
By Rebecca Peterson, Assistant Editor
We’ve all known at least one person like this: Five minutes into meeting them, and suddenly you’re standing there awkwardly as they start monologuing about their tragic backstory. If you’re lucky, they were just bullied as a child. If you’re unlucky, they might have a far more disturbing story to tell. Unfortunately, some of us have also been that person. If this sounds like something you have done or might do, you absolutely need to stop.
I’m a firm believer in consent and respect in all things—yes, rules of consent can and should apply beyond sex and romance. Words, despite what we say about sticks and stones, can have an impact on par with physical trespasses. Talking out traumatic moments with your friends and family—if they’ve consented and are in a mentally healthy place to listen—can be a good way to through your troubles. Spilling your trauma all over a stranger is, to me, a trespass; you do not have a steady, reliable, and mutual relationship with them, you likely have not asked for their consent to make them your emotional sponge, and, most importantly, you don’t know what they’re going through themselves. Diving into the full details of something traumatic you’re working through might be cathartic to you, but could be utterly triggering for the person you’ve just dumped your shit on if they’ve gone through something similar. At best, you’re making people wildly uncomfortable; at worst, you’re actively harming them.
I have had more people than I can count do this to me, people who I barely knew trying to make their problems my problems. Like a lot of empathetic people (“empathetic” here meaning “able to ‘feel’ to an extent what others are feeling,” not inherently “nice and kind and good,” something I think people who describe themselves and others as empathetic confuse on occasion), I would find it hard to set those boundaries for my own mental health. This bit me in the ass more times than not, as these people would start using me as their personal therapist; a one-time talk would become a nightly crisis chat, talking people down from ledges and self-destructive behaviours and wearing the full impact of guilt when I failed to keep them safe from themselves.
Using people like that destroys them. These days, I don’t mind providing a shoulder for people who I consider to be my friends, because I know they’d do the same for me. Passing acquaintances, however, I’m more likely to give a little pat on the back and a list of 24-hour crisis chat-lines. It has taken me a long-ass time to come to terms with the fact that I’m not a licensed therapist and that it’s not my job to fix people. I find it hard not to actively resent anyone who tries it with me now.
We all have our moments of oversharing. I think it’s honestly a stage of trauma recovery; going from keeping utterly silent about what you went through, to recounting the story over and over again to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. I’ve definitely done it (I was a very sad drunk in my late teens), and I’m not proud of it. I’m not proud of the selfishness that went into it. I’m not proud of knowing that I might have hurt people with my carelessness. Part of growing up is learning from your mistakes and, hopefully, passing those lessons along so others can avoid doing the dumb shit you did.
So, here’s my lesson for you: For all the times you need to dump your emotions somewhere, find a crisis chat-line. There are plenty of apps and websites out there that support peer counselling—at least there you know that the person on the other end of the line is absolutely consenting to taking on some of your emotional baggage. It’s far healthier, and far less harmful, than turning good people into terrible therapists.