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It’s Okay To Set Boundaries With Your Anxious Friends

From one anxious person to another

by Jill Gutowitz

Shut Up, Brain is a column by Jill Gutowitz in which she looks at everything from pop culture phenomena to the quirks of interpersonal relationships through the lens of someone who lives with anxiety.

In writing this column, I've covered everything from how people who don't suffer from mental health issues should talk about mental health to what it's like to talk about anxiety with people who don't have anxiety. That I haven't yet used the word "anxie-TEA" is, frankly, a testament to my strength of character (which has now been compromised). But, after embarking on numerous diatribes about people who aren't anxious and their affronts on my own brain, I've realized that those scenarios are actually outliers in my experience—so much of my social life is actually (and thankfully) occupied by friends who are also anxious-depressive. It's so helpful—necessary, even—to be surrounded by people with shared experiences. But because of that, I've also had to learn how to navigate not just my own anxious brain, but the intersection of my friends' anxiety with my own.

So much of living with anxiety is just learning to set boundaries with yourself and with others, and coming to understand that it's not just okay to do so, but it's healthy. Most of the people in my life that I'm closest with—my best friends, my girlfriend, my sister—all get it; when I'm spiraling, and I make demands like "I need to leave," or "I need air," or "get me out of here," they know I'm not being high maintenance, but am just vocalizing what I need to keep myself alive. But asking for what you need goes both ways: Something healthy and mutually beneficial that my friends and I have put into practice is asking if the other party has the emotional space or energy to deal with us. That might sound harsh, but it works, and actually might be the most gentle way to treat one another.

Anxiety ebbs and flows, which means that sometimes I'm absolutely vibrating through a public space, and other times I'm surprisingly chill. So, when I'm out with my friends, sometimes one of us is more high-strung than the others, sometimes all of us are buzzing, sometimes none of us are, depending on the circumstance. Navigating this can be difficult, so it's necessary to find the way to deal with your panicky friends while maintaining boundaries and protecting yourself, too.

While lost in a spiral the other day, I called one of my best friends, Sam, needing to unload and process with him, but I prefaced the conversation with, "Do you have the space or energy to process something with me right now?" And I didn't expect anything from him—if he, another Anxious, had said "no," I wouldn't have been offended—it's why I asked. I know that if he came to me with his own spiral while I was already drowning in my own brain, I might've snapped at him, or given him some half-baked, bullshit advice. In setting boundaries and protecting ourselves, the results are more beneficial for both parties. I'd rather someone was able to be present with me, and I'd rather know I wasn't transitively stressing them out by expressing my own anxiety. Sometimes, Sam and I call each other with a problem, and one of us responds, "I can't do this right now." To me, that's not harsh. There's something about brutal honesty and communication that actually relieves my own anxiety.

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying this, but a large cause of my anxiety is feeling like a burden to others. Because I'm almost constantly spiraling about something, I understand that being close to me means being close to that energy, which means being able to be affected by it—and knowing that I might be "a lot" to deal with further stresses me out. I always feel like I'm imposing, even when I'm not. So, being able to be straightforward with my friends and say, "Talk to me, but only if you can take this on right now," alleviates my fear that I'm a constant, heavy burden to everyone in my life. It also normalizes my own anxiety to me; rather than feeling like my anxiety is ruining my life and relationships, it helps me understand that my friends understand exactly what I'm going through, and they want to be available to help me—but not everyone is available all the time. If at least one of us is in a solid headspace, we're more likely to be helpful and talk the other one down.

I never want to dump on someone. Sometimes, I struggle with finding that blurry line between processing and unloading, or transferring my pain to someone else. In exercising complete, honest and open communication with my anxious friends, we've all been just a little less stressed out by each other, and by the minutiae of this hell world. Less stress—that's the dream, isn't it?