Should I draw a clear boundary, or be more supportive?
Q: I started a new job in the past year, working in the branch office of a medium-size business. We stay connected with the main office through an instant-messaging service. I also spent a few days at the main office and met a number of colleagues there. One of them started sending me occasional lighthearted, friendly messages. Lately, he has been messaging me personal details that I consider oversharing, dealing mostly with his depression, alcoholic spouse and childhood trauma. He sees a therapist once a month because that’s all he can afford. We don’t work together and have no contact other than these messages.
I usually try to respond appropriately with an uplifting thought or a sympathetic “that must be difficult.” But one of his messages overwhelmed me, so I did not reply. The next day, I got melodramatic apologies and promises to keep things professional, but that has not stuck. He says he hopes to consider me a friend.
I am dealing with some big things in my own life and struggle daily to stay positive. I’m annoyed but don’t want to hurt his feelings. We don’t really have an HR department. Should I draw a clear boundary, or be more supportive?
A: Friend or not, would you tolerate this colleague dumping his dirty laundry on your desk for you to sort?
Because that is, in essence, what he’s doing: soliciting your emotional labor for a personal chore you have no business or interest in handling. It’s a gross violation of professional and personal boundaries that I suspect is much more common than is reported.
Not that colleagues can’t seek or offer occasional moral support. But someone who’s really interested in working through problems of this magnitude should be asking his therapist or employee assistance program, if available, for low-cost recommendations — support groups, self-care books — to supplement his monthly sessions. Instead, he’s spamming a newish employee who’s too nice to protest.
Also, his tactics, deliberate or not, resemble a predator’s: plunging into unsolicited intimate confessions; draining your time, attention and compassion; plying you with apologies and promises after you withdraw. And for some reason — inexperience? compassion? self-negating politeness? — you’re questioning your instincts. He’s an emotional vampire, and whether he’s evil or just starving, he’ll suck you dry if you don’t arm yourself with the garlic rope of Nope and the silver cross of Not My Job.
“I know you’re having a hard time, and I sympathize, but I’m not comfortable or able to help you with these heavy personal issues. You really need to take these up with your therapist. From here on out, let’s stick to work matters.” Save all your IM transcripts, and if he starts crossing your boundaries again, it’s time to concede that you, too, have a problem that needs expert intervention, and notify your management.
Pro tip: In addition to Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear,” check out the site CaptainAwkward under keywords “boundaries,” “forced teaming” and “the art of no” for tips on emotional self-defense.