However You Feel About ‘Emotional Labor,’ Ask Before Venting to Friends

Check yourself before sending yet another wall of blue text to your loved ones.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Photo by Richard Drury via Getty Images

Friendship is, at its core, beautiful and uncomplicated. It’s about spending time together, coming up with inside jokes, making memories, gossiping about acquaintances in the group chat… The list goes on and on. But, like any other relationship, close friendships aren’t all fun times. There’s a certain amount of actual effort that goes into being a good, supportive friend. Sometimes that means checking in on them when they’re going through a breakup, even though you’re secretly pumped because their partner sucked. Sometimes it means helping them write a stern email, or going to their birthday party even if it’s gonna take, like, an hour to get there. Sometimes it means listening to your friend when they vent about about how their subletter always leaves the fridge open. But does being a good friend require asking for permission before you do some venting of your own?


A recent thread of tweets posted by researcher Melissa Fabello suggesting that friends should request permission to vent resurrected the (frequent) debate over the limits of emotional labor, and what the ground rules should be between friends about to engage in an emotionally demanding exchange. Fabello’s tweets instructed friends wishing to vent to clear themselves for landing before launching into a tirade. Her stance was swiftly met with a backlash that critiqued the tone of her advice, particularly the form response to a hypothetical friend in need and her use of the phrase “emotional labor” itself, which has taken on a meaning in modern discourse that diverges from its original, work-centric definition.

Asking someone if you can vent to them before doing so is good practice if you want to maintain healthy friendships. It gives the person you’re venting to the space to assert their own needs, and it forces you to reflect on what you’re asking for, why you’re asking for it, and how often you make this request. It’s also a good way to make sure the relationship is balanced and reciprocal. If you find that you are constantly needing to vent about a different crisis, it’s worth considering that perhaps you’re not just experiencing a weirdly timed series of catastrophes. You might just be giving undue space in your life to anger by assigning each issue a 45-minute complaint session. Asking a friend if they’re available also allows them to be honest about the answer, so you can rest assured that when they’re listening to you, they’re doing so because they care enough about you enough to be fully present—not because they feel backed into a corner by your frantic texts.


Therefore, the viral Twitter thread’s central argument—that not everyone always has the bandwidth to deal with their friend’s problems, and it’s worth asking if they do—isn’t wrong. But it stumbles because the tone of the response from the would-be listener, and the thread as a whole, sounds like a form rejection letter from a college’s on-campus mental health services. It’s good advice, badly delivered—likely to confirm everyone’s worst fears about their personality and their friendships: that the way they voice and deal with their problems makes them a burden to the people they care about.

Even if your daily grievances are legitimate—bad periods happen, after all— reckoning with how much you’re unloading on your friends might alert you to the fact that it’s time to talk to a therapist or other mental health professional. If you pick your venting topics (and partners) wisely, it can become a fun and communal experience. A certain amount of venting can be a good thing: It can help you organize your thoughts, get an outside perspective, surface possible solutions, or even just realize how ridiculous your ire is in the first place. But constant venting can also trick you into thinking you’re solving your problems, even though you’re ignoring the fact that simple solutions like “dump him,” “tell your coworker to stop pressuring you to take her shift,” or “don’t Google ‘sea levels rising how much by 2025’ when you’re high” all exist.

If every conversation you have with another person is about your latest catastrophe, I have an extremely blunt proclamation for you: Your friend is not your therapist. The person you do this to either loves you so fucking much they don’t have the heart to call you out, or they’re tired of you and just don’t know how to tell you they dread it when your name pops up on their home screen. It’s probably some combination of the two.

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