How to turn to people for support without adding to their emotional load.
You arrive at 7:30am at the school where you teach to get all your printing and photocopying done for the day and upload your lesson plans to the online portal. You don’t have a single period free today. When the bell rings for lunch, one of your students breaks down and reveals a serious situation to you. You spend the whole lunch period talking to the student and sending follow up emails to their coordinators and the wellbeing team.You have a meeting after school that lasts for an hour and after this you somehow summon the energy to complete two hours of marking.
By the time you are ready to leave, the sun has almost set. You are hungry and exhausted, both emotionally and physically. You are just about to get into your car when a colleague approaches you and launches straight into telling you, in full detail, about a fight they just witnessed between two students.
You lean against your car and say things like “oh, no” and “that’s awful”, but you don’t really hear much of what your coworker is saying. All you can think about is getting yourself home.
If you’ve ever had someone unload on you when you really didn’t have the capacity to hear it, or if you’ve ever shared some information before first checking whether the other person had the emotional space for it, you are absolutely not alone.
What is emotional space?
The term emotional space refers to how much energy you have to think about, listen to or discuss something that requires a lot of empathy, or that is unpleasant or distressing.
When you have emotional space, you feel like you are able to tackle issues that come your way. You might offer an ear to a friend going through a tough time, listening to them talk while empathising and suggesting potential solutions to their dilemmas.
When you don’t have space, it can feel like even the tiniest thing is too much to handle. You might feel like you are shutting down and unable to hear what is being said to you. You might break down and cry, or freeze up and feel like you can’t do or say anything.
For example, if you’ve had a really sad day, you may not have the emotional space to watch a sad movie, or listen to someone talk about their dog who just died, or have a discussion with your coworker about an upcoming audit - each of these things might be too much for you, leaving you feel even more emotionally drained than before.
Sometimes we just don’t have the emotional space to listen to something, whether it’s because we are exhausted, because we are already upset, or because the topic being discussed is personally triggering. When your coworker launches into a story about witnessing a fight between two students when you have already had an emotionally taxing day, this adds to your emotional load and contributes to burnout. When you are too tired, too upset, too overwhelmed, you won’t be able to listen and will end up feeling worse than you already did.
You didn’t need to hear about that fight at that particular moment. It would have been really helpful if your colleague had checked whether you had the space before telling you this story.
What is checking for space?
Checking for space simply involves asking someone before you have them listen to, look at or do something that requires a lot of empathy, or that is unpleasant or distressing. For example, you might check for space before venting to a colleague about the lack of funding for student wellbeing and sharing your concerns that your distressed student will have to wait six weeks to a see counsellor.
Why should I check for space?
None of us want to add to the emotional burnout of someone who just isn’t in a position to take on more. When you check for space, you are showing consideration for other people’s emotional states.
Checking for space is an acknowledgement that everyone has difficult things going on, and makes the person you are speaking to feel like they aren’t obligated to listen or help you out in that particular moment.
When you check for space, you give people the option to protect their own emotional wellbeing. You encourage them to check in with themselves and opt out of hearing you unload if they need to.
Checking for space makes it safe for people to tell you if they aren’t in the right mindset to hear what you’re about to say. By checking for space, you are telling the person you are speaking with that although you want to talk about something, you still consider their emotional wellbeing and state of mind, and respect if they're not the best person for you to speak to at the moment.
When you check for space, you are asking whether or not you have consent to share information with someone. Consent is part of a broad practice that doesn’t just apply to sex.
How do I check for space?
Checking for space isn’t something that many of us have seen modelled, so it’s likely that you’re thinking it all feels a bit foreign and potentially awkward. However, once you have some strategies up your sleeve and have seen some examples of what checking for space looks like, you will feel much more confident trying this next time you want to vent to your coworker about that awful meeting.
Be direct. Make it clear that you are asking whether or not the person you are talking to is willing to listen to what you would like to talk about. This gives them the option to opt out if they need to.
Be specific. You should give a clear indication of the topic that you would like to discuss, so that the other person can make an informed decision on whether or not they want to talk about it.
Check regardless of context. Check for space in person, on the phone, on a video chat, at a party, via text message. Whatever situation you are in, if you think the content you are about to discuss may be too much for someone for any reason, it’s worth checking.
“How do you feel about me bringing up something work-related right now?”
“Hey, do you have the space for me to talk to you about a friend who is depressed?”
“Can I vent about my parents, or are you not in the headspace for that right now?”
“I’d like to tell you a story, but it’s about violence at a protest. Do you want to hear it now, or another time?”
“Can I ask for some advice about my date, or would you prefer I talk to someone else about this?”
If the person you ask tells you they don’t have the space, they are helping you to keep them feeling comfortable in your conversations. Don’t take it personally, and thank them for being honest. Saying no doesn’t always feel easy, but it’s the right thing to do to keep everyone in the conversation feeling safe.
Making space for others
It’s also important to acknowledge that in certain situations you may need to create space for some people, by finding the energy to listen to and support them. For example, you might tell your partner you don't have space for their venting tonight knowing that they'll call their mate to vent instead, but you might choose to make space for your friend who has just broken up with his boyfriend and doesn't know who else to talk to at the moment.
It’s also not at all practical to tell your 15 year old student that you don't have the space to listen to him talk about how sad he is because he has no friends in your class, because that's a reality of your job as a teacher. Sometimes we don't get to opt out, and sometimes it’s important not to opt out.
This feeds back into why it's so valuable to check for space at times when you don't necessarily need to unload on that particular person. It's about sharing the emotional load around, getting support from different places so that you're also able to give your support in different places at different times.
How do I tell someone when I don’t have space?
We’ve all been in a situation where someone tells us something that we just aren’t in the right mood to hear. If someone checks for space, you are being given the chance to opt out.
You could say things like:
“Not right now, thanks for checking first.”
“Actually that topic is too close to home for me, I’d prefer it if you could find someone else to support you with that one”.
“I’d love to hear about that, but can you ask me another time instead?”
But what can you do, when someone has already started unloading? When you are caught in a conversation that just doesn’t feel comfortable, and want a way out?
Firstly, remember that it's okay to set boundaries and opt out sometimes. You have the right to protect your own emotional wellbeing and you don't have to be there for everybody all the time. If you need to opt out, do so politely and respectfully. Make it clear that you do care about the person, but just aren't in the right place to support them at that moment.
You could say something along the lines of:
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m actually feeling really emotional. Can you tell me this story another time?”
“That sounds really awful, I’m sorry that happened. Could you hold off on the rest of this story until another time, it’s actually hitting me really hard.”
“Before you go on, I’m going to have to sit this one out, it’s quite a triggering topic for me.”
If someone doesn’t have the capacity to listen to you, it’s not personal.
By checking for space, you’ve allowed them to opt out of a conversation that would have been too much for them at that moment.
If you don’t have the space to listen to someone, you don’t have to.
Letting someone know that you don’t have the space is a form of self-care.
Let's Talk About X provides consent education and LGBTIQA+ Inclusion training to schools and workplaces.
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