Emotionally Overloaded: Are You Taking on Too Much of Other People’s Pain?

“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” ~Havelock Ellis

I would have done anything for my friends, until one of them nearly broke my heart and spirit. He was my best friend. We felt like platonic soul mates.

We had a standing lunch date every week, called each other terms of endearment, cried together, laughed together—the standard best friend things.

Then, tragedy struck him. Over and over.

His long-time partner left him. Then he lost his executive-level job. Next, he had a string of major medical issues that put him in the hospital.

He needed ongoing weekly treatments to stay alive. His restricted schedule and constant pain made him unable to find work. He ran out of money.

One day he cried all through our lunch, and then asked for a loan so he could pay his bills that month. I gave him more than he asked for and plenty of time to pay it back.

He needed an organ transplant ASAP, so I got tested to be a living donor.

I listened and was there even when my mood and physical energy were drained because of his tears and constant complaints about his life being “a mess.” How could I not be there? He was going through hell.

But so was I. But I felt like my problems were nothing compared to his, and he needed me because he had very few other true friends and a completely estranged family. We were best friends. It was my job to keep him company and to try to help him in any way possible.

And then, one day he never confirmed our lunch like usual. He never showed up at all, and would not return my calls and texts. I got ahold of his other friends and family, and the following two weeks were possibly the worst of my life.

He had turned to drugs to cope with the pain. It turns out he had been putting on an act in a lot of ways. The money I loaned him was probably to buy meth. I felt betrayed, confused, but mostly scared and panicked. I couldn't lose him.

I did everything in my power over those two weeks to help him. I got in touch with his family and landlord.

My phone was constantly buzzing with calls and texts, alerting me to his increasingly bizarre behavior—passing out in his hallway, urinating off the fire escape, casing the hotel next to his apartment for money and food, throwing all of his possessions into the dumpster and putting items out on the sidewalk to be taken away.

He was trying to end his life. Numerous calls to police and wellness checks resulted in no benefit; he would appear of “sound health and mind.”

He was smart, and had been involuntarily committed to the psych ward months earlier after a friend thought he was a danger to himself. He knew the right answers to give, and blamed his physical condition on his disease.

He's an adult, I was told. No one could force him to get help. But I kept trying every trick in the book to make him see the light and keep fighting for his life.

Then, he cut me out. He stopped communicating entirely. I received a cashier's check, no note, in the mail for the remainder of the loan. After years of almost daily contact, he was gone.

And then, he died.

The stages of grief hit me hard and fast. But one emotion hit me hardest of all: guilt. I felt I had missed something that would have saved him, like I had not done enough. But mostly I felt guilty because part of me felt relieved I could finally stop worrying about him. I could refocus on myself and healthier friendships.

I had begun dreading many of our lunch dates. Would he be “a mess” again, crying in public, full of pessimism, unable to hope for a better tomorrow? I started taking on these emotions. Friends pointed out to me that my mood plummeted after time spent with him.

Being his friend had simply become way too heavy a burden than I was able to carry. He was beyond help, because he chose not to help himself. He taught me three valuable lessons that have transformed the way I approach relationships.

1. Trying your best to help someone is more than enough.

Make a genuine but practical, self-caring effort. Sometimes you can't do anything to help.

2. If you start suffering ongoing, negative consequences from a relationship, it's time to reassess.

Maybe you need to be open about how the relationship is affecting you. Maybe you need to step back a bit and treat the relationship more casually. Or maybe you need to walk away.

3. Everyone's struggles are valid and important—especially your own.

Don't think that your issues aren't serious or worthy of your attention just because someone you care about it going through “bigger” things. You can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself.

If you have someone in your life who needs help, it's okay to help carry part of their load temporarily, but you need to unload if it starts weighing you down too much. A best friend is their own best friend first.

About Katherine Reseburg

Katherine is an editor and writer by pay, artist, daydreamer, traveler, and photographer by play. She also enjoys bird-watching, cooking, and volunteering. She has an MA in mass communication/media studies from the University of Wisconsin and lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two crazy cats. Visit her at

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  • Anon

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I enjoyed your post and feel that I could relate to it a lot as well.
    I feel like I take on too much at times and have a hard time turning away from others when they need help. Over time, I too have learned that once relationships start to alter your life and mindset, you should slowly ease back or walk away. I’ve tried helping other friends in certain situations as well, but in the end, they didn’t take my offer of help. They have to be willing to want that change for themselves.
    it started draining me, and eating me up inside when I would spend time with them. I felt guilty for feeling that way too. It was hard to cut them out, but at the end of the day, I learned that you have to look out for yourself as well, and your best interests. Thanks for sharing.

  • Katherine Reseburg

    You’re very welcome… this story is beyond complicated and there’s still so much I couldn’t fit in. It’s hard to love someone who changes like this, and won’t accept help. Me and his other best friend are still stuck in a strange kind of grief over it. Glad to know I am not alone. Thanks for commenting and sharing your feelings.

  • naomihb

    You are absolutely not alone. It is devastating to watch someone who does have enough self-love to save themselves fall down, and sadly that willingness to love themselves is not something that can ever be given from the outside. Severe mental illness and drug addiction can also cause the behaviors you described, and anyone who has seen a loved one destroyed by one of those diseases shares your frustration with a medical system too broken and broke to help. These are losses that we are responsible for as a society, but not you alone. No one individual has the power to change this whole messed up system by themselves, and certainly not while they are grieving the loss of a loved one. Warm wishes for resolution, acceptance, and healing to you and your friends.

  • Arabella

    I have gone through this with an adult daughter who is both an alcoholic and bipolar…over and over and over. It is gut wrenching and leaves me drained, saddened, and feeling helpless. The difference? Sometimes I want to walk away, but she is my child…

  • Guest

    Right – it’s different when it’s family, much less a CHILD. So sorry… I can’t imagine how hard it must be. Hugs.

  • naomihb

    There should be more assistance for you in our society than there is at this time. I’m very sorry… I hope you know that your feelings are completely natural…. I hope she can and does decide to get help someday. Hugs from me too. And I can understand somewhat… in my case it is my mother.

  • John

    I went through something similar in the last few years. My girlfriend of about 6 months started having flashbacks of horrible sexual and physical abuse from her mother as a child. We had our ups and downs after that for the next couple years but I tried to be there for her as much as I could. My own needs sat on the back burner. I had recently divorced before meeting her and never really went through the emotional processing, and never had the chance because her needs came first.

    After she became extremely negative and hostile, angry at the world – my depression really kicked in. She could not see my pain through her own pain. One time she even said I had a good childhood so my problems were insignificant compared with hers, which made ME feel insignificant. I finally had to get away, but it was very painful to abandon someone in such great need. But I had to take care of myself, and I started to recognize that she needed to take care of herself too, to work through the pain on her own until she could start to see the world in a better light. It takes a lot of time… but we’re still good friends, and she seems to have worked through a lot of the pain, even forgave her mother posthumously at the cemetery where she was buried. I went through my own pain from divorce and loss of my house, and finally feel OK again.

    I have learned a lot about myself through this process. I am very empathic to other people’s suffering to the point where I feel it myself. My mother is a selfless person and that trait was also ingrained in my value system, but I’ve since learned that you need to balance helping others with helping yourself, and people who are a drain on your energies are best left alone until they figure things out. Another friend is struggling with his marriage right now and I’ve essentially had to abandon him too, because no matter what advice or insight I’ve given him, he doesn’t pay attention and just seems to want coddling. It hurts to leave a friend in the cold, but sometimes it’s the only thing and the best thing you can do.

    Thanks for sharing, this story really resonated with me.


  • Tara Crowley

    I left a 10 year marriage when my spouse fell down the rabbit hole and could not find a way to love herself and take care of herself. It finally threw me into a deadly nose-dive, and my health suffered. Best thing I ever did was rescue myself and leave. I learned the hard way that, as you say, no one can give someone the ability to love themselves. Not all the love and patience in the world, if it comes from another. It has to be born in them.

  • Katherine R.

    Wow, you touched on other similarities beyond this one on my friend. Especially the issue with empathy. I’ve been called an “emotional sponge” by many people – a trait I think more should have (society as a whole lacks compassion, or at least the willingness to act on it), but one that’s a curse as well as a blessing. Thanks for sharing your story, too. Best to you! ~ Katherine

  • Katherine R.

    (((hugs))) – you’re right though: no one can give someone the ability to love themselves. And trying to love and “fix” these poor people is just too much. Such a sad, harsh lesson to learn… but one that I believe saved my sanity. ~Katherine

  • Katherine R.

    Good point: society definitely punishes those with and caring for those with mental illness… a disease just as serious as diabetes, cancer, and ‘validated’ health problems. Too many people are lost because they have no good resources to turn to for proper care and are too ashamed to ask for help. ~Katherine

  • RandyH

    Hi Katherine…just bizarre that I am reading this today! I will be applying your 3 valuable lessons to my situation THIS WEEK!

    Thanks for sharing,

    Peace to you.

  • Taken on the emotions of others is something I’ve done numerous times. Recently, I’ve had an epiphany, and came to the conclusion that I must refrain from getting involved in other peoples dilemmas. This is not to say that I don’t care, but I know the emotional toll it can take on me. Sometimes the best thing to do is to solicit the help of others, so that you don’t have to bear the weight of everything. When all is said and done, there are times when sending your love and prayers from afar is the only thing you can do. And guilt, should never be a option when it comes to someone else’s issue, since we are all responsible for our own circumstances. Katherine, you did the best you can do in your situation, so I hope you’ve made peace with everything.

  • Faith Antion

    Katherine, thank you for sharing your story and I’m sorry for all the pain you’ve been through. Like other readers, I’ve had to walk away from people in my past that I had become very attached to – people I cared for deeply and even loved, and never imagined my life without. I’ve been through all of the “what if” scenarios and dealt with the guilt that accompanies the feeling that I could have saved them. Time helps to heal these wounds somewhat, but I still have to remind myself that just as I am 100% responsible for my own happiness and well-being, others in my life are responsible for their own. When I find it easy to be an “emotional sponge” (perfect description, by the way) I question whether I am really doing that out of compassion, or because it seems easier sometimes to fix other people’s problems than to deal with my own. I’m also practicing the art of listening and empathizing without offering a solution, and I’m finding that just saying things like “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you” without adding “Maybe you should…” or “I think…” goes a long way with most people. Thanks again for your post, it was a good reminder for me.

  • Katherine R.

    WOW – this is great advice I have been trying to take but the way you stated it will make it easier for me I think: “I’m also practicing the art of listening and empathizing without
    offering a solution, and I’m finding that just saying things like “I’m
    sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you” without adding “Maybe
    you should…” or “I think…” goes a long way with most people.”

    I always feel the need to try and relieve others’ pain, offering advice and even trying to take some of it off them and onto me. It’s good to get ‘permission’ to take better care of myself and step back. As a highly sensitive/overly empathic person, I have reached a point of physical and emotional exhaustion… slowly but surely, after some more rest, I think I will be in a great place.

    Thanks for the comment. ~Katherine

  • Katherine R.

    Thank you… writing this and receiving nice comments like yours is really helping my grieving. ~Katherine

  • Katherine R.

    Peace to you as well. ~Katherine

  • Nabiha

    absolutely amazing story. Very reflective of the ‘normal’ relationships today. everyone has atleast one such demanding friend/relative in their close loop.
    Although i don’t quite agree with a few conclusions, i agree with most. After all, at the end of every article, it is the reader’s choice what to take home with them.
    such a topic is very diverse and needs more to be written on it, and i suppose even workshops on such topics will be helpful to many.

  • Tara Crowley

    I’m now going to a co-dependent 12 step kind of group, but within a Buddhist framework. Reading MB’s book The Co-dependents Guide to the 12 steps. Powerful powerful stuff!

  • Silver

    Emotionally overloaded is exactly how I feel right now.
    I wish it’s only family or friends I worry and care too much about..but even when I watch news or read about someone I don’t even know I get emotionally involved and it builds up pressure on my chest..I’ve been like this for as long as I’ve remember mom noticed that about me when I was 5 years old (who was exactly the same, probably learned it from her) many times I neglect my own feelings to be there for others even if they are strangers..i understand this will only cause me harm…it’s already it is and the world probably doesn’t even know I exisit but I don’t know how to stop…I’m 26 years old and can’t seem to know how to stop caring too much about what’s going on around me without feeling anxious and depressed

  • Light

    You really sound like someone I know and loved truly, my ex. 🙁

  • Marie

    Ive just recently gone thru a breakup,ive been struggling so much,to allow myself to cry, feel the heartache im feeling,id always been the type to never show my feelings let alone share with been seperated 12-13 days or so,hed staryed texting me. Wanting to go for coffee,telling me he still loves me.misses me didnt want to leave.
    To throw salt n my wounds,says to me youre a good women, the man who has u, im sure will love u and accept u for who.u are. Ure beautiful caring,.id burst into tears.he was to be the one that loved me accepted me as I am.not two weeks ago he was telling me ily.holding me suddenly he just, said he wished he never met me dont ever talk to him again.i never bothered him.i just went thru my heartbreak.hadnt quite gotten to the point where id felt I could talk to him.he insisted itd be OK.he ended up holding me kissing me saying ily,imy.then he just couldnt be with ne. Leaving me feeling like hed just broke up with ne all over im hurt sad n tears all over again.i felt this would happen.and said I cant do this friends thing im still hurting
    I cant do it I dont know if I will ever be able to.actually expects me to be able to talk to him about my life all happy n getting better.evwntually have another relationahip.i dont know how to feel anymore I know I cant go along with this it is hurtimg me