In my experience, shared neuroses are as good of a bonding agent as shared interests. Some of my favorite relationships have solidified as a result of the mutual nurturing of thought-spirals. Maybe that sounds grim, but I’ve found that kind of vulnerability to be an important tentpole of connection. Life is less lonely when you open the windows on your dark parts. As I’ve grown older though, and out of the period of my life defined by rapid change, I’ve begun to notice a small flaw in the recipe of bonding over anguish: it gets old. Especially when the ingredients fail to turn over as quickly.
“I’m feeling burned out” or “I’m feeling anxious” are valid feelings to share with a confidant, for instance, but when those admissions come to define your catch-ups, and when venting becomes a staple of a relationship…what then? As my life has stabilized and my problems have come to resemble more of a simmering soup than a flash in the pan, I’ve been asking myself that question a lot. If I don’t want to withhold my internal life from my closest connections, nor burden them with rehashing unresolved stuff, how do I stay connected with them? I don’t want my relationships to be defined by swapping negative feelings, but I’m not always sure how to withdraw from that pattern without withdrawing in general.
Arianna Brandolini d’Adda, PsyD, is a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, depression and OCD. I asked her to help me parse the difference between nurturing a relationship with honesty and treating it like a dumping ground. Below are her six tips for managing anxious, depressed or negative feelings within close relationships, be they romantic, friendly or familial.
1. Identify when you need space — and then actually take it.
If you know you’re not in the headspace to lay your troubles out nor shake them off, Dr. Brandolini suggests asserting your need to take time and space for yourself, where you’re free to “process, feel safe and be in a certain headspace without having to worry about another person.”
Sometimes that means explicitly asking for time instead of being frustrated when it’s not given to you, or worse: saying yes when you want to say no. She says we can’t expect people to understand our internal worlds without sharing them; part of being in a healthy relationship is being able to ask for what you need.
2. When you can’t bow out, teach yourself to be present.
If taking time alone isn’t an option, Dr. Brandolinin says practicing being present with mindfulness tools can help you manage distracting feelings without knee-jerk indulging them.
“Anxiety is this constant worry about the future. You’re constantly living 15 steps ahead, in a future that hasn’t existed, or another headspace where you’re not fully present,” she says. “A lot of research has shown that practicing things like mindfulness is not only helpful in your day-to-day, but for mental health and anxiety in general. Using mindfulness to do things like active listening– where you’re fully engaged in the conversation — or being fully engaged or absorbed in whatever is that you’re doing, can actually help enhance your relationship and feeling of connectedness.”
3. Learn to “dance the line of assertiveness.”
“What I deal with a lot with my patients is this idea of assertiveness,” says Dr. Brandolini. “Assertiveness is a type of communication (and a type of living and being), where we dance the line of respecting the wants and needs of the other person as well as respecting the want and needs of our own person.” She says people often switch between being passive (valuing someone else’s needs) and aggressive (valuing your own needs), but “healthy relationships dance that line.”
4. Communicate using: fact, feeling, fair request.
One way to be assertive is to get better at communicating. “Fact, feeling, fair request” is Dr. Brandolini’s shorthand for how to communicate your feelings assertively and respectfully. Blowing past your emotions just because “you don’t want to complain” can be just as unhealthy as ruminating on them. Find the in-between.
Her example: “Today I’m feeling really anxious (fact), and when you keep asking me questions, it makes me feel isolated and misunderstood (feeling). Would it be okay with you if you just sat here with me and we quietly read? (fair request)”
This model requires you to know what it is you need at a given time, and that work is wrapped into tip #1.
5. Remember that talking through struggles is part of a healthy relationship.
Dr. Brandolini says it’s helpful to remember what defines a healthy relationship — respect, trust, honesty, support, communication (not just good times) — and work toward that foundation, inevitable rough patches and all.
“If our goal in our relationships is to know and be fully known without agenda — without manipulating or using someone for our advantage or being worried they will do that do to us — talking about what we’re struggling with is part of that. If you feel like you’re not able to do that or you keep stopping yourself from that, it’s worth asking: ‘What are some thoughts I’m having about myself and my self-worth that’s impacting this relationship in a negative way?’”
6. Be willing to ask for feedback.
Part of a healthy relationship is also being open to feedback. Dr. Brandolini says that if you’re worried you’re burdening your friend or partner, acknowledge that. “Ask them, ‘Hey, do you feel like I should be getting more help with this? Are you feeling overburdened by this? Do you feel like this is something that is impacting our relationship in a negative way?'” Bring them into that thought process.
7. Consider why you want to vent or unload before you do it.
There is a difference between productive discussion and ruminating, says Dr. Brandolini. Before you unload on someone “for the sake of being honest,” ask yourself: What is the function of this sharing? Intimacy, connection, support? Or is it out of pure anxiety and the desire to dwell? Is the outcome going to be helpful? Is it going to draw us together or push us apart? Will sharing this make me feel better or worse? Does this person have the capacity to help me right now?
That said, venting for the sake of venting isn’t always bad. “Sharing experiences with someone helps us put words to feelings and process thoughts, and that’s all part of human feelings and fostering a relationship.” Not every conversation needs to find a solution, but pay attention to using rumination as a coping mechanism.
8. Pay attention to patterns over time.
At the end of the day, no person or relationship is perfect. “There are times you will feel anxious and overburden someone,” reminds Dr. Brandolini. “And that’s okay! That’s part of learning what is and isn’t helpful. But if it becomes a pattern and starts to hurt your relationships, that’s a good time to stop and reflect and take stock.” It’s important to pay attention to when our negative feelings start to have broad-reaching impacts over time. That’s when you may benefit from outside help like therapy.
How do you manage your mental health within your relationships? Open to hearing your challenges and approaches, if you have them.
Collages by Adriana Gallo.