The Downside of Being a Good Listener

UPDATED: February 20, 2017
PUBLISHED: February 20, 2017

We all have that one friend or family member. The person who we feel comfortable letting out all of our frustrations, sadness and difficult feelings to. You call him or her to vent and complain when your boss says something insensitive or your date is a no-show. If you don’t think you have this person in your life, you might be that person—the one everyone relies on when the going gets tough. Harvard Business Review calls these people toxic handlers, and being one can have detrimental effects.

Related: How Stressed Are You?

The term toxic handler isn’t new. It was initially coined in 1999 to define the person at an organization who always lets employees vent or who will take on the anger and frustration of the larger group. In the workplace, toxic handlers are often people who span multiple departments and interact with various levels of employees. The initial Harvard Business Review report describes toxic handlers like this:

You’ve watched them comfort colleagues, defuse tense situations, and take the heat from tough bosses. You’ve seen them step in to ease the pain during layoffs and change programs. Who are they? The authors call them toxic handlers—managers who voluntarily shoulder the sadness, frustration, bitterness and anger of others so that high-quality work continues to get done. Toxic handlers are not new. They are probably as old as organizations themselves.

Although the report describes a person in an office environment, toxic handlers can be someone in a family or friend group, too.

In absorbing everyone’s negativity like a sponge, the toxic handler allows others to feel and express positive emotions. But the danger for the person shouldering the frustration and anger is that he or she will quickly experience burnout, and it will affect his or her work and personal life. The effects can be physical, too: Internalizing everyone’s problems can lead to stress and conditions associated with stress, such as migraines, heart attacks and ulcers, according to Harvard Business Review.

We’re not perfect. We all need to let our feelings out with others, and let them do the same with us. When life feels overwhelming and stressful, talking to others can help you breathe easy. The key is to avoid venting too often and to let your friends and family know when they’ve been venting to you a little bit too much. Balance is key.

Related: Defend Your Boundaries to Take Back Control

If you think you’re a toxic handler, here are some tips for not letting it spiral out of control and lead to burnout:

  • The next time your office’s chronic venter attempts to dump her concerns on you, let her know that you’re not able to drop your current task to chat. She will start to understand that sometimes you have other priorities that come first. 
  • If someone repeatedly asks you to vent and he or she doesn’t seem to get the hint that you’re not available, try having an honest, open conversation. Explain that the burden of carrying others’ stressors weighs on you too heavily at times.
  • If you have a family member who constantly calls on you for advice and you’d like to help—just not all of the time—say that. Tell your mom, sister or brother that you’re happy to chat and offer advice, but you can’t be available 24/7.
  • If you’re a people pleaser and turning people down who need to vent feels too difficult for you, take small steps. First begin feeling comfortable saying no. Politely say no when your friend asks you out for drinks when you’re exhausted, or say maybe next time when your sister needs a last-minute babysitter but you already have plans. Turning people down for little things will slowly make you feel more comfortable being firm on larger things.
  • Know the difference between being a good friend and being such a good friend that it jeopardizes your own well-being. Striking a healthy balance between the two is critical.

If you think you’re burdening a toxic handler in your life, here are some tips for knowing when to vent and when to wait:

  • Think of how often you approach your friend needing to vent. If it’s more than once every week or two, it’s probably too frequent. Take a step back and think about the times when you really need advice. If you save your venting time for when it’s important, you’ll receive advice that is more meaningful from your friend.
  • Try asking your friend if he or she has anything they’d like to chat or vent about before talking about your own issues. This way you can begin to establish a reciprocal emotional relationship.  
  • Try speaking with a professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, to work through some of your problems. If that doesn’t appeal to you, try other methods for coping with stress, such as exercising or writing in a journal.

Related: How Successful People Beat Stress

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.