In honor of the upcoming holiday season known for its relational stresses and strains, I figured I would write about an issue I have dealt with time and time again. (Unavoidable side note: I don’t think that the holidays naturally create relational drama. I think they create the perfect little petri dish environment of stress and exhaustion where drama thrives). The crazy thing is that this issue has been a repeat offender for me, yet I could never see it until after some sort of breakdown or distance from the relationship. There is something so deceptively subtle about this that some of you may not even recognize it in your own life (yet).
The basic synopsis of this issue is simple: learning not to take on someone else’s stuff. By stuff I am referring to the anxiety, depression, neediness, control, or any other plights that any given person in your life may be experiencing on any given day.
You are not a garbage collector; so don’t pick up someone else’s crap.
I know it seems simple or easy to write-off, but I promise it is easier said than done.
I have lived with, been friends with, and worked for a variety of people (like most of us). I can say without a doubt this is one of the most beneficial, but also the most difficult lessons I have learned. It’s difficult for two primary reasons.
Number one: Usually it is surprisingly hard to tell if you’re picking up their trash or not. I know, it seems like it should be obvious, but truthfully it can be the hardest thing to discern.
Number two: Once you realize that you are indeed working without pay as a trash collector, it can be ridiculously hard to stop. (You’re basically a workaholic).
To begin, here are some helpful hints I use as ‘red flags’ to show me when I’m starting to pick up somebody else’s trash.
1. I feel unusually stressed/ anxious/ out of control. This happens regardless of what is going on in my own personal or professional life. The best explanation I have for this is that someone else’s garbage emits a strong odor. You know when someone draws a cartoon picture of something smelly? Those wiggly lines are the vaporous fumes that are being emitted. When I’m working with, living with, or trying to show love to someone who’s waving their smelly garbage around, those wiggly lines easily transfer over to me. Example: my boss is going through a divorce, not me. But I feel the anxiety, inner turmoil, and frustration that she brings into the office everyday. I may not be the source of the fumes, but they can attach themselves onto me. This is because every human being is comprised, in part, of his or her spirit. Our spirits are capable of picking up on ‘spiritual fumes’ very easily. One of the most telltale signs that I’m about to start slinging someone else’s garbage bags over my shoulders is if I start to emit the same stinky odors they are. Important note: this isn’t supposed to shame any co-worker/ family member/ friend you know who is going through a hard time. I am not calling them stinky. I’m saying that it isn’t your odor to emit, so let it goooo. And speaking of letting it go…
2. I cannot ‘forget about it’. If I can’t let someone or some situation go, it’s a sign that it is affecting me way too much. If it isn’t my own personal stress: my own divorce, my own insecurity, my own job loss, then I should still be able to sleep like a baby at night. Now, this may offend people. I’m not suggesting you become a robot in your friendships or your marriage. I am suggesting that we need to draw a clear line between empathy and sympathy. I was actually talking to some friends about the difference between the two earlier this week.
Empathy is acting with compassion, and there is a massive difference between compassion and sympathy. Confusing the two can be relationally devastating.
Empathy is feeling what someone else feels, and being able to understand what they are going through. Empathy and compassion enable you to speak into that person’s situation and bring light to it.
Sympathy pulls you into whatever space they are operating from, such as hurt, trauma, or depression. Joining in with them and complaining together may be exactly what they want, but it isn’t what anyone actually needs. Sympathy seekers are a group of people most of us have likely had the pleasure of interacting with. (They are a hard bunch to forget). People who fall into this category think they have it worse than anyone else, and are always looking to others for comfort. They rely on the comfort or compliments of others to sustain them. Responding to someone in sympathy rather than empathy encourages them to continually seek out more sympathy. In other words, you become the enabler who turns them into the person no one wants to be around.
If you are struggling to define the line between empathy and sympathy, remember that it isn’t healthy for anyone to empathize twenty-four hours a day. If you’re living in someone else’s misery and calling it empathy, then you’re kidding yourself. You are not them; therefore you should not be going through the exact same emotional roller coaster they are. Empathy lets you sleep at night, sympathy keeps you up.
3. I can actually stop experiencing joy. In other words, the things that normally bring me joy aren’t affecting me anymore. (This one is huge for me. I often joke that I’m not the most empathic girl in the world, so never would I have guessed that I tend to take on other people’s stuff so much. But if anything convinced me of my garbage-collecting ways, it was my lack of joy).
I believe that you can pick up someone else’s trash for so long that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Only at that point does this red flag really apply. Here’s how I think it goes down:
I think that joy is an experience we get when our spirits come alive. We are all wired completely uniquely and differently, so we all have different ‘joy’ triggers. For me it can be a lot of different things: being active, being outside, sunshine, family time… if they all happen to occur at the same time I’m on freaking cloud 9. Think for a minute about what brings you to a place of joy. Now, imagine doing all of those things but still feeling nothing. Ever been there? I have.
I’ve been there when I’m acting as a chronic garbage collector. It’s because I’ve been exposed to someone else’s fumes for a very long time. Their complaining, their stress, or their “odor” creates this hard outer shell that sticks to me. It’s like a residue that lands on a foreign surface: if it’s left long enough it will harden and stay there until someone bothers to scrub it off. The outer shell isn’t physical, but it’s like a heavy coating that completely shrouds my spirit. If I have been living in someone else’s stink for long enough, that hard crusty shell is all over me! At that point, I find it nearly impossible to “feel like myself’. But of course I don’t feel like me!! I’m wearing a layer of somebody else’s crap!
I think there is another reason we can find ourselves unable to experience joy. We don’t feel worthy of it! This is another clutch sign that you are in deep with this whole garbage-collecting thing. We assume that because our mom/ best friend/ girlfriend is grieving then we must also be in a similar state of grief. Or, that if my boss runs the company in a state of constant anxiety then I too must be anxious in order to do this job correctly. That is just entirely untrue. Recall, in point 2 the difference between sympathy and empathy. You cannot help anyone out of the mud by getting yourself stuck in it as well. You need to come from a position of empathy and compassion. Basically, you need to stand outside that sinkhole and slowly help pull them out.
How to STOP
You know when you’re reaching for that 18th handful of sweet and salty popcorn and for the 18th time you say, “Oh my gosh, I have to stop!” But you just can’t? That is precisely the dilemma us trash collectors find ourselves in.
How do I change? How do I quit?
Oh man, I have no idea. (Only sort of kidding).
I can only honestly write about what I myself have experienced. So without naming and shaming people, I’ll just explain in general how I have learned to deal with this habit.
- Distance. This is ideal, but not always entirely possible. It may seem like a cop out, but distance is really healthy sometimes. (Especially if you’ve been workin’ as a trash collector for one particular person so long that they fully expect you to be there when they throw their candy wrappers on the ground). I think distance works well in whatever capacity is possible. I’ve had to intentionally distance myself from unhealthy friendships, and it looked like not really speaking for about a year. You could call it drastic, but I call it highly necessary. A year later we started reconnecting again, and that time and space actually healed the friendship in many ways. In unhealthy workplaces I have also found relief in the weekends. (Provided I wasn’t taking work home with me). Distance can be as big as reconsidering your living situation, or as small as leaving the room. Do what works for you.
- Move! Get outside, take a brisk walk, run, meditate, whatever. Break up the flow of life where you are a catatonic zombie. I have found there are two different “moving” options that are both the bomb.
Moving intensely/ quickly/ or using muscles that I don’t have to use normally. Whatever I’m doing here requires all my focus or all my energy. The point of this is that my mind is literally unable to focus on my emotions. It’s simply a break. Sometimes all we need is a long enough break from our own thoughts so that when we come back to them we realize how ridiculous they were to begin with.
Moving slowly and allowing myself space to think. Which leads to….
- Stop, breathe. Think about it. What am I feeling right now? Do I have a reason for feeling this? Is that reason mine to deal with or focus on? If it is, process it out. If it isn’t, figure out who’s stuff you’re carrying and decide how you are going to create a little distance. (See how we came full circle there?)
Best of luck laying down your neighbour’s trash bags.