how do I talk about my work when my work is depressing?

It’s the weekly “ask the readers” question (I’m bumping it up to today since tomorrow is a holiday). This one is tough. A reader writes:

How do I talk to my friends and family about my work when it is depressing?

I work for an international development nonprofit. The situation in the country where we work has devolved into violence and war, with more bad news several times a day every day. My job hinges on being up close and personal with all the bad news, trying to make sense of it and helping to communicate externally and make strategic decisions in response as things (d)evolve.

Every week when my friends and I catch up, we talk about how everyone’s jobs are going. Most people have (very valid) complaints or challenges around difficult work environments (one is in healthcare and certainly is having a rough time) and contrarian employees and bosses. Their issues are valid and I am always happy to contribute my two cents, but it’s getting harder and harder to talk about these problems. Moreover, when I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. But, I don’t want to make light of it or have nothing to share. Do I need to just forget about leaning on my friends and pay for therapy?

This question feels more pressing as we approach the holiday season, since my family will be getting together (we are rapid testing first) and I know everyone will ask me about my work. What should I say when people ask me how my work is going?

I wrote back and asked, “Are you finding it harder to talk about your friends’ work problems because you’re burned out on talking/thinking about work at all right now? Or because it’s hard to take on additional problems on top of your own? Or something else?”

I think it’s more that some of their problems elicit eye rolls from me, if I am being honest. I am in a headspace right now of “who cares if you’re not getting your raise, there are whole countries at war!” or swap that in for any number of other way more challenging circumstances that people all over the world are facing right now in light of the health, environmental and political crises of 2020. I think I am getting burned out on pretending to care about what sound like ultimately pretty trivial problems. I think that’s compounded by the frustration that I feel like I can’t talk about my issues/concerns, even though no one has explicitly asked me to stop bringing it up.

I also asked, “For your own stuff, is it that you don’t want to talk to your friends about it at all right now, or more that you’re concerned it’s too heavy to lay on them?”

It feels too heavy to lay it on them. I have tried to find more surface level work-related topics to discuss, but there really isn’t anything I am working on right now that doesn’t directly relate to the heavy and distressing info, and I am all-consumed with it every day. I think the world feels like such a heavy place for all of us, and when we get together we try to make that a time to unwind and lighten the load. If I talk about what’s on my mind, I feel like I am definitely NOT lightening the load. There’s also not a lot of positive spin to put on it, so it ends up being a real bummer conversation that leaves everyone (including me) more down in the dumps.

I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. But, I don’t want to make light of it or have nothing to share. Do I need to just forget about leaning on my friends and pay for therapy?

OK, readers, you are the advice-givers today! Have at it in the comments.

{ 261 comments… read them below }

  1. Xavier Desmond*

    My advice would be to lay off the work conversations with friends. It’s sounds to me like you have an incredibly stressful and difficult job. You need to unwind from it and the conversations with your friends are making you more wound up rather than wound down.

    Also I always like to think of the Neil Young lyric when people have comparatively petty complaints ‘Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.’

    1. kittymommy*

      This is my thinking as well. The only thing I would be concerned about is that the LW needs to make sure they have an outlet that they can “vent” to. Someone who can be their sounding board and safe place to express all the emotions that the current situation is bringing up.

      1. Chinook*

        Ditto. DH , as a cop, has in general really depressing days. As he describes it, he usually shows up during someone else’s bad day and makes it worse. Or he gets to secure the scene of something horrible. He destresses about by talking about it with colleagues over coffee, where it usually devolves into dark humour as well emotional stress relief. He rarely talks about it with me and never with the rest of the family. He talks about leaving work at work and not combining home with work if he can help it (to the point that cop shows and anything where the phrase “that is not enough blood” could come out of his mouth are not watched around him). The flip side is that he knows I will silently listen to him if he wants to and I have learned enough about his job to know to keep my mouth shut and let him vent because there is literally nothing I can say in the way of advice or comfort.

        He also looks at his job as protecting people from the realities of how bad life can be and is arrogant about knowing what is behind the curtain but takes pride in the fact that he does what he does so that “simple people” do not have to worry about that bad stuff. It is off-putting but the alternative is answering questions about his day with things like he had
        to locate the head after a decapitation in a car accident. He also ensures that he has enough “people are weird” stories that he can have light conversations that include stories about drug traffickers that run out of gas in front of a parked cop car and yelling at a rogue bear loud enough to make it run up a tree and cry that no one bothers to ask about the colour of brain matter or the number of times he has almost been run over by a distracted driver on the highway while walking at a crash site.

        And when he has had a rough week with no fun stories, he defaults to “same old same old” when asked how is week went. Or talking about mounds of paperwork, because there is always paperwork and no one wants to hear about that.

        1. All the cats 4 me*

          Off topic, sorry, but I just wanted to mention that as a fellow Canadian I truly appreciate your husband’s contribution to society doing this very hard job. From your previous comments, I somehow have the impression he is in the national force in the same province I live in (where a public health emergency has just been declared, ouch). I am always grateful to those who step up to do hard jobs I personally could not cope with and wanted to let you know that.

          1. Chinook*

            Considering how messed up their leadership is as well as all the negativity towards police in general, the sentiment is appreciated. I keep reminding him that so much of what is in the press is not about individuals on the street but about the ones in charge and the stories he tells me about them is enough for me to agree with media reports.

            But the guys who are out with humanity every day, dealing with everyone else’s bad days an poor attitudes really are the hard workers and I am always amazed by those who have learned to not bring it home with them. It is a skill that needs to be developed and is hard to teach to rookies at Depot because they usually don’t have the life experience to understand. This is why mentoring in any stressful job is so important – you need to see how the people who last longer than 5 years do so with their sanity and other relationships still intact.

            OP – find a peer group to destress with (in a healthy way) and learn ways to “take the uniform off.” It isn’t having a split personality so much as learning how to compartmentalize in a healthy way.

        2. Ethyl*

          Ooh you bring up a really good point — I wonder if the LW can find some online groups of similar professionals to “talk shop” with. Talking with other people who are going through what you are going through can be really helpful, even if they aren’t professional therapists as such.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          I used to work for a veterinarian, which is mostly cute, fuzzy, animals but is also sometimes incurable illnesses, horrific injuries, stressed and angry owners, owners with animals in dire need of medical care but no way to pay for it, illnesses that could easily have been prevented with routine vaccinations, pets with conditions that could have been cured ages ago but the owner decided to use grandpa’s home remedy instead, etc. I once had to behead a large dog so it could be tested for rabies (it was not rabies. Probably distemper. Vaccinate your pets!). And I did that for $9 an hour and no benefits.

          One thing I realized was that we are all stressed by different things. I am a hopeless ditherer when it comes to minor “emergencies” and hated hated hated talking to clients about money, but when we got a dog in who had put her legs through a window and was trying to bleed to death *during a tornado warning*, as the power in the vet clinic blinked on and off, I had the nerves of a combat medic. Which taught me not to be smug about how much or what kind of stress I could handle, because there was always going to be some other kind of stress that I didn’t handle very well, even if it seemed trivial.

          1. Black Horse Dancing*

            Thank you for your service. Vets and their staff are real heroes and usually unacknowledged. People like you have kept my family alive and helped me through some of the hardest times of my life.

        4. Not A Girl Boss*

          Thank you for sharing, and thank you to your husband for his service. As a former EMT/Firefighter, I agree.
          I always felt that truly, the only people who could help me work out the work-stress were my coworkers who “got it”. My family didn’t get it (Ok, my dad did because he is also an EMT) and my significant other didn’t really get it, and sometimes their “help” annoyed me more than it helped. Sometimes they listened without offering advice, and sometimes that helped, but for the most part it just made 2 people sad where there used to just be 1. But my coworkers weren’t offended by my dark humor, and sometimes just knowing I wasn’t alone was enough. We always had a rule after a particularly tough shift that no one was allowed to go home until we’d all gotten coffee together, to create a decompression window. I also made a big deal of always, always changing out of my work clothes the second I got home, to further separate mode.

          That said, I have always tried to maintain a really hard stance on “your suffering can still be painful, even if other people’s suffering is technically worse” and never ever get upset about ‘meaningless’ grievance erring. I view it as a relative scale: more or less, everyone’s worst day ever still feels like their worst day ever, regardless of how objectively bad it is. Sure, some people lost a child and others just didn’t get the job offer. But its not their “fault” that they haven’t broadened their suffering scale. The level of suffering they are experiencing is still valid and fair. If anything, I view it as my job to try to protect them from the harsh realities how cruel life can be. But I also try to extend the same kindness to myself – I am still allowed to be annoyed that I got a parking ticket, even if I watched someone die yesterday. All feelings are valid feelings, and making ourselves/others feel guilty about experiencing the feeling doesn’t make the feeling go away.

          1. H. Regalis*

            “All feelings are valid feelings, and making ourselves/others feel guilty about experiencing the feeling doesn’t make the feeling go away.”

            This. Well said.

              1. Tabby*

                I have a couple chronic illnesses, and spend a lot of time exhausted and in pain, but am still able to live a relatively normal life (even if the best I can do is a part time job, which is quarter time with COVID; that makes it so much fun to try to pay bills and, you know, LIVE). Still, there are days when I want to cry because I can’t get to a point where I don’t have to worry about things. And I hate, hate, HATE it when people use the “other people have it worse!” thing to dismiss my life as if I should be fine. I’m not fine, y’all. I’m just not. I want to scream irrationally at people who have this kind of attitude, because i can’t exactly go out and change my entire life to make things disappear, and find it super disrespectful for other to dismiss a person’s bad times because they aren’t “bad enough” to win the Bad Times Olympics.

            1. Chinook*

              Yes. Suffering is not a competition. My worst day of my life may be nothing compared to your average day, but it is still MY worst day. I am allowed to have my feelings and they don’t diminish yours.

          2. lazy intellectual*

            Not to mention that most people are aware of where there problems stand in the scale of things. Some of the comments on this thread seem to assume that people are ignorant about other people’s suffering.

        5. Properlike*

          I know quite a few cops. This seems to be the universal mindset, practically verbatim!

          That said, one cop friend has made it his mission to make mental health self-care a routine conversation within the profession. A recognition that living in other people’s trauma day-in, day-out is going to have a negative impact, no matter what. That seems to be akin to what OP is going through.

      2. Homebody*

        I’m a disaster response engineer and I regularly deal with high-stress, difficult things as part of my job. Probably the ‘heaviest’ complaint I would give to my friends is, “Coworker keeps dragging their feet on a project or man, I hope that it doesn’t rain during my site visit next week.” Anything more than that is better saved for journaling or a therapist. It’s an absolute must to have good work-life boundaries in this field, or your mental health can really suffer.

        1. Nikara*

          I’m also in the disaster response realm, and who I talk with about what varies wildly. My Mom is pretty good at listening to the really heavy stuff, but I try to keep it away from other family members/friends. What’s recently been helpful is that we’ve started a monthly book club of folks in our field from across the country. Having a group of peers who aren’t deep in my specific workplace, but who understand the stresses and challenges is really helpful mental-health wise. We can talk about the real problems, with people who get it (and we don’t really care if you’ve read the book). If you can find a supportive peer group, especially one that isn’t based at your specific workplace, I think you’ll find it to be helpful.

      3. Venus*

        This. Ideally work colleagues.

        I worked in a similar type of situation years ago (nonprofit dealing with warzones and starvation) and I did it with people who were really good, and others who were assholes. I coped well the first time, and not well the second time because I didn’t have a supportive outlet. Thankfully they were both contracts so I just coped as best as I could the second time, knowing that I would soon never work with them ever again. This really showed me the importance of working with good people, and the mental health benefit to talking with them. Most of the time we wouldn’t talk about work, but having a brew together and knowing that we shared some of the same experiences was important.

        I would also chat with other friends and family, and occasionally would have moments where I thought “Such a first-world problem!” but that didn’t happen very often, because we all have our stressors. If the LW is feeling this way often then they are likely suffering from nonprofit burnout (is that the right term?) and talking with coworkers should help in part, and finding healthy distractions (hobbies, cooking, hikes) might also be a good idea. We all know that there are people around the world living in absolute poverty, and most of us can do very little to change this. Even if we help one person briefly by finding some way to send them money, that really doesn’t change 99.9999% of the truly bad problems in this world. So we mentally have to distance ourselves, and if the LW can’t do this then they probably need more support from coworkers or a good therapist, or they need to spend more time in healthier non-work spaces.

        I know that feeling of not wanting to share work experiences with friends and family, because I had lost all sense of normality. Even some of the minor things that I did for work often left them wide-eyed and commenting “How awful!” So I would talk about work stuff with work people, and with friends we would talk about my hobbies.

    2. Malarkey01*

      I was thinking similar and can compare it to a group of friends with newish kids and we all talked about hard or annoying issues surrounding raising babies and toddlers and one in our group started struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss. I’d be really honest and say guys with my job and the situation in x country, I just can’t talk about work right now. Would you all be open to every other week having a work free topic and I can skip the work weeks? I would think every single friend would jump to do what they could to help, and that still gives them some time to talk work if it’s an important component of this group.
      Sometimes just taking a break and getting a breather will bring down the emotions around a certain topic and it’s not saying you’ll never talk work again, just not now.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        I’d be really honest and say guys with my job and the situation in x country, I just can’t talk about work right now. Would you all be open to every other week having a work free topic and I can skip the work weeks?

        This is a great solution. I had to do this myself back when I was a claims adjuster and handling catastrophe and bodily injury/death claims.

        1. Anne of Green Gables*

          Yes, I think some sort of “no work topic” space, be it a separate call or a designated part of the call could be a possible solution, so that you still have the outlet of time with your friends but aren’t hearing the petty workplace issues that make you feel your own situation even more.

          And it sounds like possibly therapy/counseling (which you asked about) might be worth looking into.

        2. Toothless*

          As someone who just finished settling a bodily injury claim for a bike accident that happened back in January, thanks for what you do! Insurance claims are bad enough when you aren’t dealing with head trauma that means you don’t even remember the incident, and I was so grateful for the people I talked to that were kind and helpful and understanding and on top of things.

    3. OhGee*

      Yep. If LW doesn’t want to burden their friends with the huge challenges of their job, they shouldn’t feel obligated to. It’s okay to say, “My work is really hard/depressing/upsetting right now – can we talk about something else?” (My favorite lighter topics: movies, pets, books, music.)

      Also, speaking as a person who has what David Graeber would call a b*llsh*t job (rightfully so, imo), I try not to share my work troubles with my friends and family – especially those who are either out of work right now or who have genuinely important and difficult jobs. But I *do* have work troubles, and they’re not petty to me, even if I know that, in the context of this terrible world, I have it pretty good. Sometimes those worries and complaints just come out, and I hope the people in my life who have it rougher at work will grant me a little kindness.

      And finally: I strongly encourage therapy for anybody who is considering it. I spend a lot of time on work issues with my therapist, and she gives me as much care and attention as she does clients with much bigger concerns. It really helps.

    4. Tired of Covid-and People*

      I agree. These conversations are not mandatory. Tell your friends just what you said here, if they are your friends, they will understand. Take a break. Maybe leave out the part about their complaints seeming trivial, but this is no different than laying off news broadcasts for a spell. Good luck!

    5. Frontline Nurse*

      So I am a nurse and I work in a hospital (no fun and games here right now) and my DH is a cop. We both have jobs that a)we can’t discuss particulars and b) if we spoke to our non-frontline worker friends about the things we do every day, they would probably stop asking us how our day was. We have an outlet in each other. We work similar shifts and are able to talk on our way home about the crap that went on. This allows us to vent but not bring it home to our household and our daughter. I typically don’t talk about my work to friends other than about that pesky boss, or pesky co-worker. Because of privacy laws, I can’t say specifics. My advice would be to listen to your friends because you are their friend but be honest and say, I don’t want to talk about work because what I do is sad and depressing, then move on to another topic. Bring some joy to your group and allow your friends the time they need to vent but then help them all move on to happier times. Find someone (a counselor, a colleague) who you can vent to but put a time limit on it. I have a group of friends that when we get together, now through Skype, we each have 5 minutes (yes we time it) to gripe about whatever, then we move on to something fun. We are all much happier people for it! Seriously, find yourself an outlet to vent. Thank you for helping those in need.

    6. Annony*

      Yes! These are your friends so presumably they care about you. Be honest with them. “I’m dealing with a lot of heavy and depressing issues at work right now. I really need a work free zone right now to stay sane. Do you think we can lay off the work talk for a while?” Or “I know you need to vent about work sometimes, but I am really not in a good headspace for that. Do you think you can do it when I am not here?”

      1. Quiet Liberal*

        I like this advice! I also think OP’s words are perfect to explain to her friends why she just doesn’t have the capacity to bitch about such trivial stuff.

        “I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. But, I don’t want to make light of it or have nothing to share.”

        If they’re true friends, they’ll understand and hopefully move the conversations sometimes to subjects that won’t alienate you.

        I’m sorry your job is so stressful and emotional for you, OP. Those of us with jobs that are stressful because of workload, mean clients, jerky coworkers, etc. could learn a thing or two from your experience. I am humbled.

    7. Xenia*

      I think a good parallel can be drawn to people who for security reasons can’t talk about their work. I’ve got a cousin who works in a very high security job. She talks about her workplace—so and so was being a real jerk, my boss said some great things—but not about her work.

  2. Wordnerd*

    OP, I can’t recommend therapy highly enough. Having a difficult job like this on its own, even without the concerns around how to talk about your job, would be enough to benefit from talking with someone. This could then help you feel in a better headspace to hear your friends’ complaints or figure out a medium way of talking with them about your job.
    Good luck <3

    1. Renamis*

      This. Honestly, I feel the bar is set at “I’m annoyed at people complaining about average workday problems and feel it’s petty of them to care.” then you need to go talk to someone. People have lives, and not getting a raise can be a big deal to a persons financials! But when everything said comes through the lenses of “But there’s wars going on, and bad things are happening over here, and…” then you’re burning out, and need some help. No one can keep that up forever.

      1. Exhausted Frontline Worker*

        I think this is a little uncharitable to the LW. Therapy could definitely be helpful, but LW’s frustration with their friends is also legitimate. LW says that while their friends’ problems *feel* eyeroll-worthy, they seem to be keeping those feelings to themself, not reminding their friends that there’s a war happening abroad. We all feel that at times.

        And there’s something to be said for LW’s friends (and all of us, really) to be better about reading the room. It’s perfectly fine to let off steam about how micromanage-y your boss is when you’re working from home, but maybe don’t do that in front of your friend who’s an ER nurse. Or don’t complain about how lonely you are living alone in a pandemic to a parent of multiple children who is struggling to balance WFH and online school and would kill for some alone time. These are legitimately hard things, but know your audience.

        1. Anon for this*

          “Or don’t complain about how lonely you are living alone in a pandemic to a parent of multiple children who is struggling to balance WFH and online school and would kill for some alone time.”

          This is….. not great, and your wording is at best unfortunate.

          Someone who has been actively suicidal at times from the isolation of the pandemic

          1. Some Lady*

            Yeah, those two things are not an example of a disparate level of seriousness. Both situations are really hard and need empathy and support.

          2. straws*

            Yeah. I’m currently this: “a parent of multiple children who is struggling to balance WFH and online school and would kill for some alone time.” and that’s just as hard as dealing with loneliness. It’s just a different type of hard. And while I may soak up any alone time like it’s the last water on earth, the people who have to be alone right now are likely just as desperate for human interaction.

            1. Theo*

              I’m also a parent (though, thank god, of one, and she’s too young for school) with a wonderful coparent — and I am screamingly lonely. I also don’t spend my time thinking about how much worse I have it! Everyone is suffering!

          3. Ann*

            Hi Anon for this. I hope you are getting better. The isolation can really be tough to face some days. You are not alone. Please stay strong and know you are among friends here.

          4. Exhausted Frontline Worker*

            I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way Anon, and I hope you’re getting the support you need <3

            And I apologize if I came off as callous before–that wasn't my intent, but it doesn't minimize how it came across. The point I was trying to make, although I did a poor job, is that the pandemic has impacted us in different ways, and we're not all as emotionally equipped as we were in The Before Times to support our friends and family who are having different experiences. That being said, I would never advocate for people to repress all their problems or not seek help!

            Anon, I am glad you are with us, and wishing you an outpouring of continued love and support especially over the next few months, but also always.

        2. Bananers*

          Wow. That’s a no from me. What if I flipped that around on you and said maybe don’t complain about having your whole family under one roof to someone who hasn’t hugged their family in months because they’re living alone and can’t travel? This is not a “read the room” situation — people are allowed to have problems, and talk about their problems with friends, in a space specifically designated for that, even if someone else is in a “worse” situation.

          The OP definitely isn’t doing anything wrong here! It’s totally understandable to sometimes have those thoughts, and they seem to be keeping it to themselves and not making their friends feel bad about their “lesser” hardships. They deserve support and some time to recharge. But that doesn’t mean their friends don’t deserve the same.

        3. SatoriSun*

          I live by myself, as in only myself. I haven’t seen my family in about a year and will probably not see them for a long long time because things in my home country will get worse before they get any better. I won’t be able to celebrate the holidays with them – or anyone for that matter! I don’t think I have touched a human being in months! I am literally mute for days on end!

          There is a reason prisoners are tortured with solitary confinement. It’s not a competition on who has it worse and this just came off really insensitive.

    2. Ali G*

      Agreed. I started therapy because of a work issue, but I am still there now!
      OP needs guidance on how to interact with people and talk about work without it negatively impacting them. They also need a safe place to vent and a therapist is a good place to do that.

    3. A Simple Narwhal*

      I agree, therapy is fantastic and I recommend it to everyone! Even if your concerns are “trivial”, they are still concerns and can weigh on you and affect your ability to function efficiently/be happy. I definitely held off on therapy for a while because I didn’t think my problems were big enough to deserve therapy. With hindsight I know that’s silly – there’s no threshold of suffering you need to clear to deserve to have a neutral third party listen to you and provide advice and feedback.

      1. Wordnerd*

        “With hindsight I know that’s silly – there’s no threshold of suffering you need to clear to deserve to have a neutral third party listen to you and provide advice and feedback.”
        I’m so glad you said this – I was rushing in my first comment, so I don’t want anyone to think there’s a “level” one has to reach to benefit from therapy.

    4. Sue*

      Yes, the last thing you want is to get to a place where you can’t be with your friends because of their conversation or that they distance themselves from you because of yours.
      I have worked in the courts for many years and while to a much lesser extent, my work life is full of sad situations. I pick a few anecdotes to talk about but my (nonlawyer) friends lead such different lives, they have little idea of the segment of society we see daily. I don’t feel a need to shelter, but I also am not going to take a role of educator to those who have nothing to do with the issues and can’t really help. I don’t compare my work to others and try to look on their issues with a detached eye (probably easier as a lawyer who has always had to do this) and offer either an ear or kindly comment/advice. I’m sure it hasn’t always be the perfect balance but that has been my approach. I’m so sorry you’re going through this at all, let alone at this very difficult time.

    5. Glitsy Gus*

      I very much agree with you. OP, seriously consider therapy. Not so you don’t “burden” your friends, but because a therapist is going to be way better at not just commiserating or venting, but helping you actually work through this stuff so you can continue with your own life.

      And then be honest with your friends. I don’t know that you need to skip the work talk completely, but it is totally fair that when your turn comes around you can keep it simple, “you know, a lot of bad stuff is happening in X country right now, so work is just really hard in general. The details are not fun, and I’d rather not get into them, but yeah, it’s just tough for me right now.” Because that is a legit thing to talk to your friends about- it is hard for you to see such hardship every day. You don’t need to go deeper than that and that is a level they can support you on to an extent, but your therapist is there to help you cope. Then also ask that, after a quick check in, you guys spend more time on non-work stuff than work stuff for a while. Get out of that headspace.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      I am saddened by how many times we talk about therapy JUST to be able to keep our jobs. Toxic bosses are a huge example, the number of people commenting that their toxic boss caused them years of therapy is very high. This should not happen ever, but it seems to be happening a lot. Some thing is wrong here that society as a whole remains passive about this problem. Going up a step here, there are jobs that are brutal, be it physically, mentally, psychologically, these jobs are harsh period. Programs could be developed to help people cope with all that they see in the course of doing their jobs. We rush to aid an employee who is physically injured, but not so much with an employee who has been deeply upset or psychologically wounded by their jobs.

      I have a theory that some jobs are just meant to be done for a while, then after that a person moves on. I started realizing I might be on my way out of the job when I could not talk about work in conversations with friends/family. Yes, some of it was confidential but for the most part it was not relatable for the average person around me at that time. And truthfully, there were times where I felt like saying, “So you think your work day was bad….”. I knew *I* had a problem because pain and upset are NOT competitive sports. We can only give so much and then we are done. That cut off point is different for everyone, but we cannot allow ourselves to be endlessly drained. At some point we have to stop draining and start replenishing what is left of our own selves.

    7. AnonThisTime*

      I have what amounts to permanent cancer, and I lost a friend to cancer last year (who was in his 20s). Things are going great for me right now healthwise, but I will say that even when things were utter garbage, I still almost always wanted to hear about all the little ups and downs of my friends’ lives. This sounds like stress, trauma, and burnout, and a therapist can definitely help.

      Also, I felt a lot less guilty when I was having a lot of problems (even before the health stuff, in grad school) to complain to someone who was getting paid and was trained to be there, rather than a family member or friend. I still complained to family and friends sometimes, but I didn’t feel like I was going to become “the complainer” or “the downer” and I got a lot of great advice that improved my life on the way. I still let other people in my life know what was going on, but it didn’t feel like such an overwhelming burden to carry around.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        When my husband passed, I did not want to become That Person who was always upset over something. But for a while, everything seemed so nerve-wracking. Every. single. darn. thing. So I got professional type help with the overarching issue of loss. What was left was the day-to-day stuff. Friends and family heard more basic complaints such as “the refrigerator is making a funny noise, maybe it’s time for a new one” or “I think I should find a new vet for my dog, I am not really impressed with Current Vet.”

        I was so surprised how well this worked out. I did choose people with forethought, such as pet owners for the dog question and people who had recently bought appliances for the fridge question. Friends and family COULD handle the life stuff and they did a great job with offering me workable advice. This freed up time in counseling to talk about life issues because the day-to-day stuff was getting handled.

        OP, why not delegate life stuff out to friends and family? With a stressful job it can be hard to come home and figure out who to call to fix the furnace or what to do with those drooping tomato plants. When I first started doing this, I had to plan out what two or three things I was targeting now. I do a batch that included, fridge, dog and car tires. I get those things straightened out and line up my next batch, tractor, tree pruning and missing roof slate. And I kept going like this. Not only did it give me something “lighter” to talk about, I also benefited from the relief of getting solid advice on how to get this stuff taken care of.

        Sometimes things just plain drain us and it’s easy to forget to talk about the smaller stuff which also drains us but no where near as much as the Main Thing. We forget that even a small gain in an unrelated area can provide a moment of relief.

  3. Purt’s Peas*

    I think it depends on what you want, even day-by-day and conversation by conversation.

    Do you want to participate lightly in conversation? Maybe pick up a hobby and share about rock-climbing drama when everyone else is telling their petty coworker stories.

    Do you want your friends to support you in your really emotionally taxing job? I think you can make a space to say, hey guys, can I tell you about my day? It’ll be a bummer. And they probably will listen, and I think that’ll feel like a better conversation, where you’re getting the focus and care that you need.

    1. BigRedSpot*

      I’ll say as someone who’s just leaving a traumatic job, it’s almost impossible to say “can I vent, it’ll be a bummer” to people who don’t do the work itself. Superficially my job doesn’t look difficult or hard (most people don’t even know it exists) but it required long-term, repeat exposure to traumatic material and content. Say my work is baby llama supervision; people say, “Oh, I love llamas!” when I tell them, but in reality the bulk of my job is administering euthanasia to weak or sick calves. And if I try to explain what my work actually entails, they go, “Oh, it must be so hard, I worked on a llama farm two weeks once, their poop is really stinky haha”. And that just feels alienating and reinforces the idea that they wouldn’t understand even if I tried to explain.

      I think overall this is good advice, generally, (I’m not picking on your comment specifically) but I’ve definitely tried the “Let me vent!” with friends and the content of my venting is really stuff for a therapist or someone getting paid to fill that role.

      1. Tabby*

        BigRedSpot, I feel you! I have what appears to be a dream job (a dog daycare) and people think it’s nonstop awesome sauce. However, it’s also a special kind of hell to be trapped in a large, echo-y room with 40 – 50 loud, obnoxious dogs who are all screaming at you for attention, mounting each other, eating poo, peeing everywhere, and trying to bully/fight each other, all while you struggle to hear who is going home on a walkie talkie (hint, they get louder when they hear it, because they all know it means someone is getting out of that room and will all rush to the door to try to get out at the same time.

        And yet, people don’t want to understand how close you can come to wanting to nope out of there screaming profanity. Granted, it isn’t the same as having to euthanize pets (I’ve been there, too, and it’s even more exhausting), but still, it’s a lot sometimes.

  4. LDN Layabout*

    Do I need to just forget about leaning on my friends and pay for therapy?

    I don’t know whether this is a throwaway line or not, but with the sector you’re in, I would hope there’s an existing EAP you could use (although I’m well aware the NGO/charity sector is notorious for chewing people up and spitting them out).


    Their issues are valid

    I think it’s more that some of their problems elicit eye rolls from me, if I am being honest

    I think I am getting burned out on pretending to care about what sound like ultimately pretty trivial problems

    You need to reconcile the above within yourself and think about what you want and need your boundaries to be. It might be that you can’t be the person that can do these conversations anymore. You might want to participate but just nod along. You may need to talk about this 1-on-1 with a few select friends vs. the big group conversations.

    Resenting people you care about and stewing over it won’t make you happy. Think about what you need in terms of support to allow yourself to cope.

    1. Firecat*

      I agree. It’s not a healthy mindset to determine your friends problems are “not valid enough”. If that’s the headspace OP is in then they are losing their empathy and need therapy to assist most likely.

      I remember having the same, yet opposite problem as a child. My father was a violent drug-addict and alcoholic so my parental complaints were very heavy. Like the OP I felt like I couldn’t complain about my parents to my friends.

      However I struggled withy friends not sharing their day to day typical teenager parent complaints. They were constantly afraid to share because “these seem like nothing compared to your problems”. That made me feel very othered and excluded though. It’s hard to connect when people are afraid to share with you and your afraid to share with them.

  5. Rambler*

    True friends would want to know that you are struggling and why. To me, this is no different than friends opening with “ugh, my mother is going to be so annoying this holiday” and you coming back with news that a family member is hospitalized. There may be some awkwardness at first but a solid friends group will rally around you.

    1. Roza*

      Just wanted to +1 this. It’s not quite the same, but I recently went through a bunch of scary non-covid medical stuff that had me in and out of the ER and ultimately rehospitalized several days after having a baby on top of what had already been a stressful year with all of 2020 and a job situation so bad that 7 of the 9 people I used to work closely with quit. I was totally burned out, but didn’t want to bring up all this with my friends while we were chatting about lesser problems because I knew they were having a tough year too, and didn’t want to burden them/make the conversation too negative/etc. Finally I kinda cracked and did share, and instead of trying to make light of the medical stuff just told them directly that while I’m okay now, it had been really scary, if it hadn’t been caught as soon as it was I actually could have died, and I was still having a hard time. It did change the tone of the conversation, but they were incredibly supportive and it helped a lot. Not only that, but it also seemed to open up more space for them to bring up the hard stuff they’re dealing with too (eg one friend is an ICU nurse, so you can imagine what her year has been like).

      Just bringing up the second point because your friends who are only talking about relatively fluffy stuff may also really need to share some harder things, and you might make that easier for them if you share what’s really going on with you.

      Also, therapy is great!

    2. MistOrMister*

      Yes, and I feel OP might be selling their friend short. I think a lot of times people don’t share things because they feel they’re too much (too heavy, gross, scary, etc), but their friends would want to know so they could be supportive. Sometimes just being able to talk about something is so helpful, even if there is nothing the other person can do. If OP doesn’t want to bring this up in a group chat, it could be helpful to reach out to one or two people and speak to them.

      1. Washi*

        I think that the OP can tell their friends about this conundrum, that they’re struggling, maybe give one example of a thing they are dealing with in their work. But I think that the OP is right that their friends are not a good outlet for the secondhand trauma they are experiencing. Having worked in this type of job, including with survivors of genocide, there are somethings that you really cannot tell an outsider. And moreover, it wouldn’t help- what’s most therapeutic is telling someone who understands both the situation and what it’s like to be working in that environment.

        I say this as someone who has been very honest with friends about heavy stuff in my personal life – work like this can be a whole different ballgame. The best relief for me was talking about the details only with coworkers, not even with my husband. And maintaining that separation also helped me maintain my own sense of self and perspective, so I wasn’t feeling grumpy with friends because their problems were thankfully not on the level of the ones I was seeing at work.

      2. Willis*

        I think this could be the case too, if these are good friends that would really have your back when you’re dealing with something. If they’re more casual friends, then maybe this isn’t the group to bring it up with.

        But either way I think the OP should look into therapy and/or see if there are people she could meet through her industry that would share some of the same background and be better for venting. Ultimately, most of the things the OP is going to talk to anyone about are going to pale in comparison to the violence and instability of a civil war and it will be to her benefit to be in a place mentally where she can talk with friends, family, strangers without overwhelming eyeroll, anger, resentment, etc. Understandable to have those feelings but this is probably a bigger issue than just how to talk about work with friends.

  6. WellRed*

    Honestly, I’d find a way to talk about something else, all of you! Especially if it’s all consuming already.
    Otherwise, can you talk about work without all the heavy context? I assume you have some of the same complaints we all have about work (annoying coworker, lack of functioning equipment, paltry vacation time). Does say, today’s work issue always have to be in the context of, “well the neighboring country invaded today and there’s riots in the streets.”

    1. tyrannosaurus vex*

      Agreed! This doesn’t sound enjoyable for anyone. Maybe you can each try to find something good to share, if not “instead of” then at least “in addition to.” Surely you can find something positive. The sun is shining, or I saw a bird, or my nephew did a cartwheel, or anything that brings a little joy to your group.

    2. juliebulie*

      I agree too. Togetherness is usually best when you’re sharing things that you have in common. Then it can be a time for everyone to unwind.

      Job-wise, OP and OP’s friends live in two different worlds, so talking about work isn’t really “sharing” if you can’t commiserate over the same things.

      That’s not to say that work talk should be forbidden. But it might be good to give a quick summary of what you’re dealing with, as background to why you’d rather talk about something other than work.

    3. Katherine*

      I agree, try to avoid work talk altogether when you talk as a group. My friend group is all from academia, so nothing so traumatic, but we still don’t find it constructive to spend our (virtual) chats complaining about our work problems. So, we deliberately declare a work-free zone for group get togethers and save the serious conversations for selected one on one chats.

  7. bunniferous*

    I think I would tell my friends exactly what you just told us. If they love you they want to support you. Then if you need to take a break from conversations about work they can support you with that-or some might surprise you and want to let you vent about the very real issues you deal with if that would be helpful to you. In any case though what you deal with is absolutely worthy of you getting a therapist-from what I understand therapists themselves always have a therapist to talk to in order to process the heavy stuff THEY deal with. You are worth having help and support in any case and you absolutely MUST set things up to get it. What you CANNOT do is continue to stuff this.

    1. Some Lady*

      Agree! It depends on the friends, both individually and as a group, of course. But I think it’s fair to say something like, “With my job, the weight of the world is really heavy right now, and it’s both hard to deal with alone and hard to share.” And then ask for what would help, even if means different things at different times. Sometimes it might be helpful to have a total distraction from work and sometimes it might be helpful to share more if they have the space to take it on. Some friends are not the ones to have this convo with, but some you can ask for what you need emotionally and they can be honest about how much they can meet that need. I’ll add that OP is right and kind to acknowledge the realness of others’ problems even if they are less significant than their own. And also, therapy, yes, even if your friends are great, it sounds like a good idea so you have multiple avenues of support.

    2. fposte*

      This is what I was thinking—maybe your friends could be part of the solution, and it might well be an issue they’ve been concerned about too.

    3. WoodswomanWrites*

      OP, I was going to post a comparable comment. If it were me and assuming these are people you are close with, I would tell my friends directly about how tough this is for me and why, as you did here. Having this issue rolling around in your head unspoken sounds like an extra burden in itself on top of the heaviness you’re already dealing with in your job. Thank you for all you’re doing to help in the world.

  8. Elizabeth*

    Do your friends know what your work entails? If they don’t, could you sketch out at a high level what you see and experience, so that they can understand why sometimes you may need to talk about Anything Not Work?

    1. Not Australian*

      TBH I think that runs the risk of being seen as moaning about something that can’t be changed – fine if the friends are sympathetic, and for a limited time, but if not there’s always the chance that they’ll think the OP is claiming a monopoly on suffering. To each individual their own problems are always the worst; there is no objective scale on which they can be quantified and weighed against one another, because a small thing may have a massive effect for one person while another may be able to shrug off a global catastrophe and just keep going. I don’t know whether the friends will fully understand the significance of what OP’s trying to convey, is what I’m saying, and I agree with all those who think therapy is the best solution here. Trying to keep the conversation light with the friend group is also a good idea; making their get-togethers a completely work-free zone would give everyone something to look forward to as a change from their daily grind.

  9. Littorally*

    I think your first step, OP, is to think about what you want to share. It sounds as though you’re feeling ambivalent overall about talking about your work: “Moreover, when I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. But, I don’t want to make light of it or have nothing to share.”

    So, you might start out with doing some thinking: setting aside what other people might or might not want to hear, what would you want to say? Would you want to talk a bit about any wins, even if small, that you’re experiencing, or about the little day-to-day things — the trees, rather than the forest? Would you rather talk in vague terms about the big picture?

    Overall: what do you, yourself, as an individual, want? From there, you can figure out how to approach these things with friends and family.

    1. LilyP*

      +1, if you can figure out what you actually want/need from friends you could make more specific asks for more support. Maybe occasional 1:1 calls with a closest friend to really let it all out/cry on a shoulder? Work-talk-free conversations some of the time, or designated times for heavy/troubling talk where you aren’t “ruining the mood”? Organizing them to do something actionable to support the work you’re doing?

      I also wonder what you think “leaning on friends” could/should look like that would make it an alternative to therapy? Venting? Confiding? Getting advice? Supportive friendships are wonderful but they’re a fundamentally different thing from therapy, and it sounds like you need both right now. But that doesn’t mean your friends have failed you.

  10. Rawb*

    Your friends are your friends and care about you, so maybe they don’t mind listening to the depressing problems that are effecting you every now and then. I would talk to them about these worries you have and see if it’s a big deal to them. If it were me I might offer to talk about my work first so that we can get the depressing news out of the way first and end the night on the most positive note possible. Alternatively, since your work problems are not your personal problems but moreso world issues that you care about, they could fit into a political discussion if your friends are in the mood for that.

  11. BubbleTea*

    As someone whose job can also be quite heavy at times, although not on the same scale, I heartily recommend therapy. I would hope that you have some kind of debriefing/supervision through your job, and if not then they should absolutely be providing that, but I find I need the extra outlet to deal with my complex feelings about how much better off I am than the clients I support at work.

    The term “first world problem” gets thrown around a lot and is both patronising and unhelpful, but it sounds like it might be quite literally what’s going on here – it is hard to care about things that seem trivial when you’re up close and personal with extremely not trivial problems all day. I agree with a previous commenter that you need to think about what you want from your friendships – if you need a light hearted distraction from the weight of the world, it is totally fine to say that! Good friends will hear “work has stressed me out and I need to talk about something fun” and do exactly that. People who respond to that statement by trying to get you to talk about work, or continue venting about their own problems, might not be the right friends for this moment in your life, but you have to tell them what you need before you can blame them for not providing it.

    Good luck! You’re doing important and valuable work, but you are also important and valuable. Don’t sacrifice your wellbeing on the altar of your job.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Good friends will hear “work has stressed me out and I need to talk about something fun” and do exactly that. People who respond to that statement by trying to get you to talk about work, or continue venting about their own problems, might not be the right friends for this moment in your life, but you have to tell them what you need before you can blame them for not providing it.

      This is a good point. I’ve had to end friendships because people wouldn’t stop complaining every time we got together over things I just couldn’t care less about, but I don’t know/remember whether I told them to ease up on this in the first place.

  12. Just no*

    OP, I work in a job that exposes me to very serious and horrible things every day — severe child abuse, not-infrequent death of clients I know and care about, etc. (I am not going to name it here because it’s a pretty niche field.)

    As a general rule, I don’t talk about my work with anyone except my wife, and even then, I don’t expect her to truly understand it. I’m not sure if this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would work for everyone, but it has been the best path forward for me — and I’ve been at this for more than a decade now, even though people often burn out of this field after two or three years. I have my “work self” and my “not work self.” I realized quickly that it doesn’t serve me to talk about my job with the people in my life. It makes me sad, and it makes other people uncomfortable.

    I think the best thing you can do is cultivate friendships with people who are either in your field or adjacent to your field. Those are the people you can turn to when you need to discuss work things that are causing you pain. Those are the people who will understand. If you have these relationships, you won’t feel so alone, and you’ll probably have an easier time in your outside relationships.

    I noticed that you said you roll your eyes at your friends’ concerns, though, and I want to urge you to unpack that. To me, that says that you are finding it impossible not to take work home. If you want to continue to work in a high-stress field where you deal with heavy subjects, you will need to find a way to do that.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      “I noticed that you said you roll your eyes at your friends’ concerns, though, and I want to urge you to unpack that. To me, that says that you are finding it impossible not to take work home. If you want to continue to work in a high-stress field where you deal with heavy subjects, you will need to find a way to do that.”

      Yeah, I was thinking that, too. There should be a boundary between occupation and identity, and if this is going to poison all your friendships because none of your friends’ problems can ever be serious enough to not make you eyeroll unless they’re in an active war zone . . . that is not good.

    2. HannahS*

      Strongly seconding, as another person with that type of hard job. I’m not saying that having a job that exposes you to Big Problems doesn’t give you a sense of perspective–it certainly does! But if you’re starting to feel like you can’t stand to hear other people’s problems because at-least-you-don’t-live-in-a-war-zone, then yeah, you’re taking your work home in an unhealthy way. If the way you interact with your work prevents you from being a good friend, then you’re going to find that you lose friendships–and that’s really bad for your longterm health. And frankly, it’s also easy to turn that attitude towards yourself; “I can’t take time off to go to the doctor; my work is more important;” “I can’t take a day off to see my family; my work is more important.”

      1. LilyP*

        Yes, please take good care of yourself during all this OP. You can’t fix everything in the world, and neglecting your own body/mind/life makes it harder to help others in the long run.

    3. Washi*

      All of this. I get why there are comments saying “your friends want to support you!” and I bet they totally do, but there are certain jobs dealing with a certain level of trauma where you can’t just vent to your friends, it’s deeper than that and requires another level of coping. For several years I worked with survivors of a particular genocide, and while I could tell friends that I had a rough day or something like that, I couldn’t dump the things I’d heard on outside ears. The only people I talked to in detail about it were my coworkers. We met regularly for lunch and that time was SO important, to process with people who were dealing with the exact same thing.

      I also agree that feeling this way about your friends’ problems means that the work is hitting you really personally in a way that is not sustainable. Outside of work, you have to find a way to stay grounded in yourself and not see everything through the lens of the atrocities you work with. It’s super important for me to have a strong sense of myself, to have hobbies, goals, friends, etc outside of my work, and that’s the self that I come home to.

    4. peasblossom*

      This is excellent advice and perspective. In my work, I routinely encounter trauma. When I find myself getting into the headspace of wanting to roll my eyes at other people’s problems (or even my own!), I see it as a reality check. It means that I need to recalibrate how I’m relating to my work and others.

      If you can build a community with your colleagues in which you all can debrief and check in, that helps enormously. I’ve also found that establishing practices that help me create boundaries between my work and the rest of my life helps. Things that work for me: exercising after work, mindfulness practice, limit work talk outside of situations I deliberately choose, creative writing. Good luck in finding practices that work for you.

    5. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      In your position I’d just share a few (probably not all!) of the type of things you are dealing with, in a fairly unemotional way, and leave it to the friends to pick up (which they will if they have any emotional intelligence) what out of their own stories are comparatively ‘trivial’ and respond accordingly.

      I am not dealing with things of the type you (OP) describe, but I think it would put my too-frequent comments about “constantly changing requirements but strangely enough the deadline doesn’t move” etc into perspective.

      1. F.M.*

        I feel like sharing serious issues at work in an unemotional way with FRIENDS is more likely to make everyone uncomfortable, and then feel judged if it’s delivered in a way that’s supposed to convey “…so you aren’t allowed to complain about your problems,” than anything else.

        Friends want to talk about what’s important to each other, generally, and someone who doesn’t want to hear about my life because theirs is so much more important is something I can definitely deal with short-term in an emergency, but not maintain a long-term relationship with.

        If the friends have emotional intelligence, they’re more likely to think something like “Wow, this person doesn’t like us anymore, ouch, maybe they want to do a friends-break-up and can’t figure out how to do so explicitly? Should we stop bothering them with these chats?”, and I don’t think LW actually wants those friends to stop talking to them!

    6. allathian*

      Yes, this. It sounds like the LW is in a really tough place at the moment. They should really find someone outside of the friend group to talk work stuff with, either a therapist or some people who work in the same or an adjacent field and who truly understand the issues involved. Sounds to me like the LW is close to burn out and is unable to find any empathy for their friends’ concerns, which while they may seem trivial to the LW, are significant to the friends. I don’t think it would be out of line to ask the friends if they could talk about something more positive rather than just about the challenges they’re facing, though.

  13. Spearmint*

    OP, it sounds like you’re suffering from compassion fatigue. It is a well studied phenomenon and there are many resources about it if you go looking for them, including therapy.

    I’m curious if your difficulties talking about your friends’ work problems extend to non-work problems as well. If it’s just work topics, then you can just avoid talking about work with friends and family and gently explain it if it comes up. If, on the other hand, you find yourself internally rolling your eyes at your friends’ non-work problems as well, that speaks to deeper issues that are probably best addressed in therapy.

  14. Look, A Subject Change!*

    First of all, we’re experiencing a global traumatic event. Pretty much everyone who can afford it should be in therapy. It sounds like OP’s job in particular is really stressful and sad, in ways that are very different from what their friends experience. It completely makes sense that conversations about mundane office frustrations aren’t going to feel like the right venue for something that heavy— they probably aren’t, at least not on the regular. I think therapy or friends with similarly rough careers are probably better venues to unload those feelings.
    I don’t think that means you have to sit silently through a conversation that’s frustrating though! It’s completely reasonable to say “hey guys, my work is really heavy and has got me down. Could we talk about our favorite new book/show/game/hobby, instead?”

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      “Pretty much everyone who can afford it should be in therapy.”

      This is ridiculous. We do not have the global medical bandwidth to have 8 billion people in therapy.

      1. AGD*

        I didn’t read it as a practical argument, but as a point about the extent to which everyone is having a difficult time right now.

      2. VelociraptorAttack*

        I don’t think there is anything ridiculous about normalizing therapy.

        I’m a huge proponent and think that yeah, everyone probably could benefit from being in therapy, whether it is practical or not.

        1. EB*

          Yes–even if not everyone needs to be in therapy on a long-term basis, most people go through some times in their lives when they could benefit from support or advice from a professional.

    2. starsaphire*

      I like this.

      I was getting so depressed for a while on my weekly Zoom with my besties, that I started interrupting every time people spent too much time talking about the heavier subjects. I’d break in and ask to see everyone’s knitting/embroidery/whatever hobby projects, or ask everyone to pick up their pets/babies and let us see them.

      Someone up above suggested having specified work-free discussions every other time, and I’d like to further suggest: Limit the first half-hour or hour of every chat to positive, light catching up. Sports, hobbies, pets, kids. Laugh over each other’s home hair cuts. Then at X time, say, “Well, I gotta go!” and then they can talk about work.

      That way you don’t lose your necessary social interaction, but you also don’t get bogged down in the work stuff. I am sure they would agree if you just asked and explained it.

      Best of luck to you, OP. Things are awful right now, and it sounds like you are handling way more awful than your share. Sending zen hugs and cookies.

  15. Mbarr*

    Sounds like the other commenters are giving great advice. For the part about how you’re frustrated that your friends’ problems aren’t “real problems,” it might be worth trying to reframe this in your head.

    Just because some people are having worse times than you, doesn’t invalidate your feelings of sadness/frustration. For example, I’m allowed to feel sad because my cat died, even though somewhere out there, someone’s child passed away. No, it’s not the same, but I’m still entitled to my own feelings. To flip it around, it’s like saying, “You’re not allowed to be happy, because someone else is happier.”

    1. BRR*

      All of this. There are certainly things that aren’t real problems but there are a lot of problems that that are still problems even if they don’t rise to the level of being in a war torn country. It’s not a contest and while I know people have it worse, that doesn’t erase my issues.

      1. I never remember my username*

        “It’s not a contest”– exactly this point. When I was dealing with the long and terrible death of a parent, some people would hesitate to talk to me about their own problems because they felt their issues didn’t compare. But I wasn’t keeping score, and the severity of my own problem didn’t mean they weren’t struggling with their own. Just writing off everyone else’s problems doesn’t do anything but isolate you from them at a time you really need your network there for you.
        Plus, as someone mentioned above, they don’t know how you are feeling if you don’t tell them. I can’t tell how serious you were about therapy, but it can really help you as you grapple with these complex emotions.
        Sending warm & supportive thoughts to you, OP.

  16. Bunny*

    I’m a journalist.

    I am known for covering crisis and mass causality events. You can’t sit down at Thanksgiving and tell the family about the fire where 100 people died.

    Pay for therapy. Pay for therapy. Pay for therapy. Pay for therapy. Pay for therapy.

    Your employer may have a free helpline available. Check. You can go every other week and cut down on co-pays. If price is an issue, many therapists have sliding scales. Ask! It’s ok to ask.

    One of my colleagues, who switched careers, said when he left it’s kind of like all these people who were hurt or need help come home with you and sit in your living room at night watching you. They don’t, of course. He forgot all the people he helped.

    Your job may be depressing, but I’ll bet your helping more people than you’ll ever know.

    1. Therapy for everyone*

      Yes this, so much this! I’m also a journalist and have had to find ways to talk about my work without making everyone around me completely depressed. Therapy is the only reason I’m able to do that.

      1. Bunny*

        Not to mention when the black humor defense mechanism fails it is vey awkward.


    2. Kate*

      I second this. I work in a similar field to the OP. It took me years and years and years to go into therapy, and the only way I eventually did was by framing it to myself as “I am paying this person to listen to me talk about horrible things rather than putting my friends through it”.

      For journalists like the commenter, I cannot recommend the work Dr Anthony Feinstein does at the Sunnybrook health centre in Toronto enough. He is literally the world expert on how journalists are affected psychologically by their work in conflict zones.

      1. SS*

        I used to prosecute serious crimes and suffered from the same irritation with my friends. It’s really hard to pretend to care about Rachel’s non-communal boyfriend when I’m worried about possibly letting a murderer loose due to a technicality.
        Therapy wasn’t helpful, since therapists tend to be soft and give advice based on a world of softness. The thing that helped me most was to hang out with other badass types: cops, defense attorneys, nurses and soldiers who dealt with the same evil that I faced everyday.
        Most people live safe, soft lives and deal only with first world problems. You do not and you should not be forced into therapy or marginalized because of it. You’re a hero, hang out with other heroes, you’ll feel better.

        1. LQ*

          Thanks for saying this. I’ve tried several therapists and the advice is always, “Quit your job and focus on yourself.” No…I’m not going to do that. My job sucks sometimes but it’s not nearly as bad as letting a murderer go loose on a technicality but people die, people kill themselves, people end up homeless and harmed if I don’t do it. And yeah sure, someone else could do it, but at the end of the day someone has to do the hard, gross, ugly, work too and so all I’d be doing is deciding that someone else should not just end up homeless because I quit and so they didn’t get helped in time, but that now someone else should have to live with knowing that person is homeless too. Therapy is good, but I haven’t been able to find a therapist who is helpful with this.

          1. Bunny*

            I hope you can find a therapist who specializes in treating PTSD or something similar. Maybe reach out to a professional organization for therapists and ask for a recommendation. Please keep trying.

          2. lazy intellectual*

            This is weird. My understanding is that therapists shouldn’t be giving advice like this. They shouldn’t be telling you to alter you life in a way you don’t want.

            As far as the OP is concerned, it seems like some form of talk therapy might benefit her because she expresses regret at not being able to talk about her work problems.

            Though it’s not quite clear what the OP wants here. Does she want to talk about work problems? And if she is tired about hearing other people’s “first world problems”, why does she participate in these vent sessions?

        2. Chinook*

          Not only that but, OP, you are the reason other people can choose to live soft lives. You do what others can’t or won’t and that is a good thing. That is why people are grateful for people like you – someone needs to do it and you volunteered (or were voluntold).

        3. EllieN*

          +1 to all of this. I tried to give similar evidence elsewhere in the thread – “go make some cop/nurse/journalist/social worker/aid worker friends” – but you said it better. Some people need to take on life’s tough problems and while we should take care of ourselves too, “just quit and become a yoga teacher” is not helpful advice.

    3. Pretzelgirl*

      Right now there are a lot of insurance companies waiving the copay with therapy (CO-VID). I would call your and ask. It may help if anyone needs it and is hesitant bc of cost.

    4. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      You can’t sit down at Thanksgiving and tell the family about the fire where 100 people died.

      Why? Just because people are blissfully unaware of what goes on, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. It’s your (and the world as a whole) reality…

      1. Firecat*

        Honestly because it’s rude.

        Everyone knows a lot of terrible stuff is happening. We are not “blissfully unaware” as you put it. It’s just not feasible to feel for all those negatives all the time and never focus on the positives around you. That is the path to caregiver burnout, depression, and anxiety.

        It’s not cool to toss a trauma grenade into a family dinner just to prove how “wordly and empathetic” you are or whatever.

        My MIL does this all the time. It’s very frustrating and frankly she unknowingly triggers her son whom she doesn’t know was the victim of a violent crime in college. You never know what baggage people have at the table.

        Most people are aware about the troubles of the world and our inability to much about most of them. The war in Syria, America’s carpet bombing of more countries them I can name, Armenian genocide, migrant children in cages and abused, sick, and lost, and more Americans dead from Covid then who died in the entirety of WWI?

        Yeah we know so please pass the potato’s and keep the conversation light and pleasant.

      2. Bunny*

        That’s a fair question. Number One — I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been covering that or something else terrible for days, or weeks, or months. I would like to go to a family gathering or a night out (remember nights out?) and not talk about it.

        Two — Someone will always want to argue.

        Three — We’re supposed to be having fun, dammit.

      3. Roci*

        What does talking about it do? How does that help OP or build connection with their family? What does it do besides angrily communicate “your lives are soft and simple and you should be grateful you aren’t suffering as much as I am”?

        Should we pivot this conversation right now to the world’s most awful problems, just because they’re happening?

        1. Bunny*

          I will tell you I am always — I am a cynic and am ALWAYS — amazed by the spirit of people. When the epidermis of life is burned, there’s this wonderful group of people who rise up, EVERY SINGLE TIME, to help. And OP, you’re one of them. Thank you. You walk through misery and bring light. Remember that.

  17. Tiny Tina*

    ”My job hinges on being up close and personal with all the bad news, trying to make sense of it and helping to communicate externally and make strategic decisions in response as things (d)evolve.” I seem to have the exact same job, but about more vulnerable territories in my own country.
    The way I frame things in my head when other people talk about what seems like small problems is to welcome it as a nice proof that not everything is bad in the world right now. Not everybody is really poor! Not everybody is not having a roof! Not every child is victim of violence! Here are people, that I loved, that have the privilege of worrying about first world problems!
    Now, about talking to my loved one about my job: I just don’t. It’s too frustrating. What I do is network with other people who have the same type of job as me. We give ourselves some formal, some informal spaces to talk and vent about different aspects of our work. Sometime we just talk, sometime we offer each other advices and support, every time we learn from each other and feel less alone. During the holidays, I use some scripts: ”It’s very stressful right now given the state of the world. I couldn’t possibly talk about it in 2 minutes during a party! What about ”subject change”?.” To people I know more, I sometime give concrete examples and talk about specific projects or external publications I’m really proud of.

    1. Spearmint*

      “Here are people, that I loved, that have the privilege of worrying about first world problems!”

      Something I’d add to this is that it’s important to remember that poor people, people in the developing world, and yes, even people living in violent and unstable places still have “first world problems” of their own, and they find them annoying or upsetting just like privileged people do. I can’t find it now, but I read an article once from an activist from a developing country that made this point and said he found the term “first world problems” condescending as a result.

      1. kt*

        Yes, this is a good point. Both the rich and the poor, those in war-torn countries and those in ‘safe’ countries, get to be happy and sad about trivial things. This doesn’t take away from any tragedy or change the contours of suffering.

  18. the blogger of blaviken*

    Pay for therapy – a good therapist will help you process secondary trauma and grief.

    For your friends and family – why get so far in the weeds talking about work (the most boring conversation topic, particularly during the holidats) anyway? Just say, “Oh, I’m sure you might’ve seen [event/tragedy] in the news. It’s been a struggle – let’s talk about anything else! I’m taking classes/learning how to knit/reading about time management to get better at X”

    1. Look, a Subject Change!*

      Yes, this!

      And frankly, if you’re able to process some of the work-related grief and trauma in therapy, you may find that you’re able to more openly approach your relationships with friends. It’s not an either/or situation.

    2. Chinook*

      If you are religious, you may also want to consider speaking to your local religious leader.

      Hearing DH (who is not religious)and my parish priest talk at my father-in-law’s funeral, I realized that their jobs had a lot in common. A priest, especially those who hear confession, has seen a lot of the dark side of humanity and what evil people are capable of. He knows about the secrets individuals hold. He had a lot empathy for DH because he too has been with people when they die or having the worst day of their lives but with the added burden of then having to turn around and be welcoming to those who are living soft lives and hear all about their mild complaints. Before this all hit, we were trying to get him to come over to dinner just because it seemed like both the priest and DH could use some social contact with someone who could relate but also fascinated enough by each other’s jobs and education that they could talk about work without talking about what happens on bad days.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Seconding. A while back, I met a minister who had worked in impoverished areas in the US. The man was a delight to speak with, because he could speak thoughtfully and at length about some very difficult things that happen in life. In many cases he had practical, actionable advice. He had lived it and seen it, so he knew what to do and say.

  19. Calanthea*

    LW, this sounds like a really hard place to be in, and you sound like someone who cares a lot. Congratulations/thank you for doing this difficult work – it would be emotionally taxing in the best of times, when you would have way less cognitive load (from, you know, pandemic and national politics) and way more outlets to relax.
    Some of what you’re describing does sound a little like the beginning of burnout – annoyance at others, feeling despair, not feeling able to share your concerns with friends and (I hope this doesn’t sound unkind) not being able to put your work in proportion. By which I mean, being able to do your work and then deal with the (way less minor,yes, but still valid) problems your friends are having. By which I mean, when I worked for a charity we had to have a level of uncaring-ness, because what we were trying to prevent was massive and huge and overwhelming, and it would be impossible to deal with the humdrum of life if we got too upset by it. “Why pay my phone bill if climate change will kill us all?” type thing.
    So maybe it’s worth looking into any kind of emotional/psychological support your work might provide? Or some kind of Supervision, where you get to work through this with a colleague who understands?

    It would also be fair to your friends, who probably don’t want to leave you feeling like this and care deeply about you, to tell them that work talk is getting you down and could there be a new topic of conversation. If you can’t think of a topic that wouldn’t be frustratingly trivial given, you know, countries are at war, then I hope that gives you an extra incentive to consider getting support so you can do your job well and maintain a social life

    Good luck!

    1. misspiggy*

      I think that’s dead right about needing to develop a level of uncaring-ness to do this kind of work. You choose to get into it because you care, but day to day a level of callousness is needed. Got to get the balance right so that you don’t do your job badly, but you have to be able to detach just enough to do the job well for the long term.

      The mental trick I’ve always used is to ask whether my involvement is making things any better than they otherwise would have been. If yes, I get to feel good about it and close the door on work when I’m not working. If no, my job is to fix the dysfunction preventing that, or work on getting out of there.

  20. Remy*

    I think you need to be kinder to your friends and yourself. There’s always something worse going on but that doesn’t negate annoyances and challenges someone else is facing. There’s nothing more infuriating than lamenting how much back hurts and a friend telling me there are people who can’t walk at all so quit complaining. Secondly, if your friends haven’t said to stop, feel free to share. I would be sad if my friend thought she couldn’t share openly with me. You can always preface it and say there’s a lot going on , are you sure. If you just aren’t comfortable or are tired of thinking/talking about it, then that’s a different issue.

  21. Exhausted Frontline Worker*

    Not much advice, just empathy! I’m a social worker and work with people in tough situations and am exposed to vicarious trauma all the time at work. I want to validate that what you’re describing is a pretty normal for people who work in high-trauma settings. Especially during the pandemic, I’ve had a hard time talking to friends and family because all of them want to complain about how difficult it is to work from home and social distancing. Their problems are valid and I don’t want to minimize them, but staying home and prioritizing my physical safety is not a luxury I have, so I don’t want to hear it. You can care about friends but not have space carry their burdens for them. I’ve found myself pulling away from friends and family at times when it comes to talking about work, because it’s hard relate to them, I don’t want them to worry about me or feel like I have to comfort them after sharing something upsetting, and I also don’t know how to make them understand.

    I’ve been in this field since before the pandemic, and I’ve coped by talking about the hard work stuff with coworkers and other colleagues in my field but not at my organization. Because they get it. Everyone else is on an information diet, or when a really major news-worthy event happens, I usually give vague answers about how it’s been tough but I’m managing then gently change the subject. People tend to get the memo that I don’t really want to discuss it and don’t push me on it. It’s okay to protect your own emotions if you have to! Best of luck to you.

  22. Forrest*

    I’m struggling to sort out what Op actually wants, vs what they feel they are obliged to reciprocate. You say you don’t want to talk about work because it’s too heavy; you want to contribute to the work talk; you want to get support from your friends; you don’t super want to hear about your friends’ problems at work because they feel kind of trivial, you want to offer your 2c when it’s your “turn” — there’s a lot of contradiction here! I don’t know whether it’s that you *want* to talk about work because you want support from your friends, but you don’t feel like you can; you feel that you’re *supposed* to talk about work but you don’t want to; you think that talking about work is how you demonstrate support for your friends talking about work–I’m kind of confused! It feels like you believe there is a set of rules about how conversations are supposed to work — “my friends talk about their work, and then I reciprocate by talking about my work, and if I don’t do that I am somehow failing the friendship”.

    I actually think you would benefit from therapy not just to get support around dealing with a very stressful workplace, but possibly to untangle some of the ideas you have about reciprocation and obligation in your friendships. You’re entitled to talk to your friends about your work as much or as little as you want: you’re entitled to re-direct the conversation if you don’t want to talk about work; you’re entitled to warn your friends that then stuff you’re going to say is pretty heavy and you don’t expect them to have “answers” before you get into it; you’re entitled ot say, “Enough work chat! What have you been reading/watching/playing lately?” You’re entitled to adopt different strategies depending on whehter it’s 1-2 close friends who you think will let you talk about the heavy stuff, or basically a bit of small talk with a cousin you see a couple of times a decade at a family dinner. All these things are OK! There isn’t a required amount of talking about work that you have to do.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      I agree that it’s not clear what OP wants. Are these friends where they get together to have a good time together, so she wants to keep the conversation pleasant? Or does she actually want to share and get support but feels like she can’t? Because the advice in this thread varies a lot and I think part of it is that people aren’t sure which of these things OP is asking about.

    2. BRR*

      This is a great response. I’d start by figuring out your goal then proceeding with any of the helpful advice Forrest wrote (that I’m too lazy to write out).

    3. EventPlannerGal*

      100%. These are your friends, OP! It’s not your annual review! You don’t have to go round the circle taking turns to share your thoughts on work if you don’t want to.

    4. Emily*

      I’d say there’s a good chance that OP doesn’t really know what she wants either. It’s possible she wants/needs support to deal with everything she’s feeling at work but doesn’t want to or doesn’t feel that she can talk about it either.
      I don’t know whether this is relevant to OP or not but I know when I have been in a bad place with work I had times when I started to feel resentful about certain friendships. I’d feel like I was also listening to their problems and supporting them but never got the same in return. Which was technically true, but mainly because I never gave my friends a chance to support me in turn because I never talked about my issues! Hardly something that was fair to hold against them.
      It is completely fair to not always be able to be the person there to support them though and to communicate that (nicely).

  23. Reba*

    I feel like the OP needs at least one person that they can unload on once in a while — anyone would need support when dealing with these kinds of things as much as you are!

    I think you should call a hiatus on discussing work in what sounds like regularly occurring group settings. (Sorry if I’m reading it wrong as a friend group thing, I do think those relationships and gatherings have a different dynamic and that’s where my advice is focused.) Bracket out your time and space to talk about work and its challenges with a trusted person or persons, but make it not your group time. Why not ask your group if group hang outs can become work-free, or at least much less work-focused, and frame it as mental health break for you that might appeal to the others, too. You should not “forget about leaning on your friends” but trust your feelings that whatever way you’re doing it now doesn’t seem to be working!

    Making this change might initially create a bit of a burden for you, if you need to do some more conversational lifting to make that happen, like exercising your subject change skills or even coming up with topics or activities to occupy yourselves with (since a lot of folks, uh, don’t have much going on outside work and home these days). But I feel like some communication about how you are all communicating could really help make these hang outs into something that sustains you instead of draining you!

    You could try starting with something like “Friends, I’m so glad we can be here for each other. I’d like to try to talk about my work stresses less often, and get my mind off work when we’re hanging out. So as an experiment, the next few times we talk could we [limit work talk to brief updates only? Not talk about work at all until 2021?]”

    Similarly for family, “Well, as you might imagine it’s still really stressful, but I’d like to just enjoy your company and not talk about it — I’m truly on a break right now!” (You can say this in a cheerful way and ask them about something else.)

    1. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

      Yes to the designated friend. Therapy has been mentioned a lot here and i agree it needs to be part of the solution. On top of it helps to have a circle of friends made up of other folks in the same line of work to talk about this kind of thing with. I am in a line of work that can become very all consuming and is hard to explain to those outside it and these relationships have been key. Whether people from specific education programs or coworkers and former coworkers I really encourage OP to build up networks within their field.

      It may be that talking through some of your thoughts, to whatever degree you decide is appropriate for your friends, is better suited to one on ones than video catch-ups as a group too, when getting too deep may feel out of sync with the overall conversation.

      Cultivating workplace friendships or with people in your field can take time, and OP seems burned out now, but it will make a big difference over time. It did in my experience.

    2. Esmeralda*

      Yes, this is a good idea. Right now I’m having a lot of tough personal things in my life. My supervisor at work knows (because I regularly need sudden time off), but no one else at work, so that I can just work at work. I talk to my dad about stuff; he shares updates with my sibs, but I asked that he also share that I don’t want to talk about it on our daily text/gab — I need to have some place where things are normal.

      Plus I have a therapist.

  24. Kiki*

    I have never commented on this website before, but have read many of the columns. I just wanted to pipe in and say I relate. I work at a rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter, and I get exhausted talking about it. I know the question was about talking to close friends. I find it even harder with casual acquaintances or people I just met. My uber drivers always ask me what I do, where I am going, etc.
    It can potentially always be annoying to hear random takes from people about a subject on which you are an expert, but I feel it is particularly annoying at this job. At my old jobs taxi drivers or people I meet might hear what I do (in other fields) and offer an ill-informed random comment but it was no big deal. Now when I tell people – especially men – what I do I have to hear their unformed, poorly thought-out thoughts on “what women oughta do” about domestic violence.
    I am not alone in this. Other young women I work with go on dates and after sex the man will make some weird #MeToo joke about rape because we work in rape response?? Yikes!!!

    As far as resenting others – I get it. My friends once described working in kitchens as “hell” talking about how hard his work day is. I found that amusing and accidentally laughed. But it *is* hard work in ways mine isn’t. There are always people with harder jobs than us – I’m not a Covid nurse or ER or ICU doctor. I’m not a firefighter.

    My advice is a little reductive, but it would be to communicate! If these are valued friendships you want to maintain, show authenticity. Maybe not being honest about finding their comparatively petty problems tedious, but about your OWN feelings and life, using “I” statements.

    When I hear you say “When I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say” I wonder if you have said tat to your loved ones. I wonder if you could say exactly that: “I know we usually talk about work but I find it really hard to talk about quickly or casually, because it weighs so heavily on me and the stuff I deal with at work is so depressing”. Then they have information, and you are not cutting them off.

    You NEED something in your life other than work! Can you talk about whatever that thing is? And if you can’t think of what it is, you need to find something: church, reading, crafts, outdoor activities, cooking, baking, a dog, whatever.

    But I hear you say you want to take your “turn” to talk about work. So maybe just go ahead and do it! I know you are saying that doesn’t make things “light” for your friends, but that’s ok – it’s what’s going on with you! I would put the caveat though that you do need to be there for your friends in turn. You can’t scoff at their troubles AND really want to take your turn to say your own.

    I would encourage you to think about WHY you want to share, what you are asking for, and what you hope to get out of it. That might help you narrow down what details to share and when.

    Good luck, and thank you for your important work!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I just wanted to say you’re under no obligation to tell cab drivers, etc. what you do if you don’t feel like talking about it! This is obviously different, but in the past when I did advocacy work and didn’t care to hear the cab driver’s or the dental hygienist’s opinions about the issues I worked on, I’d say “oh, I do consulting” or something else similarly vague that makes people’s eyes glaze over. No one ever asked what kind of consulting (maybe because it’s DC and there’s a ton of boring consulting going on here).

      1. Chinook*

        Ditto. DH has taken to saying “accountant” when strangers ask what he does and I go along with it. No one likes to talk about whatever they think accountants do during the day (though I am waiting for it to back fire one day when he stumbles across an accountant groupie.)

  25. Cedarthea*

    There is so much good above and I agree on compassion fatigue. I know one of things that I deal with when I am upset is what my sister calls the “Shawarma stages”. Its based on a meme where on person texts: “my shawarma fell apart” and the responder says “oh no” “are you solution oriented about it or in the feeling stage”.

    What I mean by this is it sounds like your friends are in the feelings stage, and you want them to be in the solutions stage, aka what are you going to do about it, because I expect you are functioning entirely in the solutions stage, and truthfully you are entitled (and probably in desperate need) of the feelings stage.

    Yes, you do need a therapist, or a friend who you can tell the unvarnished truth to, and they can ask you “solutions or feelings” and support you as you work through it.

    I hope you find a way to have your job and your friends, but your mental health is worth more than any job, even in war.

  26. anon for this*

    This is really tough, and I’m sorry. I’ve been in a sort-of similar situation for the past 10+ years, though not in international development. The choice I’ve made (and it was an intentional decision) is to not talk about my work outside of the basics with people who aren’t part of that world. I got tired of answering 100 questions and combatting common myths and misinformation instead of people supporting me. I’m lucky that I do have many close friends who are in my field and understand everything, so there are plenty of people to go to when I need that kind of emotional support. I also go to therapy, which I’ve found helpful as a place where I can just talk without worrying about professionalism or judgment or whether or not the therapist can handle hearing about the awful things that are a constant in my work life.

    As far as your friends go, I suspect you could share a lot more about this with them if you wanted to. Yes, it’s a heavy topic, but remember, they aren’t immersed in this the way you are. They don’t have to deal with this day after day. They can be sad for you and for the situation but move past it a few hours later. If you want to share with them and ask for their support, I think you should.

    Good luck, and I’m sending positive thoughts your way.

  27. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I have a friend who used to be an attorney, specializing in family law. He got terribly burnt out 10+ years ago, after only a short career – he saw the worst of people’s behaviors and situations, and just couldn’t take it anymore. He still doesn’t talk about any details.

    The point of that story is it’s ok to just say something that amounts to “The situation there is terrible, my job is about trying to stem the terribleness by just a tiny bit, and it feels like an impossible task.” It’s also ok to compartmentalize and just mention the small victories – “The situation there is terrible, but we got a well drilled last week, 4000 doses of antibiotics delivered, etc.”

    That may or may not make you feel better about the conversation as a whole. What your friends say about their jobs, and how they react to yours, is out of your control, unfortunately.

  28. Blaise*

    Please reconsider your Thanksgiving get-together… rapid testing is wildly unreliable, and even if it were reliable, testing negative doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus, just that it isn’t detectable in your system yet. Take this advice from someone who is currently in bed with covid (which I got from a family gathering).

    1. JBeane*

      ^This! Also rapid testing generally means that people immediately gather after they’ve gotten their results, and their potential incubation period is likely not over. We’re in a global pandemic and hospitals are already overrun due to the current surge. Please stay home and encourage the rest of your family to do the same.

    2. BRR*

      YES. And keeping it relevant to the letter, this is a way to avoid the conundrum of how to deal with work talk at thanksgiving. (But getting together even with rapid tests is a bad idea.)

    3. JSPA*

      And, yes, while OP didn’t ask…THIS.

      OP, it’s both dangerous* and as you’re realizing, it’s not even likely to be the solace you so badly need. Why not bow out? Every person who’s not at a gathering is one person less to bounce up the transmission risk and the numbers.

      *If rapid testing worked, the White House (with absolute access to as much repeated rapid testing as anyone) would not be such a Covid hotbed.

  29. Abogado Avocado*

    I used to work for a legal services non-profit that dealt with people in life-threatening trouble. It became very hard for me to answer when people said, “So, how’s work?” because there was never an easy answer. My clients were always in deep danger of dying, our office was perpetually under-funded and short-staffed, and the work was just too serious. My friends are wonderful people, but they couldn’t — and if I’m honest shouldn’t have had to — serve as my therapists. In other words, it was a lot like what you’re dealing with now.

    If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I would tell her to get into regular therapy earlier than I actually did because the burden of such work — however important — is heavy, and therapy helps you deal with that trauma. What opened my eyes to the need for therapy was a chance conversation with an oncologist, who told me that her profession evangelizes self-care via therapy because so many cancer patients die even when everything is done right. That helped me understand I wasn’t alone in feeling trauma from righteous work and that my inability to know how exactly to handle that trauma wasn’t my fault.

    So, allow me to say: good on you for doing hard work and please take care of yourself by getting therapy.

  30. Zephy*

    OP, I think you should take option 2, pay for therapy. What you are experiencing is trauma, and your needs will be better served by a trained professional who knows how to help someone dealing with things of the magnitude that you are dealing with. “Jane in accounting stole my stapler again” or “Joe the Client from Hell called back with more edits today, I was on the phone for two full hours” is fine for blowing off steam with your friends. “Work is literally an actual warzone and I’m surrounded by incredible violence and death” is way more than just “steam.”

  31. Casper Lives*

    OP I’ve been in a similar difficult work environment. It was too stressful / difficult to work in that job, separate work from home, and stop anxiously thinking about it.

    I would get frustrated with friends’ mundane situations because I was burned out. I had nothing left to give! Not very friendly of me.

    Ultimately I left the job, entered therapy (again; past trauma was mixed in), and recovered my emotional equilibrium in a mundane job. My advocacy / meaningful help is on the side / my hobby. My main job is interesting yet not emotionally draining. Good benefits, good work-life balance, etc.

    I didn’t have the ability to do the hard work and flamed out. I’d ask mentors or people who do the job longer how they cope. I wish I had better advice to give you!

  32. LifeBeforeCorona*

    A friend is a paramedic and is asked “What is the worst/grossest thing you’ve seen?” They turn it around by talking about the best thing they’ve seen or helped someone with. Delivering babies is always a good story. Maybe there is something positive that you can talk about? Even a small story can help. Seeing kids going to school, reuniting a family? Right now we’re neck-deep in our second wave and today we got fresh snow, so it’s a winter wonderland in spite of everything else.

    1. anon24*

      Yeah, I’m an EMT and when people ask whats the worst thing I’ve ever seen I spin it and tell them about the time I got to drive to the airport, go out onto the runway and meet a plane with a team of surgeons and a heart in a cooler, and then drive them to the hospital where they were going to transplant it into a waiting patient. Don’t ask me the worst call I’ve had. People’s suffering is not your entertainment and I don’t want to talk about it anyway.

  33. AnotherAlison*

    Not that it’s something where you can snap your fingers and make it happen, but it would be great if OP could find another friend or group that was in a comparable work situation to have these conversations with. I have generally had my work convos with my friends from work. There are some friends and acquaintances who can have those conversations with me, but not most. I’m not even in such a serious line of work as the OP, but I think it helps if my friends are in a similar industry or type of role. Otherwise, I spend way too much time giving background info & everyone is bored. Someone in my role immediately understands why XYZ was complete bs.

    You can keep your current friends for other stuff.

  34. Mel_05*

    A few years ago something really awful happened that upended my life, but that I also couldn’t talk about for a long time for confidentiality reasons and now I don’t talk about it with most people because I don’t like talking about it and it’s a major conversation killer.

    At first I thought it would be horrible to listen to people talk about petty, every day things while I struggled with this huge issue all by myself. But, I came to look on the petty complaints as a wonderful reprieve from my earth shattering stuff. A problem that isn’t ruining anyone’s life? Wonderful!

    I don’t know if you’re able to reframe it that way or not.

    As for sharing your stuff. My personal preference is to not, so I don’t have good advice there. I think it’s ok to talk about it some, but it’s probably not going to be as ok as sharing about less crushing stuff. That’s unfortunate, but I don’t see a way around that.

  35. Bert*

    One tidbit I’d like to share here is that while the problems in OP’s work are indeed extremely severe and would probably depress me too, everybody’s work is highly relevant to them as a person. So if a friend is indeed complaining about not getting a raise, to them that is front and center in their work life and probably distressing for them. It’s all relative (and this goes not just for work, but everything). Not to invalidate OP’s concerns about their own work.

    My suggestion is to just keep this relativity in mind when you’re talking with your friends about work. A little empathy can go a long way. Now if your friends aren’t empathetic towards what you’re dealing with in your work, well, that’s a whole different conversation.

    1. Aepyornis*

      Absolutely! This is very important. People have different sets of problems and issues and bringing hierarchy can only hinder the friendship. OP feels they can’t talk about their problems as they too heavy and OP’s friends might end up feeling like their problems are not valid enough, and that dynamic does not bode well for the friendship.

  36. Jordan*

    As someone who also works in this space, what has helped more than anything – to the extent that I don’t think I’ve had this problem with other friends – is finding a supportive group within the same field who are 1) aware of what’s going on in [country] without needing a detailed explanation and 2) accustomed enough to the subject matter to be able to discuss it with nuance and practicality rather than putting you in a Debbie Downer “civil war is sad!!” type of position. While I know that may sound easier said than done, most aid worker/intl development types have been in the same boat before, and folks who have lived in these contexts for extended periods of time may be especially good targets for expanding your support network beyond your current friend group.

    1. michelenyc*

      This is great advise. I have a friend that worked with the UN in Bosnia after the war to help bring structure back to the country and it was definitely easier for her to vent about the things she saw & heard with people that were with her. While she did share a few stories most of the stories she shared were about how corrupt middle management was so it was hard to achieve what they needed to.

      1. Jordan*

        This made me laugh. I felt the same when I worked in Northeast Nigeria…yes, the food insecurity and kidnappings are capital-b-Bad but what REALLY drove me crazy day was incompetent middle managagement! And that may be a tip for OP as well – use these friends to vent about the annoying things about her job that aren’t heavy (of which I’m sure there are some!) and save the other subject matter for frolleagues.

        1. Luke G*

          On that subject- from the tone of the OP’s letter it sounds like they might also feel like they shouldn’t vent about “little things” at work because of all the huge heavy things. OP, if you’re feeling that- know that it’s OK to be annoyed and want to vent about the guy who keeps leaving his dirty coffee cup in the sink and the woman who sends 50 short e-mails instead of just 1, even while you also are dealing with way bigger problems in other parts of your job.

    2. Lora*

      THIS, definitely!

      I work in pharma. My job at the moment is making vaccines and other treatments for Covid. My colleagues and I had occasional outdoor get-togethers while the weather was decent, now online. When I talk to my non-work friends and family, it’s…exhausting. I try to stick to non-work topics, or try to find something they can relate to (idiot colleagues, supply chain delays). Otherwise the conversation veers into heavy stuff.

      When I talk to my colleagues, we actually stopped talking about how crappy things are and refocused on “OK, what CAN we do? Can we join some advisory group, can we fix this supply chain thing somehow, do we know someone with experience in (whatever) who might be available to work at a field hospital, can we come up with a better way to do -80C shipping containers, can we make a sterile container out of something other than steel and glass?” And it was like okay, everything sucks and there will be more dead bodies if we don’t work faster, everyone is dumb and won’t mask up or stay home, nobody is going to help us and we’re all on our own here – but what CAN we do? We have some dark humor for sure, but it got a lot easier to bear when it turned into conversations about what we can do, as opposed to regular reminders of how helpless we were. Sometimes it isn’t big things, but being able to do little things makes us feel less horrible, too.

      1. Jordan*

        This is great advice too! Totally agreed. I’m back in the US and on COVID now too and have taken a similar approach. My epidemiologist groupchat richochets between rough stuff, what-can-we-do action, and dark humor. My other friends know the annoying things my boss does that I can’t share to my professional network! It’s all about having a variety of support networks

  37. Emmie*

    What is your capacity for talking about it with friends and family? Do you really want to talk about, or hear about work? You might have zero capacity for these problems. It may be helpful to have a stock line you give for work conversations.

    If it helps, my best friend is a medical care provider of COVID patients. In the early days of the pandemic, he witnessed patients suffocate for long periods before they died. It was horrific for him. He told me very briefly about how hard it was and why; that he doesn’t want to talk about work; and asked me to talk to about something else.

    As someone who loves him, it was my queue to change the subject often. He also pivoted to other things like a car he was thinking about buying, or something going on with the kids, or other things. I would prepare too by having other things to talk about.

    I am thinking of you, OP. Working in the trenches of horror is incredibly awful, and can trigger some PTSD. My thoughts are with you.

  38. Therapy for everyone*

    OP, I also work in a job where I’m constantly talking to people about death, violence and a whole host of other heavy issues. Therapy is so incredibly helpful in a situation like this. A therapist is a great third-party person who can listen to all of the stress and worry you have and you don’t have to worry about how it affects them or how it affects the mood of a gathering you have. They also typically have their own therapist so they don’t get overwhelmed.

    My therapist also helped me find ways to talk about work with my friends and family so I can get support from them without overloading them. By talking to a therapist I also was able to let go of most of the resentment I had toward people who I thought were worrying about things that didn’t matter as much.

    tl;dr A therapist will help you process and be able to talk about work with loved ones without worrying you’re a Debbie Downer

  39. Wicked Stitcher*

    It feels like a bit of a disservice to your friends to roll your eyes at their problems and not even tell them what you’re grappling with. I think if I was upset about something like not getting a raise and someone I thought was a friend was only pretending to be sympathetic, I would notice something is off even if I didn’t know exactly what it was.

    There’s definitely not an easy solution, but I think the recommendations for therapy are a good start. And maybe trust your friends to want to support you through the worst? I think good friends would, and they’d probably try to curb minor complaints to respect your situation.

  40. Spero*

    So, when I worked in rape crisis I had to make a real effort to keep my discussion of work to things that were within my control. Rape was not in my control, or my friends control, and therefore not something that should be part of an exchange on work conditions. The horrible experiences of my clients were not something I could share with others. What I shared and got support from friends on, were the parts of my job in my control. So I talked about how I was trying to unwind/practice self care after a particularly bad case, and they helped me there. I talked about being frustrated with my manager and they helped there. In a situation where the big win (ending war) is frankly out of reach for you as the individual employee, small wins (healthy workplace behavior) are still valuable. They don’t stop being important just because other important things aren’t happening like we would like them to.

    One thing I noticed eventually was that in my organization, a lot of dysfunctional management and organizational behavior was brushed off with “Well, WE’RE ENDING RAPE HERE.” Over time, I tended to adopt and externalize that and when anyone had good news or less serious issues I would sometimes get annoyed because they weren’t RAPE. That was actually a huge red flag for burnout and dysfunction! You are allowed to have smaller scale struggles even when rape and war are still going on. So I would take a hard look at your own organization. Is your tendency to respond to ‘frustrating boss’ with ‘well there’s a WAR out there’ mirroring your organization’s behavior? Cause, pro tip and something that took me a long time to learn – no one gets to be shitty to you just because other people are out there raping and warring. Also, we’re never going to end rape or war as long as the people who are supposed to be doing that are being burned out and tossed aside by their orgs.

    1. Aepyornis*

      This is such a good strategy and such good advice.
      I had a relatively similar strategy at some point with a job somewhat related to what you did and to be able to talk about it with friends, I often focused on which feelings I was dealing with that were difficult, such as feeling powerless in a situation, or struggling to accept that there were people I could not help, or feeling ashamed for feeling frustrated with some people I was meant to support, etc. It helped because at the end of the day, what you are talking about is not so much the work per se but your particular relation to it at a given moment. And this also helps reduce the hierarchy of “legitimacy of feeling” between someone frustrated by a lack of raise and someone dealing with a war crime situation.

  41. LongTimeReader*

    Definitely look at therapeutic resources that might help you reflect on your work, get some support, and think about what is/is not healthy in your work and how much you can realistically handle.
    If these are good, strong friendships, could you share what you said here, your worries about bringing the conversation down?
    Finally, do you have friends who do similar work who “get it”, who won’t judge your stress level or cause you to eye roll? This might be another avenue/support system.

  42. Someone Else*

    Say what you have already said here:

    “I don’t want to make light of it or have nothing to share, but I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. ”

    “It feels too heavy to lay it on them. I have tried to find more surface level work-related topics to discuss, but there really isn’t anything I am working on right now that doesn’t directly relate to the heavy and distressing info, and I am all-consumed with it every day.”

    “I want to take my turn to talk about work, I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to talk about the daily crises I am trying to navigate because they are extremely heavy and weigh on me. “

  43. ES*

    Please, please get therapy! You are in a difficult job that is not going to get easier. My previous position involved working with young children who were abuse victims, so I understand how it can feel hearing other people complain about emails when you had a day full of facing horror. I would recommend a moratorium on talking shop with friends. If these are people you’re close to there is definitely room to say “hey, I’m burnt out from work and talking about it only adds to the load. 2020 is a tough year, can we focus on chatting about the positives in our lives or play a Jackbox game?” Your friends should understand and will almost certainly be glad to shift the conversations once they know how you feel.

  44. Ginger*

    I echo other suggestions for professional therapy to manage going from in the trenches to “normal” life. It reminds me of an article I read about drone pilots. They sit in a trailer and do what they do, then exit and head to the grocery store for dinner and many have struggled with the rapid change of scenery. Based on what you wrote, I see that in your circumstance, too.

    Instead of the gritty details, I would say to your friends that you are having trouble balancing work and getting into a good headspace outside of it. That’s something nearly everyone can relate to – no matter how trivial or first world their problems may be.

    I do think you need to reframe your conversations with your friends though. They are sharing/venting about things that may be trivial in the grand scheme of the whole entire human race. But they are your friends, it is unkind to mock them for having “first world” problems.

  45. World'sOnFire*

    I want to second (and third and quadruple) the recommendation to seek therapy. I also work in a pretty depressing field — climate science — and really struggled with this same problem. For a long time, I put off therapy because I wanted to find someone who specialized in talking about climate-related depression, but I eventually just went to the first therapist who had an opening and who I clicked with. She was up-front with me that she doesn’t specialize in my field, but having someone validate that what I’m experiencing is draining and exhausting, as well as getting help managing all my smaller anxieties, has really made a difference in how I can talk about and manage the grief about my work.

  46. school of hard knowcs*

    In my life, I call it big world problems and small world problems. To varying levels everyone has a stake in big world problems and “how much they affect their everyday life”. Small world problems, my friend died, my relative was without plumbing for a week, my friend lost his job for 6 months, my nephew is on a ventilator. Last week, I was gutted when my Mom asked me when I was born and how old I was…. she has dementia.
    I personally am tired of thinking about my problems, so listening to others small world problems is a change of pace. I also love to hear any good news. aka I found the missing sock.
    You are dealing with big world problems in your small world. You have a huge stake in a big world problem, with very little control on how it plays out. Learn from others on how to survive/thrive in this process. I don’t know you or your job, but I am one that does pay attention and am concerned about those on the other side of world facing horror.

  47. I'm A Little Teapot*

    OP, my thought is that you are internalizing too much. Yes, there are terrible things happening somewhere, whether that’s down the street or 2000 miles away. But that doesn’t mean you have to let those terrible things take up all the space in your heart and mind. I’ve seen at least one commenter here describe having what is essentially a firewall between your work life and your non-work life.

    Just because (insert country) is in literal flames doesn’t mean that other people aren’t allowed their own problems and tragedies, as well as joys. You know this intellectually, but it’s not actually happening in your emotions. Therapy can help you learn how to do seperate all the horrors that you see through your job from the rest of your life.

    If you can’t figure this out, then start thinking about your next job, in a different field, because you will burn out and will have to find a new job. As well as deal with the mental and emotional consequences then. You’ve got an early warning sign here. Pay attention, get the help you need.

  48. Bex*

    Hi OP. First, let’s acknowledge the truly heavy work that you’re doing. It sounds like it’s pretty demanding, especially emotionally, and that can definitely take a toll. So please don’t mentally minimalize it or try to brush it aside. Let yourself acknowledge how much of you your work takes.

    Next, have you worked with your organization to see if there is EAP or similar in place? It’s natural for people to turn to friends for support and comfort, and it sounds like, for a lot of reasons, you can’t do that. Finding an external source might help you.

    It seems like you’re trying to be a good friend but having trouble processing what your friends are going through when viewed through the light of your own work and the hardships you see daily. And that’s normal! We all do that to an extent – view things as gradations and, sometimes, have trouble seeing the import and impact of something that seems small/lesser to us, compared with other troubles we’ve seen. (Personal example – I was video calling my sister and found out that due to the health crisis etc, her and her partner’s favorite restaurant had closed. And she was so upset! I wanted to roll my eyes – it wasn’t like she was out of a job, housing insecure as a result, etc. like the serving staff. but I held that feeling back. I asked her more about it – turns out it was where they had their first date, and their first make-up dinner after a bad fight. Lots of emotions that helped me be more sympathetic.)

    It’s possible that your friends, knowing what you work and deal with, are trying on purpose to keep their own woes trivial – small stuff so you’re not emotionally overburdened. I’ve done that before when I’ve known others were struggling; given surface level answers and the like because I didn’t want to put more on them.

    But reading and re-reading your letter, it really sounds like you’re investing a lot of yourself in your work and a lot of your emotional capacity in what you’re seeing via your work. And with that said, I will say this – please consider looking for an outside source to unburden yourself to. It’s not good to hold all that inside, and you deserve to be able to vent without feeling like you’re adding to someone else’s woes and worries.

    All of that said … if your work feels too much, but you still want to interact and share – can you find the ridiculously minor and petty stuff to share? The coworker who overuses exclamation marks! The uh… message leaver … who Yknow, always uh, takes ummm wayyy too long to uh, Yknow, get to the point? That they’ve stopped ordering your favorite pens and now you have to use pens that clog up and leave weird boots? That your IT department has suddenly blocked YouTube which is really awful because you need it?

    Any way that it goes – I hope you find a relief valve.

  49. NovaGirl*

    I think OP is actually asking the wrong question here. It sounds like they are VERY CLOSE to burning out, if they’re not already there. (Speaking as a former nonprofit employee who saw and had to deal with horrible things every day.) Getting to that point where you stop having compassion for others (“who cares if you didn’t get a raise, war is happening, people are dying!”) and afraid to talk openly about your feelings about work are classic nonprofit burnout. And the fact that they are unsure how to talk about their job without burdening them or dumping heavy feelings on them at Thanksgiving is a good red flag that it’s time to take some time off, and maybe seek some outside help. It kind of indicates that they are not talking to ANYONE about their job & their heavy feelings about it! Where is their support system?! Like, outside of people at work?

    Like, if you can’t just say, “Work has been stressful but overall I’m doing well, it’s keeping me busy,” or something like that, the problem you think you have is not actually the problem you have.

  50. Anon for now*

    I also work in international development and there is a reason we do this work. Things are hard right now but there are those stories that make you smile and remember why we do it. Check out the various development blogs/publications for the uplifting stories. Tell your friends about those when you need/want to share. Don’t be afraid to say “Things are hard and I really need to not talk about work today”. And absolutely reach out for help whether it’s an EAP or private therapist. We are all struggling right now.

  51. Delta Delta*

    A couple things occur to me. First, OP probably ought to find someone different to talk with about work, whether that’s a therapist or maybe some work friends. Others from work are likely able to commiserate because they see the same things and have all the context. A therapist can help with how to sort out dealing with horrible things on a daily basis. Second, maybe put a moratorium on work talk with the friends. Joan complaining about her coworker who sings too loudly in her cubicle is always going to seem “petty” next to genocide/war/etc. And the friends may also clam up if they feel like talking about work becomes a competition because no matter what their issues are, they’ll never compare to the horrors OP works with regularly.

  52. NinaBee*

    Sounds like there’s a need for a lot more compassion here, especially for yourself! War is an awful thing and the sheer size and scale and awfulness of how people can treat each other that way can overshadow anything in ‘normal’ reality, let alone with stressors of COVID on top of that. Sometimes that ‘bigness’ can make us feel small and insignificant and helpless. Bringing compassion into the situation would help mitigate some of that.. compassion for the war victims, for the people trying to help, for your friends dealing with their own scales of issues, for yourself trying to be a good human in amongst it all. Therapy for sure, or some type of spirituality or philosophy would help too, as it deals with these bigger picture situations of why life can be so cruel sometimes. Finding small moments of people being kind is also helpful to focus on, as a balance. Sites/social accounts like Upworthy are helpful to remember there is also good in the world. As they say ‘look for the helpers’ when feeling overwhelmed.

  53. CupcakeCounter*

    Is there way you could focus on the intentions of your organization as opposed to the daily problems?
    Along the lines of “As you know my org is working in country X which is going through a lot of upheaval right now so a lot of stuff is in limbo and we are putting out fires daily. We are working with the government in Y country to make sure the civilians of X have a steady supply of clean drinking water and food as the various militaries are hoarding it. There are a lot of challenges to get to that point but that is what we are working towards.”

  54. Brusque*

    Don’t talk about the overall situation if you feel it’s too depressing, talk about what you actually do. Instead of what you hope to gain about what you did gain.
    For example, if you where working for a llama-housing company trying to help homeless llamas find jobs and shelters in llama country, but llama country is at war with echidna country so homelessness is exploding and it feels as if you make no difference, instead of focusing on that tell about what you really do! Instead of: ‘we tried to make new llama shelters in llama city but it got bombed’, try: ‘I searched for founding and ressources for llama sheltering. For this I contacted mayor x of llama city and then I filed y and last I requested z. Then I made some data entry.’
    If people then ask how llama sheltering in llama country is going don’t hesitate to tell them: ‘oh well, you know about the war with echidna country? It’s quite depressing right now. I’d like to tell you more but I’m afraid you might feel sad for it.’
    If you friends and family then ask for your depressing work and the circumstances in llama country, well then share! It’s ok to lean on your friends even with the bad stuff. Give them an out though and don’t belittle their problems while telling yours. Just because war is bad people are allowed to still feel bad about their problems too. But I read you in a way that you already know that and don’t want to make them feel that way. But you can still share your sorrows as well. Just don’t compare their problems to yours while doing it. You already know it’s not a competition. But simply talking about different issues doesnt mean to invaluate them and common decent people should not see it that way.
    I guess right now you feel so bad when you’re listening to their problems not weighed down with a war because you feel you can’t share youself. So trust one thing: usually compassion isn’t running out or get used up. Just because people pay sympathy to your homeless war llamas that doesn’t mean there’s no sympathy left for your sisters cruel boss. And as crude as it sounds: hearing about bigger issues can make one feel grateful and put things in perspective as long as the one telling the depressing stuff doesn’t force it. So no conparing war with long commutes or overtime. That’s riddiculous. Just tell what you need to tell without thinking about the other tales. Don’t be that person we had here telling everybody they should be happy they don’t have cancer but still you can tell them about the cancer that has befallen llama country in the form of a war.
    Talk about your feelings if the people you talking too are comfortably close: ‘ah you know, work’s hard right now because of the depressing things happening in llama country. It makes me so sad we don’t have much possibilities to make a difference right now’ Is a totally ok thing to say. Unless you’re directly comparing that to something said earlier it’s not a bad thing to share. It’s ok.
    If I were your friend I’d say: Aw that sucks! I’m sorry you have to deal with that! Can I somehow cheer you up or would you like me to just listen a bit?
    Give your folks the chance to decide if they want to do so too. Don’t decide on their behalf if it’s too much or that they can’t deal with it. Assuming they’re adults, trust them to make their own decisions if its too much to bear and respect their decision either way and you’ll be fine.

  55. tiny cactus*

    I think it might be helpful to mentally separate your friends’ work issues from yours, because they sound like these are on two pretty separate planes of existence. It sounds like you really need to find a way to talk about the heavy stuff you’re exposed to at work, whether with a therapist, a support group, or with some trusted friends, but I don’t think this general work chat is the best place for it.

    It might help you to cut your friends some slack to consider that for them, talking about work is inherently a lighter and less fraught subject than it is for you. I’m sure they are all dealing with some degree of heavy stuff, both personal and larger-scale, but it is really exhausting to be focused on that stuff all the time, and sometimes it’s relaxing to just complain about something petty for a little while.

  56. goodyDay*

    I had a job where I read the death records of children. Sometimes I would tear up at my desk and the depressing things I read. It was all confidential info, so I couldn’t give details to anyone. All I could say was “I read something really sad today.”
    Honestly, not being able to go into details at home was a good thing for me. It made an exact division between work me and home me. I learned to only think about those things at work, and think about anything else outside of work.
    I understand that it’s easier said than done, but I looked with joy at all the oddball complaints that my friends and family had. I was happy that I was alive, and they were alive and could complain about their cable bill going up $2. It’s a bizarre mind switch, but I loved every petty conversation because it meant we were blessed together.
    On a lighter note, I don’t have that job anymore and I’m not as excited to listen to my friend’s stories of diarrhea. But sometimes when I feel myself getting bored when someone is talking, I reflect that I have them to talk to.

  57. Laura H.*

    Be gentle with yourself, and be gentle with others. That first part is often difficult.

    I also think this comes down to knowing yourself. What you are comfortable with sharing. Possibly also comes down to knowing what your company has emotional bandwidth for.

    But this stuff isn’t always easy to parse through. Give yourself time and kindness as you discern this. And yes, consider therapy. (I have no experience with any psych type therapy- I can only prompt you to consider it. As I’m not a psychologist, or a benefactor of that vein of therapy, I think considering is the most I can push in good conscience.)

  58. Per My Last Email*

    I think it can be a both and situation where LW sees a therapist for the really heavy stuff and finds friends to talk to as well. Compassion fatigue is so real for those of us in helping professions, and a therapist can help you figure out what kinds of boundaries to set and how to care for yourself when you have a particularly stressful day. As others have said, sometimes it also helps to find a group of friends or colleagues who do similar work to talk about your work challenges with. I have some friends who simply can’t relate to things I’ve seen in child welfare and are (rightfully) horrified by it so I tend to talk about work more with people who can understand it. I also try to think about how to share with people who aren’t familiar with the topic to bring awareness, but only when I’m feeling up to doing so. Sounds like LW isn’t in that space right now, and that’s okay.

    And the compassion fatigue can make you, well, less compassionate, for other things that are happening like the friends’ problems that seem smaller in comparison. I think filling your own cup back up with therapy and self care strategies before you pour into your friends is a wise decision. Real friends will understand if you need a little break or aren’t up for chatting frequently during this time—the same is true for friends who have big work events or stressful projects, even if those aren’t matters of real life and death.

  59. NomadiCat*

    Oh friend. I have been there, done that, and still have nightmares about trying to find the right images of [insert horrific thing here] for our PowerPoints for our major donors. What image conveys an urgent need for funding while still being palatable enough to view over light hors d’oeuvres?

    Anyway, I think one of the roots of this conundrum is in your final sentence: Do I need to just forget about leaning on my friends and pay for therapy?


    Your friends are not your therapist. They are your support network. They are there to swap stories with and prop you up. But your friends/ romantic partner/ anyone else who loves you but is not your therapist are not your therapist. Therapists have a very particular set of skills, and your relationship with them exists in a very particular space. A space explicitly designed for unloading all the horrific stuff you are wading through on a regular basis. Believe me, I have been through this, and therapy helps so much. One of the things it will help with is reconnecting with your friends in a way that gets you the support you need on a level they can actually handle.

    This is one of those “put on your own oxygen mask first” or “can’t pour from an empty vessel” moments. If you want to continue doing the work you do, and continue having good relationships with the people you love and care about, please consider giving yourself the gift of therapy this year.

    I would write more, but I’m actually off to a meeting with my own therapist!

  60. Kali*

    I’ve encountered this problem a lot, although maybe not on the same scale. I work in LE. People like to hear the “exciting” stuff, but most of what I deal with is sad – people dying alone, people destroying their own lives or others’ with assaults and murders, navigating a criminal justice system that lacks actual justice. With these sorts of jobs, it’s really easy to burn out. It’s also really easy to come off as uncaring. (I personally use dark humor to cope with some of the horrors I see, which I have to be careful about, because people not familiar with me can get offended that I “don’t care” – I do, but I also need to distance myself for the sake of my mental health.)

    I see two problems here – you lack caring about other people’s issues, because they’re “trivial”, but you also don’t feel as if you can tell them your own issues.

    I think therapy would be a very good idea, particularly if you can’t or won’t take a break from a job that is likely causing real trauma for you. You could probably use help to reframe things in your mind and regain connections to the people in your immediate vicinity. I can see the burn out in your letter – your friends’ problems may not be ducking and covering from artillery, but they *are* real problems. If nothing measures up to being in a war zone in your mind for a real problem, you’re going to be increasingly isolated, and that’s before we touch the issue of you not feeling able to share your own issues. I have seen coworkers do this, and that lack of empathy eventually crept into their work too, until they didn’t care about anything.

    Personally, I have a couple people in my life that get the unvarnished truth of my work, particularly the emotional stuff – people who I’m very close to and who aren’t easily rattled. They don’t really understand, but they listen. My coworkers and I constantly talk about the details of our cases – we’re all in this together, and they’re the ones that “get it”, but I don’t get emotional with them. Other friends get brief descriptions and my issues, but surface level. I don’t get gross or nitty gritty with them. I think we all need someone we can truly talk to. If you don’t have anyone like that, I even more strenuously recommend therapy.

    You can always check with your friends though. “Hey, I work with a lot of things that can get dark and grim. Let me know if it’s too much for you.” You’d be surprised what people can and are willing to listen to though. People who work in healthcare see more than their fair share of trauma, for instance. (Have I gotten into friendly competitions about the worst thing we’ve ever seen with a nurse? Yes, I have.) I might not do it in a large group, but grab coffee with one or two.

    When work emotionally drains you, you have to actively work to restore emotional connections to people. Keeping things bottled up is going to create that distance and that resentment. It’s so much easier to sleep and withdraw! But it’s not a long-term solution. Get therapy, OP. Find someone to confide in. Remember that you care about your friends and therefore you should care about their problems, no matter how big or small. Take a break and restore yourself.

  61. KTM*

    I don’t have great advice for you OP but I am in a similar situation. We recently had a massive tragedy in our family (multiple unexpected deaths at once) and while the rest of our friends are stressed about everything that comes along with 2020 like US elections, COVID, missed holidays, etc, it all feels so incredibly unimportant compared to what we’re going through. I try to remind myself that those things were the most stressful part of my life a couple months ago but it is really hard. I see many people recommending therapy and I am about to start some myself. I have found that a few close friends and family members that understand our situation, and have a high emotional IQ, have been my saving grace. They let me call anytime and listen to me without judgement, and don’t dump their own problems on to me. Find your people that understand…

  62. Dawn*

    LW, you’ve kind of got yourself in a bit of a vicious cycle here. On the one hand, it seems you would like to share more with your friends but fear it would be too “heavy.” Then when they share what feels “heavy” in the contexts of their own careers, your annoyance is at least partly exacerbated by the fact that you feel you cannot share your own problems, and your sense of the relative frivolity of what your friends are sharing further discourages you from sharing your own problems, and so the cycle continues …

    First of all, I’d suggest doing whatever you need to do to knock yourself out of the thinking that your friends’ problems are “trivial.” Frustration, anger, sorrow … these are not competitions. There are no rankings; no one gets to “win” who has been dealt the worst hand in any particular moment. Someone having it worse than you does not alleviate your own problems. Because there is a war happening somewhere in the world, that does not make it easier on the friend who is not receiving the correct compensation for the work they’ve performed and now might be experiencing some degree of financial hardship. It’s perhaps worth reframing your own concerns from the perspective of a citizen in the country you serve. Imagine them reading this letter; how do you think they would respond to your problems? They’d probably think them pretty trivial, eh? Yet you know that, to you, in the context of your own existence, your problem does not feel trivial. If you do not want to be dismissed, it might be worth working on being less dismissive of your friends.

    Secondly, I’d take your friends at their word, if you’re all talking about work and they ask you about yours, that they really do want to hear how it is going. I’d read the room, and if I get the sense that my sharing is truly bringing people down or discouraging others, I’d just ask about it. I find that naming the problem often is a productive first step to solving it: “Hey guys, I know my struggles at work look way different than the normal right now. Is it okay if I keep sharing this, or maybe do we want to take a day off from work problems?”

    I would not share with family and acquaintances who, in the course of holiday chitchat, ask how work is going. Saying, “It’s been a rough year but I’m hanging in there,” is a perfectly fine response. I guarantee you it will be used a lot this year in these types of conversations.

    Finally, and on that note, it might be worth keeping in mind that A LOT of people are dealing with pretty heavy professional realities right now. For example, I’m a teacher, and I have on my mind every day that going to remote learning and my own lack of skill in this kind of teaching may set back my students’ progress by years, and this impact will be felt by the most vulnerable kids in my community, and yes, their future opportunities may be reduced due to professional decisions I am making right now. And I can’t even imagine health care workers, who are going into work each day not knowing if they will be able to serve all the people who need their help, who are comforting the dying, who have to tell loved ones they cannot be by a relative’s side as they die, who are contending with people dying of a disease even as they deny the disease is real …

    In short, yes, a lot of us are dealing with heavy stuff at work right now and, unless your friends live in a bubble, no one is opening a conversation about work with the expectation that it’s going to be roses and sunshine.

  63. Fiona*

    I think any of the options below will help:

    – Get therapy
    – Be honest with your friends about the real world struggles you face at work (without contrasting it to their issues)
    – Institute a “no work talk” rule with friends for the sake of EVERYONE’S mental health

    What I would avoid is the following:

    – Attempting to make light small talk about office hijinks while secretly growing more and more resentful at your friends. I think you’ll (understandably) end up feeling really lonely and upset.

    Your friends and family care about you. Give them the opportunity to help you in whatever way is best for you and your mental health.

  64. Prof Ma'am*

    “I think the world feels like such a heavy place for all of us, and when we get together we try to make that a time to unwind and lighten the load.”

    Lightening the load doesn’t mean dumping your load on someone else and I think that’s what you and your friends are doing to each other. Make a no-work talk rule when you talk with your friends because the complaining (whether about wars or raises) is dragging everyone down. Find other topics to talk about… happy topics… silly topics… utterly pointless topics… but ones you ALL agree are happy/silly/utterly pointless.

    Then find a therapist to work with to lighten your load.

  65. Barbara*

    I am a social worker and my entire job is to listen to extremely traumatic things that children have experienced. I can’t talk about these things with friends and family because a)confidentiality and b) no one wants to hear about this stuff.

    I think it’s very important to find a coworker or someone else in a similar field that you can talk about these issues with. So if you encounter something particularly difficult you can reach out to them to help with processing and they will actually understand and care about what you are talking about. I find that having this kind of support from my coworkers makes it so when I go home to friends and family I can’t keep conversations lighthearted and not work focused. I hope that helps.

  66. Jessie*

    Unfortunately some jobs are like that. I was working as a journalist when my country became part of the Arab Spring. And of course everyone knows what happened. There was terrible violence and human right violations and I got to cover that daily. It was impossible for anyone to relate to what I was doing. They could all see it on the news, but they didn’t understand what it was like to actually be there talking to the victims. Talking in depth about any specific incident during dinner with friends or family was just considered inappropriate. They just didn’t understand and yes there problems seemed very mundane in comparison.
    I mean one minute you are standing in a church that just got bombed talking to the families of victims and then you are getting a call from a friend asking where you are. And you say, oh I’m at the church, you know, the one that got bombed? Awkward silence.
    I don’t know what to tell you except that some jobs are like that. I was friends with a lot of journalists and we used to meet up often to vent. Maybe you can do that? It doesn’t have to be your colleagues, but maybe other people working in the same field?

  67. KP*

    If you feel like rolling your eyes at your friends’ problems, that’s a sign of burnout to me. Your work is important. Vitally so. However, not being able to separate yourself from your work and see that your friends have everyday concerns and lives makes me concerned for your emotional health.

    There are both good and bad things (and very terrible things) in this world. And it sounds like you’re in a place where you can only see the terrible. This isn’t a criticism. I’ve been there. It sucks.

    But things aren’t terrible all the time or you wouldn’t be doing the work you’re doing. I’m assuming you want the folks in war zones to have normal, happy, and sometimes mundane lives. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have your biggest problem for a day be that you burned dinner or that someone made a snide comment to you at work? Those are normal human problems.

    So, I’m wondering if it would help you to switch perspectives? It’s going to take a while, but I have some suggestions:
    1) Your friends are living the lives that you’re fighting for everyone to have, regardless or race, religion or national origin. What a wonderful thing to witness.
    2) Stop talking about work. Tell them it’s really stressful but that it helps to spend time with them. Change the subject to something you’re invested in but feels less fraught. Do you have houseplants? Personally, I have a stressful job and I am super invested in my plants. I keep killing them and I can talk about that all day. Did your dog do something boneheaded? Can you ask about their kids and what they’re interested in? Basically, find something that makes you and them feel human again. Find something to connect with that’s not work.
    3) I’m not diagnosing you with anything as I am not qualified (And this is the internet). But you might want to read about secondary-trauma. And if any of it feels familiar to you, I would encourage you to find a therapist. You can’t save the world if you burn yourself to ashes. The world needs you and we need you to take care of yourself too.

    Best of luck to you. <3

  68. Harriet Vane*

    Hi OP. I went through something ongoing for years that was highly traumatic, and had a similar difficulty when talking to friends about their problems as a result. (I had to do a lot of grieving and it was hard to participate in “normal” life, and it was an immediate conversation ender, no matter how nicely I put it.)

    First, therapy is definitely where I’d start. I’d recommend it to everyone but especially if you are approaching (or have) burnout.

    Second, can you think about what you love and value about your friends and friendships, and focus on that? Do you love how funny or caring they are? If you can’t find anything, that may be its own answer, or another reason for therapy. Also, did you give them a chance to be supportive of you? I used to struggle with this last part.

    You can ask questions about non-work and come up with your own non-work topics you’d be happy to talk about. Conversely, if you are not finding these relationships fulfilling at this moment, it’s okay to scale back a bit while you pursue therapy and other outlets for what you’re carrying with you right now. Friendships worth keeping will survive you taking care of yourself.

  69. Ana Gram*

    I’m a cop (married to another cop) and I feel this. I worry about my husband getting murdered at work and whether the next guy I fight will cause me serious harm. My friends outside law enforcement complain about pay and parking and annoying bosses and the usual stuff. But, the thing is, their complaints are valid for them. It’s not helpful to either of us if I dismiss their stuff because mine is objectively worse. So, my solution is to talk to cops about cop stuff, have a few funny stories ready to go for my non-cop friends, and a million other things ready to talk about with them. It wasn’t easy initially but for my own sanity I had to learn to divide my friends into those groups. And, honestly, I kind of love hanging out with people who don’t care about qualified immunity and search and seizure laws. It’s refreshing and an escape for me.

  70. Alex Di Marco*

    I get this completely. I worked for nearly 30 years dealing with victims of war crimes. This included going to sites of mass graves. Most of my friends were from that field too. Those who weren’t were never the kind of friends I would confide to or tell about my day. There is a considerable risk of burnout in these jobs and therapy is necessary — not a luxury but a must. I eventually started it over ten years into the job, a bit late but better than never. Some of my friends in the field never did and fared in different ways. Many drank too much or ate too much or … anything too much. There is a danger of becoming a hard edged cynic and completely losing your faith in humanity. Rolling your eyes at ordinary problems is the least of it, I have certainly rolled mine whenever someone mentioned something that was “ordinary” nuisance. I remember my mother complaining about upstairs neighbours and I wanted to scream at her that at least they’re not burning her house down. Thankfully I didn’t and got someone to listen to me who was an expert. It is important to find someone who does know how to deal with traumatic professions otherwise it’s frustrating for both. You don’t need sympathy, you need tools — as they call them in therapy and coaching — to compartmentalise and to be kind to yourself and to others. Best of luck.

  71. Sara*

    I also work in a high-stress field where everyone I serve is in crisis. I recommend checking out the book Trauma Stewardship, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. That feeling your having, of wanting to roll your eyes at friends trivial problems, is common given the kind of work you’re doing. I’ve been there. The book is very insightful about addressing your own emotions and needs while working with people experiencing trauma – and thus, experiencing vicarious trauma yourself.

    1. Leslie*

      I came here to also recommend reading Trauma Stewardship and finding a therapist to help you work through those emotions. I work in healthcare in a very underserved area, and 2020 has taken a toll on my patients, and through them, myself. Losing the ability to have compassion for your friends’ struggles seems like a sign of emotional fatigue/burnout and may be a sign that you are experiencing trauma due to your work.

      1. double spicy*

        I also came to the comment section to recommend Trauma Stewardship. As a trauma therapist, I’m very concerned about several things in the letter, especially the sense of dismissing “lesser” problems, which can be a sign of compassion fatigue/cumulative trauma exposure. Please consider seeing a therapist with expertise in this area, and please also think about whether you could work with colleagues to create a peer support/reflective supervision group where you talk about these issues together. 2020 has been challenging for everyone, and I want to remind the letter writer that it is crucial to take care of yourself in general, but especially when you do this type of work.

        1. Velawciraptor*

          I’m so glad that so many before me already spoke up on compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. It can be incredibly hard for those of us in helping professions to see it when we’re in the middle of it, but this all screams compassion fatigue/vicarious trauma to me. Please consider talking to someone professionally…it can be incredibly helpful.

          As for what you say to friends about work, you can say “the stuff I’m dealing with for work seems a bit heavy for this context. Suffice it to say, it’s hard to know how much the people we’re serving are suffering, and I’m having a hard time leaving it at work these days. What I do is important to me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t burning out a bit.” Because that’s what I hear under all of this.

          Good luck, OP. I know this stuff can be hard, but I promise, with the right help, you can come through it more resilient than you went in.

  72. Silverose*

    Another social worker from a heavy field of practice checking in. Whether or not you talk to your friends about your work, it definitely sounds like you should be talking to a therapist about it. If you want to be able to tell your friends about work but just aren’t sure if you should, I would encourage you to let your friends know your work has become heavy and depressing and give them the choice on whether or not they want to hear about it. They may prove to be more supportive than you think….but still are not a substitute for professional therapy. When I switched from library services to child welfare, the library friends were supportive but couldn’t quite comprehend what I was going through in the new field. So, I leaned on co-workers and joined groups on social media meant for people in my new field which has helped significantly more on the self care side. I also started seeing a therapist, with no shame or stigma attached, at least in my mind, because our society does a poor job handling big emotions except for those who do the extra schooling specifically in that course of study to learn how and teach how – counselors and psychologists.

    1. Paige*

      There is so mich good advice here. I also work in international development and have long relied on coworkers and others in the field for this kind of relief and solidarity. I have considered therapy for when my attitude just can’t quite seem to turn around, but Life keeps getting in the way. Making a mental note to do it sooner rather than later.

      It can be really hard when people start getting angry about xyz injustice at their job when it is just not at all relatable. A lot of my friends just dont know what to do with the parts of my job that involve, for example: regularly getting food poisoning, supporting sexism by having to appease xyz VIP/policy, losing money every trip because your org is too cheap for real per diem, dealing with terrorist threats, dealing with demands for bribes, the women’s restroom ALWAYS being locked so you have to pee in the woods in your business attire, 75% chance you will be sexually harassed everywhere you go, constantly watching out for pickpockets, etc. And I’m on the cushy side of dev work.

      What’s helped me is trying to find joy and humor in my friends’ experiences, and to abstract and simplify mine so that we can relate. Like, everyone hates that excel screws up date formats. Everyone’s boss fails at calendar invitations. Yay. Then I save the heavy stuff for folks who get it and/or therapy. That said, it sucks both not to have that release and to not be able to fully participate.

  73. H. Regalis*

    LW, I don’t have advice, but I’ve had jobs where my friends would either become visibly uncomfortable or straight-up tell me they didn’t want to hear about my work stuff . . . while I dutifully listened to their work venting. I felt a bit resentful towards those people, and mostly vented online to people in the same field, because no one I was around could handle it. Some jobs are like that and it sucks not to be able to share a normal ritual with your friends.

    1. Aepyornis*

      I’m really sorry this was your experience and that your friends were not able to be there for you for this stuff and not ready to face some discomfort to be there for you. I hope that you found all the support you needed on the online forums.

  74. Kei*

    “Do I need to just forget about leaning on my friends and pay for therapy?”

    At your first therapy session, take this letter and see if you can get help unpacking that line, too. Do you feel guilty that you are a bummer for your friends right now? Shame that you are “incapable” of dealing with all this stress with your existing network?

    Don’t think of a therapist as a dumping ground for heavy conversations – a therapist will be able to give you tools to take with you into the world. Your relationship with your friends is one with people you love, and you can open up new ways to connect with them.

    Friends are great for venting, but what you need is probably not venting. A therapist will be able to help you actually process these complicated and heavy things you’re going through. Compassion burnout is super real and you’re doing amazing by realizing that you’re close to your limit. Keep listening to yourself.

  75. EventPlannerGal*

    So I am coming at this from the perspective of your friends. I have an objectively frivolous job – I plan parties – and my best friends have objectively very serious jobs – a doctor, a teacher, a cancer charity worker. Their bad days are beyond anything I have ever experienced at work.

    My friends will often just openly say that they’re having shit days and don’t want to talk about work. As their friend, I am really grateful when they do. It seems like you feel like you have to ‘take your turn’ sharing work stories and I think that your friends, if they understood how heavy your work is and how depressing it is for you to keep talking about it, would be MORE than happy to just talk about TV or whatever instead. Good friends don’t want you to feel like that, I certainly don’t want to make my friends feel like that.

    I am also getting the impression that you are maybe taking quite a passive role in these conversations, maybe to try and avoid having to take your turn. I completely get that, but I think you can also give yourself permission to take the reins and just change the subject or straight-up say at the start of the convo that you’d rather not talk about work. Frankly it is incredibly embarrassing to spend five minutes venting about your supplier delivering prosecco instead of champagne and then your friend is like “oh that sucks, by the way I saw a bunch of people die today”. It might feel awkward to take charge in that way but you will be sparing everyone a lot of awkwardness.

  76. JSPA*


    1. Reading through the thread on this site of, “at least it’s not Cancer!” may be helpful. Ditto holding onto the thought that, in an ideal world, we would all be able to use some of our worries on stuff that’s not war, death, and imminent destruction. Nobody benefits from dragging everyone down to the point of greatest misery!

    2. There’s value in people getting a sense of the relative scale of their problems. Let the comparison come from them, though, not from you. And let it be “opt in,” not “opt out.”

    3. Your worries for yourself may be getting entirely subsumed into the vastly greater suffering of the population you’re serving. Talking to friends with a focus on the parts of work that are actually ABOUT YOU can be hugely helpful, in that regard. People are dying. You’re likely also spending far more time than reasonable trying to get the scanner to work, or dealing with phone trees, or unjamming the stapler because they won’t let you buy a new one because it doesn’t look broken. And it’s not somehow not a problem that the stapler and the scanner are messed up, because people are dying. They’re problems on a vastly different scale, but you’re still allowed to be the person who cares about your own problems!

    4. A requirement to “Take a turn in the conversation while sticking to the subject” is…not a thing, unless you’re taking a conversational language class. If you feel like changing the subject, or framing it as, “given what my workplace does, dealing with my coworkers, even if they’re having breakdowns, is the happiest part of my day,” you can do that.

    5. Unless your friends are screwing people over in their rise to the top, or building / selling the bombs that are falling on the people you serve (in which case, maybe you’re not compatible as friends?) isn’t their good fortune more likely to be part-and-parcel of creating stability and reducing pressures that lead to war, as it is, part of propping up the military-industrial-yadda-yadda? (I mean, maybe it’s not…you’re placed to figure out how you feel about that.)

    6. If you wish your more of your coworkers were like your most talented friends, or that your most talented friends were working jobs that helped your cause, you absolutely can say, “I wish we had a hundred people like you in the struggle for X.”

    7. You’re hardly alone, at the moment, in being someone who’s aware, in the rawest and most personal terms, of death, impending death, homelessness and mental breakdown. Consider that your friends may also have significant levels of “one or two degrees of separation” intense suffering…and yet choose to hold onto the normalcy of talking about the triumphs and disappointments of everyday work life.

    8. It may well be that your friends are paid very handsomely to do something that’s completely non-essential to the smooth functioning of society. Or that they’re blind to people in their own organization whose lives and paychecks are far more precarious than their own. It’s OK, I think, to acknowledge that–to spread the sympathy beyond their individual situations.

    9. If your sympathy is frozen / damaged by exposure to the horrors of your job, that’s something to take to a psychologist. You either need tools to limit the damage, or a break from the job. Damage to you is not in any way helpful to your clients. It’s like aid workers in a famine zone, becoming unable to eat, themselves; a known risk, and something to fight against. Not a form of helpful solidarity.

  77. employment lawyah*

    Well, you’re doing something good, right?

    It’s a bit like that old parable of the boy throwing starfish back into the ocean: Most of them can’t be helped, but “it mattered to that one!” You may be able to talk about, or focus on, the people you DO help and not the people you DON’T/CAN’T help. Those can be positive stories and can, not incidentally, really help w/ your own outlook.

    Or, this may not be possible, in which case you can reasonably just test the waters.

    THEM: “….and that was MY workweek. Whew, TGIF! How was your week, OP?”
    YOU: “Life was fine! Work was the usual, a bit depressing to be honest; no need to go into details unless you’re interested.”

    You can then take your cues by what they say next. If they ask about something OTHER than work (“Just fine? Wat about that cutie you met at the bar?” or if they move on (“Glad you’re here! How about you, Joe?”) then that’s a cue they do not want the work news. If they ask (“I don’t mind depressing, what’s going on?”) then you can move a bit more into it, etc.

    The trick is that even if you DO get some interest, don’t “throw open the floodgates.” Don’t go from not talking about it at all, to full-blown litany of horrors. Move gradually, as is more common in social events.

  78. Manders*

    Seconding everyone who suggested therapy. I’d also like to add that as you search for a therapist, you’re allowed to screen them and choose someone who has experience with counseling people in professions like yours. When I was in the middle of a traumatic situation in my personal life that was causing me to react in a similar way to my friends’ “petty” personal problems, I ended up trying a few therapists before I found one who was a good fit for me.

    You can also tell you friends you’re dealing with a lot of distressing news at work, and you’d like a break from talking about it! They may not be following the news the way you are, since there are so many huge events happening all over the world, so they may not be fully aware of how large this particular crisis is looming in your life.

  79. Tobias Funke*

    OP, as a therapist, I want to let you know it has never been more necessary to have someone equipped to take this stuff off your plate so that you will be able to not feel your eyes rolling across the room when your friends discuss their day to day. You are dealing with really heavy things, and processing them with a therapist will empower you to be able to just have friendships with your friends.

  80. Always Late to the Party*

    For when people ask about work and you don’t really feel like getting into it (like family over the holidays).

    “Every day is a challenge.”
    “It’s incredibly challenging, as you might imagine given the state of the world.”
    …followed by a quick topic change.

    As for your friends – I think you should stop engaging with them about work. I have been on the other side of this – I have a very administrative job and some close friends who are social workers. If they ask how work is and I’ve had a challenging day, I don’t want to pretend everything is fine and there’s nothing to complain about, but I also don’t want to complain about a mountain of paperwork and stupid office dynamics when they are trying to help homeless people navigate social services, or doing therapy for prison inmates.

    And +10000 for therapy. You need a safe space to process this stuff and it is not with your friends. Stick to lighter topics when you catch up with them.

  81. anon for this today*

    I am trying to suggest therapy to my spouse. Spouse is in the medical field, it’s 2020 so you can guess what that’s like, and spouse is also dealing with significant family caregiving responsibilities with some difficult circumstances. I can listen. I can help. I can make tea. But having someone else to talk to, with whom spouse can be really really honest without having to think about long-term relationship balance, etc, can be really useful. Expanding that circle of support means I can support better in the ways that work for us together.

  82. Disgruntled Pelican*

    OP, as someone with a job that can also be extremely heavy and is something that most people have no frame of reference for, I empathize. When I tell people what I do they often have no response because not only does it sound depressing, but it’s also in a field that most people know nothing about. I rely on four people to be my sounding board when I am struggling: my husband, my best friend who has a different but equally draining job, and my two coworkers who do the same work as me. I would not consider either of my coworkers to be friends of the type where we would ever hang out outside of work, but when I’ve witnessed something horrible on the job, there is nothing like talking to someone else who’s experienced the same thing. Do you have coworkers you can talk to?

    Maybe you just need to give yourself a little break from these types of social interactions with your friends. When my husband and I were struggling with a new mental health diagnosis for him. I didn’t feel like I could disclose much to my friends because it was his health, not mine, but listening to their complaints about their own partners was tough for me because it felt so trivial compared to what we were going through. I eventually realized I needed therapy for this, so I’ll join the chorus of other commenters suggesting that as a possibility as well.

    As far as what to say to your family, I usually keep it simple. If I’m going through a period where I’m enjoying what I do, I say so but leave it at that. If I’m struggling, I usually just respond with, “it’s going!” or something similarly noncommittal and try to turn the conversation to something else.

  83. LTL*

    OP, have you tried talking to your friends about the heavy stuff? If you did, how did it go?

    I understand not wanting to put something to heavy on them, but I think your best bet is really to put it out there and read the room (not just once, but a few times, depending on what you’re seeing) instead of guessing that your problems are “too much.” I also wonder if the internal eye-rolling will go down once you feel free to express yourself like everyone else. Sometimes I even privately confide in a close friend who’s judgement I trust if I’m worried that I’m bringing everyone down (“hey, do you feel like me saying/doing x is having a negative impact on the vibe?”).

    You may have to dial it down again, you may not, but I wouldn’t rely on the assumptions. I understand why you’re concerned, it sounds like the stuff you deal with at work is indeed a lot. But gather evidence first.

  84. Lizy*

    Can you say something like “you know, my work is really difficult right now because of the struggles in X country. I don’t want to be a Debbie-downer, so I’ll just leave it at that. But if anyone is more interested, let me know and I’ll give you a deeper update.”

  85. DrSalty*

    If you think you could benefit from therapy, it’s probably worth trying. It changed my life for the better in a big way.

  86. Sleepytime Tea*

    So… this depends on occasion and audience. A bit of a “read the room” situation, not to put it too lightly. If you were my friend, I would feel terribly that you were dealing with so much and wanted someone to talk to and never did with me. I’d feel like a bad friend! Now, not every friend is like this. Some are casual, some don’t want to get “deep” all the time, etc. etc. I think my recommendation would be to think about who is a trusted person you could talk to when you need to, and maybe do that in a small group or one on one. It’s true that this is probably not the level of deepness that you bring up at the Thanksgiving dinner table when people chat about your jobs, but you shouldn’t be banned from talking about something that obviously has a large impact on your life.

    I think it would also be helpful though for you to work on re-framing those situations where you end up rolling your eyes at other people’s work problems. Ultimately yes, you’re right. Person X not getting a raise is not nearly as big a deal in the wide scheme of things as a whole country at war. But that’s really not a fair comparison, is it? Do we have arguments about which wars are a bigger deal? Do you decide that based on the level of structural damage? Lives lost? Children versus adult lives lost? Economic impact? No, we don’t argue about that type of thing, because in the real world, it’s not that objective. Your point of view has skewed a bit to the point where no individual issue would ever be important or meaningful because it only affects a small number of people. Things like not getting a promised raise can be deeply impactful. Having to go into a job every day where you don’t feel appreciated can be a serious mental drain. You are allowed to have empathy for both big tragedies and small ones, and having empathy for a small personal tragedy doesn’t reduce the importance of the big tragedies. The question would be, do you have the emotional capacity for that? And based on the heaviness of your current job, my guess is, probably not. So I would echo some of the other commenters here suggesting therapy for that reason.

  87. Quinalla*

    They way I would approach it is to next time there is a conversation about work, say something like “Work is really hard and depressing right now, I’m dealing with [Insert high level explanation of what is going on – war, etc.] at work every day with multiple crises. I’ve found that talking about it makes me feel worse, not better, so I’m going to be contributing little or nothing to the work conversation. You can all keep talking about work, no big deal, but I’m going to want to discuss different topics like my new favorite binge watch/new read/podcast/weird news story/etc.”

    For visiting family, I’d prep people ahead of time with something similar in a text or email that you aren’t really up for talking work right now. They may forget and you can just say a short, work is really hard right now like I mentioned in my text, let’s talk about [topic change]!” Asking a question or sharing something else shows that you want to talk and care about them, just not about that topic.

    Good luck and therapy might be the best place to talk about your work if you need an outlet, journaling or meditation may also be of help. Sorry you are dealing with so much and thank you for your important work!

  88. my dog is a handful*

    I’ve been in the same profession for 16 years. On a good day its incredibly challenging explaining your work when 95% of your friends and family have little concept of what you do or where you are working (or in some cases, can’t even find it on a map). It took me a few years, but my tactic has been to discuss some of the day to day challenges of your work (the bureaucracy, crazy colleagues, etc) with my non work friends. I save the more in depth discussion on the real challenges with my work friend network. This profession often blurs the line of friends/colleagues both because of the nature of being an expat overseas but also because its just out of the realm of understanding. I once tried talking to my friends about how stressful it was being in a country when a BIG THING happened and they were like, “oh wow I never heard something that made the news come up so casually in a conversation”. That made me realize that while they care, its just really hard for some to grasp.

  89. Bert*

    I work at a major news organization and I really get this. Things are really hard this year on so many levels and it’s harder (in different ways) for folks whose jobs require reading and analyzing everything that’s happening. While I can’t say whether you should stop talking to your friends about this (I really think that depends on the vibe of the group), you should definitely try therapy. Everyone should, tbh, but especially in this situation. I also wonder what sort of supports your job has in place? Of course, the nature of this sort of work is that there isn’t extra $$ to go around but please make sure your manager knows how you’re doing, and make sure you’re taking time off to decompress. Good luck.

  90. EllieN*

    You need a community of people in your field, or a related field. Connect with aid workers, military veterans, cops, EMTs, drug addiction counselors, ER medical staff, journalists who work in warzones – anyone who deals with life-or-death stakes. They don’t need to become your best friends, just people who might ‘get’ this part of you. It’s hard to build that community during quarantine, but it’s worthwhile to start developing it for the longer term, if you want to stay in this line of work.

    Your regular friends are still your friends. You’ll find easier conversation with them and more patience for their problems if you have a separate outlet for the heavy work commiseration.

    How to meet these new folks? Start with coworkers and people at other orgs/agencies you know through work, but also (in non-COVID times) maybe check out bars near trauma hospitals and military bases.

  91. Aepyornis*

    One potentially contentious thing I’d like to add is that there is a much more limited correlation than what is intuitive between how dreadful/distressing/draining a profession is on paper and how people actually feel on the job, and that how people feel on the job usually has more to do with management/culture/resources than the nature of the job. A workplace that makes you feel everyday that you made a positive difference, no matter how small, in an truly horrifying situation can be much easier to bear than a toxic workplace that strips you of any confidence and agency in a much more mundane field.

  92. Des*

    OP, I don’t think you should use your friends as a therapy session. If you have crisises to talk about, you need to go to a professional or to your manager at the org you work at to deal with that. The type of things that you would bring to your friends are things that are going on with *you* not what’s going on at your work with your project. I know it’s hard to separate the two when people are literally dying, but your friends aren’t the people who can handle that kind of emotional work for you in the long term.

  93. GreenDoor*

    I didn’t have a sad job, but I did have a job where my whole day involved listening to people complain or seek help for what was a desperate situation. Essentially, I was an all-day complaint department. I hated talking about my work because it felt like I was asked to rehash a lot of negativity at a time when I just wanted to relax and keep it light. I started going to gatherings armed with positive conversation starters. When the conversation turned to complaining, I’d pull one out. I’d even pick stuff that sounds like a grade-school journaling assignment and interject with, “Hey guys, if you were a shape, what shape would you be and why?” Silly, yes….but you’d be surprised at how many people glom onto even the most random interjection of a conversation switcher. Even if no one stays on the random topic, it almost always lightens the mood and gets people back to joking and sharing fun stories.

  94. Marina S*

    I agree with advice others have given about both therapy (for handling stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and relationships better) and talking to coworkers or people in similar jobs (for people who understand the details – it’s incredibly exhausting to tell someone about something upsetting, and then also have to explain just WHY it’s so upsetting).

    But I’d also start looking for small work stories that you can share. Maybe an interesting or caring person you talked to, or something new you learned, or a small beautiful sight in the midst of disaster. Some days there won’t be anything. But some days there will be, and noticing and remembering and talking about those things will help you stay capable of doing your job, as well as staying engaged in your friendships. Write them down. Keep a file folder. Any time someone thanks you, for mundane stuff as well as the heavy stuff, put that in there too. Having that available on the bad days made a tremendous difference for me.

  95. Jessica*

    Yes, please do get therapy.

    The support you get from friends and the support you get from a therapist are two different things, and they’re not substitutes for each other. It’s not fair to you or to your friends to use them as your unpaid therapist, and someone who’s not your friend and can stop worrying about you when your hour is up gives you something very different from people who care about you but also have their own burdens to deal with.

    If you’re feeling contempt for people who have stuff that’s legitimately stressing them out because it’s not on the scale of war or famine, that’s a good sign that your emotional reserves are exhausted, which is something a therapist can help with.

  96. Ash*

    I’m guessing the country the LW is referring to is Ethiopia, although it could also be Azerbaijan. So many horrific things happening in the world. I hope you are able to get some support via some knowledgeable therapists, LW. Vicarious traumatization is a real thing, and often requires professional support.

  97. PeanutButter*

    I used to work as a paramedic on a community crisis unit. Most of our interactions were with people who often didn’t know where their next meal would come from or where they were going to sleep that night. I dealt with a lot of human misery, and when I’d start getting the urge to tell friends who were bellyaching about what seemed “trivial” to me, I’d make a conscious decision to start being thankful that we were all currently healthy and in stable enough situations where we could complain about trivial stuff.

  98. Anon for this*

    I also do high stress work in a similar context, and where the consequences of a wrong decision can be devastating. We also have a high degree of confidentiality, which makes it really hard to talk to anyone about my work. Seconding the find friends in your field/ look for a therapist with experience with first responders, etc. In addition to that:

    What do you want, truly, out of your conversations with your friends? If it’s connection, I find it’s actually not that hard to find situations that most people will understand (my coworker is driving me nuts, it takes forever to get a contract out of our legal team, etc), and my friends can actually offer helpful advice and a new perspective when I need it. There’s plenty of near-universal experiences with people, regardless of the subject material or degree of intensity.

    I wonder though, in looking at what you wrote, if you need your friends to understand how much you handle on a day to day basis, in comparison to what they do. I think it’s tempting in fields like ours to feel better than other people because of the work we do and the trauma we take on. In some ways, feeling that way helps justify the cost of work like ours and can help you push through burnout and sacrifice. But it can cause you to resent your friends and people with “trivial” problems. It’s also, honestly, not true and it’s not sustainable.

  99. Adecisionmaker*

    If we weren’t in a Global Pandemic and coming to the end of a dumpster fire of 2020, I would say trust your friends to take on the burden (or let you know they can’t deal). But currently, when everyone seems to be on edge – leave work talk at work. It is fine so say work is ‘busy’ and move on to other conversation topics.

    Take care of you. This is A LOT to take on. I can’t image the details you see in your non-profit, you are brave and amazing.

  100. Yorick*

    If you think about it, you may have more work-related topics in common with your friends than you think. I’m assuming that, while your actual work deals with these heavy topics, you probably also have at least some in-office work that can come with good or bad interactions with coworkers, you might have issues about your salary or other benefits come up, and so forth. You can focus on that sort of stuff when talking to friends or family.

    Someone asks about work and you can say something like, “Work is ok. The projects I’m working on now are pretty stressful, but the office environment is very supportive” (or whatever). Then if you don’t want to talk more about work, you can pivot to your hobbies or other topics of interests, or ask someone a question.

    I agree with other commenters’ recommendations for therapy. Talking through these issues can make them less fresh and so you probably won’t be as resentful to hear about your friends’ work problems.

  101. All Outrage, All The Time*

    I hear you! I work in an area involving investigating reports of child sex trafficking and child pornography. We are busier than ever because the reports of these activities have gone through the roof this year. Basically, the more children being abused the busier we are. I don’t talk about work outside of work. People say “How’s work!” And I just say “Good! Busy! Looking forward to the holidays!” or some such to move off the subject. No one has ever pushed me to talk more about work

  102. Randomly Generated*

    I want to add on another source of possible understanding/support (people have suggested other coworkers, therapy, etc), but do you have any immigrant friends who are from similar types of places?

    I ask because I have my general big friend group and then I also have a subgroup of people from similar backgrounds to me (I’m from eastern Europe, a very close friend is from Venezuela, Israel, etc), where that has given us a base for understanding of the world that includes experiences that sound horrific to most of my other friends. I would imagine that although I don’t work in your field, I wouldn’t be shocked at what you experience, and I feel like I could focus on the work-aspects nature of it without being dragged into horror-feelings at the base facts you describe. I may be reading between the lines, but that’s what it seems like you’re asking for – for your friends to treat your work as work and not have to process their horror-feelings on top of your actual experience.

    I use this group of friends strategically, for example: the one week that it took to have the mostly-official US president call was very stressful to everyone at work. Everyone kept processing things in meetings, etc. And I live in the US, and obviously I was also stressed out, but in the context where the Belarus elections were held in August and protests have been going on since then with no end in sight and the opposition leader who probably won is hiding in another country, there were a few moments where me and the other international people (in private) had a brief collective eyeroll at the few days’ delay in the center of the known universe that is the United States.

    That helped us treat our other colleagues with more compassion – having that outlet where you acknowledge with people who have similar ranges of experiences that while it’s an unpleasant situation, within the range, it’s actually just really a minor blip, made us feel like we weren’t completely nuts in our perceptions and allowed us to not overreact or feel completely disconnected in the larger groups.

  103. Anon for this*

    This has been a useful thread because I’ve recently moved from a job that was occasionally distressing but so boring that hardly anyone ever wanted to hear about it, to a job that is a big step up and much higher profile, but both sometimes depressing and highly confidential. My friends are really pleased about the big step up, often ask me how it’s going, and I’ve been at a loss to say what I’ve been doing!

    I can take notes from the posts above. For what it’s worth, my work provides counselling services and although I haven’t yet felt the need to do it, I haven’t ruled it out.

  104. Nora*

    I’m a social worker and I’m currently an advocate for victims of sexual assault. It’s a real mood killer at parties. I deal with it by basically having three people I talk to about work: my husband, my best friend who’s also a social worker, and another close friend of many years. To everyone else, including the kids I work with on the side, I’m a social worker with the state and that’s it. It’s easier that way. You never know who’s going to get triggered, or decide they need immediate assistance from me whether I’m available or not, or will get awkward about it.

  105. Boof*

    OP1 it’s a balance and it’s important to remember that just because someone has it worse, doesn’t mean everything else is beneath notice / not worth talking about. I treat cancer and it’d be easy to think “well you’re not dying of cancer so who cares if you [aren’t sure what tv to get] [are annoyed someone on the internet was wrong] [have a pimple in a sensitive place]” etc etc. But it’s no way to live life or have a good relationship; it’s really normal to have small trials and tribulations and in fact it’s great that there are only small problems going on. This sounds like signs of burnout (becoming desensitized, losing empathy, etc)
    I do only talk about work sparingly, when I’m really down and just need to talk a little about something awful (and that only to my husband), or else I focus on some of the technical aspects a that are more exciting and/or hopeful (ie, “wow KRAS inhibitors are coming out!” or “we hope to get a cellular therapy trial here soon!” or “[big conference I go to] is in [exotic location] next year!” etc etc)

  106. international civil servant*

    LW, I work in international relations too and often face similar situations. Our work often involves very heavy, complex, and politically-charged issues that could be difficult to talk to in a casual setting. With my close friends, I’d just say “I can’t really talk about my work right now, you know how it is” and they’d understand. Or I would talk about some workplace shenanigans that have nothing to do with the issue at hand – you know, things like a quirky boss, co-workers, etc. It helps that a lot of my close friends are lawyers so they understand that sometimes we can’t really talk much about the details of our work.

    With acquaintances, I would just keep things vague like “oh work has been very busy” and leave it at that. If they press for more information, I’d just say that my work is confidential. It can be a real mood killer but – well, we don’t expect lawyers to wax poetic about mergers and acquisitions, why expect the same from us?

    1. international civil servant*

      I would add that if you have close peers or coworkers that work in the same field/organization as you, it’s more “effective” to vent to them about your work since they’d be more understanding of what your job entails than outsiders. Of course, therapy is a must for people in our industry so I highly suggest you look at your employer’s mental health policy as well as your health insurance to explore some options. Good luck and stay strong, LW!

  107. if they*

    OP – thank you for what you’re doing. I work in a similar field, and there are moments where it’s very heavy. Earlier this year was one of those moments. Having friends that work in the same space is important, and I’m married to a cop and he’s a great support. Also – I work in hunger relief, in acute situations, and even then, those facing these difficult circumstances have agency. It helps me to focus on that. Thanks to my husband and work friends, with my long time friends – whom I adore – we talk normal stuff. It took me a while to get there tho, and when you’re in an emergency it’s hard to have band. I don’t talk a lot about my work because I don’t want to.

  108. Anonforthjd*

    OP – thank you for what you’re doing. I work in a similar field, and there are moments where it’s very heavy. Earlier this year was one of those moments. Having friends that work in the same space is important, and I’m married to a cop and he’s a great support. Also – I work in hunger relief, in acute situations, and even then, those facing these difficult circumstances have agency. It helps me to focus on that. Thanks to my husband and work friends, with my long time friends – whom I adore – we talk normal stuff. It took me a while to get there tho, and when you’re in an emergency it’s hard to have bandwidth. Sometimes if I thinking someone’s concern seems trivial, it’s an indication that I may not be heard, or they may not understand what I’m facing. If you’re truly not interested in talking work, I would just share that and focus on other things. It can be hard to unplug in these types of situations. Working out can also be a good outlet. Good luck, take care of yourself.

  109. mountainshadows299*

    OP- Maybe consider whether you are the person in your friendships who tends to listen to others venting more often than you do it or provides a listening ear to others more often than they do for you, just as a matter of course. That might actually be a contributing factor to your irritation. Because I’m naturally a “helper” both outside of work and in it, once I got into a stressful “heavy” job, I found my tolerance for lopsided friendships took a hit because I was emotionally drained. I was able (and wanted to!) sustain friendships that were more equitable to me, but found I just couldn’t be as much of helper and a listening ear to people as much as I had been without getting reciprocated support.

    Therapy isn’t a cure-all. While you will definitely feel better talking to a therapist, it won’t necessarily fix this specific problem you’re having. In addition to therapy, consider who you’re hanging out with, because let’s be honest, there ARE some people who complain to others excessively about arbitrary or petty things and use it to bond with others. Maybe consider whether these are still people you want to engage with?

    If you don’t want to lay the heaviness down at others’ feet or feel the need to explain yourself, then don’t- just give a vague answer no one will think twice about (“Oh, busy couple days at work! I won’t get into the boring details.) and subject change to a different topic. Maybe focus on a positive topic since it will keep the tone upbeat and light. It feels weird not to talk about work in our culture, but honestly, if you can find other areas to focus on and build rapport, your friendships will be better for it. It’s a human tendency to get caught in negative talk about work, and your friends may be doing this without realizing it.

  110. Where’s busy bee?*

    Hi LW, I work in this field too and I totally feel you on this. On top of that, I think our field is full of highly empathetic people/highly sensitive people and we take on so many of the burdens emotionally of the communities we are trying to serve. It’s so so hard and I really relate to you here. I have learned over the years that even mentioning what I do is a complete conversation killer. I just keep it super generic and never talk about work with my (normal) friends. I am lucky to be married to another aid worker but not one with the same over-capacity for empathy that I seem to have, but it does help. Your only safe space, I’ve found, is with other colleagues in your field. I Agree with the others here to keep it light and maybe just one line about some admin you’ve done at work (“we’ve just put in a new proposal for x so hopefully that goes through!) or something like that. Feel free to cry about the atrocities in Yemen in the shower or wherever you need to. It’s hard to come to the realisation that your friends will never understand you, I get it. It sets you apart and makes you the “weird” one. But your work is important and I’m assuming gives you deep fulfilment (I hope). Not everyone gets to
    have that in their professional life so we are lucky in a way. Find yourself a group of like-minded colleagues to have zoom drinks with! I hope you’ll be able to release your burden somewhat this way! Being a highly empathetic person is not easy, but remind yourself the world needs us to be this way so that we can play the role of helper. Sending you healing vibes!

  111. Tara*

    You need to speak to your friends/family about your work stresses, it seems like it’s really beating you down and I think venting within those relationships would be really beneficial (or not, but worth a try!). You can’t get annoyed at your friends for talking about their work problems, which are comparatively small to you, if they have no idea what’s going on with you. Also, I would be annoyed about not getting a raise! That’s a valid thing to want to complain about, but you should speak about your feelings too. People can’t help unless they know you need help.

  112. LondonLady*

    Firstly, OP is not obliged to suppress what she wants to say to those nearest to her because it is ‘heavy’ – we all need to unload sometimes. Then I’d say maybe try and separate the personal “I sometimes feel helpless when my work is facing such huge challenges, it’s good to know I have you to talk to” from the broader “The world is on fire and I can’t fix it…”. On a more trivial level than OP’s work, I used to be a caseworker at local council level: it was hard to treat people’s concerns about unauthorised satellite dishes in the conservation area (!) with the same seriousness as another family’s problems with homelessness or domestic violence. You don’t have to be professional with your support network. It’s OK to say “honestly, I’m feeling so overwhelmed with work at the moment that it’s hard to talk about, but it’s great to know you are here when I need you…”.

  113. long time lurker*

    Speaking as an ex-humanitarian worker, who worked in war zones….

    I know it’s not necessarily helpful to say “in my day”… but back in my day, we just couldn’t really communicate back home very much when we were in the field. There was email, but we really only wrote those at weekends so it was long missives rather than pinging back and forth, and then we could use the satellite phones to have prohibitively expensive calls once a month or so back home to family.

    Looking at this I wonder whether this wasn’t in some way better? I dealt with all the stuff that the OP dealt with, but only at the end of my mission, or if I came home in the middle for a vacation. To that end, I wonder if OP might think about catching up with friends at home less often while they’re in the field?

    Now that communications have changed, it seems to great to be able to connect with people all around the world whenever. But if you didn’t have a weekly catch-up, you’d actually avoid this dissonance and arguably be more present where you are. That might seem like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but what are you getting from these weekly phone calls if they’re regularly dragging you back into a different world and it’s just causing you this sort of discomfort?

    The truth is that if you haven’t done this sort of job, you just can’t understand. The people who do understand are around you, working with you.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should! I think this comment may come over as unsympathetic, but it’s really not meant to be. I think there was something to be said for dealing with the going home dislocation (I once had a panic attack in a supermarket just after getting back from a really remote role in Sudan because it was too much and my brain couldn’t process just all the excess of …stuff), rather than trying to do this weekly. Yes, when you get back you will have a number of conversations where you think “WTF, that’s not a problem” but this is a very normal part of that going home transition process and, I think, easier to deal with when your focus is fitting back into your home society, and you’re not heading back out to the difficult circumstances.

  114. Manana*

    Can you talk to any of your friends one on one? Friendships don’t obligate us to keep things light all the time, and it may help you to feel more supported/seen if you are able to share more of yourself, the light and dark sides. A big group chat may not be the best place, but reach out to your closest and give them an idea of what’s going on. If they’re your friends, they want to be there for you. And even if their complaints seem trivial, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel challenged or shamed by you sharing your experiences. They are probably aware of the pettiness of their complaints in context of everything happening, but feel comfortable showing that less flattering side of themselves with their friends as a way to vent yes,but also gain perspective. Also they may feel “safer” complaining about petty things in the group chat rather than share their deep fears and emotions about the world right now. Open the door for those deeper conversations.

  115. Peonies*

    Hi there,
    I have worked both in healthcare and crisis mgmt so I hope my input will be of use.
    We don’t understand what you are going through. We dont, we wont, they wont.

    The only ppl who will understand are the one you work with. Even therapist suggest, for those who, like us, work in the fast paced/terrible news sector, to organize peer groups to talk it out. It doesnt have to be “formal” but you can suggest it because I bet good money on it, you are not the only one feeling this way.

    You know the saying “Ive been there” ? Only those who HAVE BEEN there will guide you through this. Good luck.

  116. I am the boss of me*

    I have a job most people regard as “tough” or “depressing.” I don’t look at it that way, but it does make it difficult to connect with others when discussing work. I don’t think I’m going to add anything new here but these are my thoughts:

    – It sounds like you may be experiencing compassion stress, if not burnout, and talking to a professional may help you work through that and develop some healthy coping strategies. You deserve that!

    – I suggest finding your tribe. That’s been very helpful to me. I keep my work discussions with most friends and family pretty superficial, and save the deep introspection and unpacking for colleagues in my specialty. There’s no one local to me but I have found these folks through professional organizations and social media (there’s a Facebook group for everything!). I bet that if you can make some connections with people who understand your niche, you’ll be much more tolerant of the relatively minor complaints of your “regular” friends. We all need to feel seen and heard.

    Thank you for doing what you do, and for facing head-on issues and events that are uncomfortable and distressing when others look away. You are doing meaningful work. Please take care of yourself!

  117. Lobsterp0t*

    Although I don’t think rehashing all the crappy parts of your day all the time is all that helpful, like it literally creates a negative emotional loop where you expect it all to suck all the time, I also think you’re suffering emotionally and while it’s probably not helpful to share the play by play, sharing YOUR FEELINGS – your sadness, devastation and concern – is totally valid.

  118. Scarlett10is*

    Hello friend, what a tough job it sounds like you have. Thank you for caring and working in such a challenging position. You seem reluctant to approach therapy as something other than a last resort, but it can be an incredible tool of support in your self-care plan. IMHO, it should not be the only tool; what else are you doing, *every single day,* to take care of your wellbeing? How do you unplug and focus on your mind and body so you can recharge? Taking immaculate care of yourself is a great place to start; hydration, exercise, fresh air, long soak in a hot tub, nutritious food, brush your teeth, pet a dog, relaxing playlist, etc.

    Try not to judge your friends too harshly; they are living their own realities, which sometimes include issues that might seem trivial. I think though if you prioritize your wellbeing and focus more inward, their troubles will annoy you slightly less :) Sending you good vibes, good luck!

  119. moneypenny*

    I’ve been here. I was processing mortgages right before the crash of 08-ish and I felt exactly like this. I knew what was going on was going to end badly for so many, and I was so stressed out all the time that I made myself sick. I learned to answer “so what do you do?” with a one-sentence explanation (and since it was during the boom, everyone had refinance questions for me) but after answering, told them I wasn’t happy doing it. That ended most of the chatting about it unless people were particularly obtuse.

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