Dear Life Kit: Do I have to listen to my boss complain? An employee struggles to cope with her boss's constant oversharing and negativity. Journalist and host of the podcast Work Appropriate Anne Helen Petersen shares advice for establishing boundaries ... with your boss.

Dear Life Kit: Do I have to listen to my boss complain?

Dear Life Kit: Do I have to listen to my boss complain?

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Photographs by Jair Medina Nossa/Unsplash; Becky Harlan/NPR; Collage by Becky Harlan/NPR
Collage featuring a silhouette of a woman wearing over-the-ear headphones and pushing them down onto her ears. Her face is replaced by a photo of flowers as she blocks out interruptions in the form of speech bubbles that are coming from her boss who is out of the frame. The image depicts putting up a boundary with her draining boss who depletes her energy.
Photographs by Jair Medina Nossa/Unsplash; Becky Harlan/NPR; Collage by Becky Harlan/NPR

Need some really good advice? Look no further than Dear Life Kit. In each episode, we pose one of your most pressing questions to an expert. This question was answered by Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist and the host of the podcast Work Appropriate. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dear Life Kit,

I'm a people pleaser and an empath. I'm often told that I'm a good listener, and I do love to listen. I feel energized when a co-worker opens up and shares their frustrations both in and out of the office. Being that trusted confidant and providing emotional support is something I believe strengthens connections and improves the quality of our work.

However, my supervisor has developed a habit of routinely sharing charged emotional issues in their life: their health struggles, their relationship with their children and partner, etc. On top of this, they tend to be a negative Nancy about the projected success of our shared work projects. This pattern has developed to a point where I often come home exhausted.

The issue with this predicament is twofold: One, I interact closely with my supervisor every day, making it difficult to take emotional breaks throughout the week. And two, my supervisor is in a position of power, and I feel unsure about how to articulate my need to set emotional boundaries. I don't want to harm our working relationship, but I'm nearing my wit's end. — Emotional overload

Anne Helen Petersen is the host of the podcast Work Appropriate and the co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home Rio Chantel Photography hide caption

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Rio Chantel Photography

There's nothing in a job description that says you have to be incredibly emotionally invested and you have to be friends with everyone.

Being friends with someone involves sharing everything that this letter writer is talking about. I'm not saying that if you've developed those relationships at work you're somehow unprofessional or doing something wrong, but that's a decision that each person can make.

As long as you're friendly, courteous, kind and not a butt, then that can make you a really good co-worker. This question-writer seems to think that sharing emotional closeness with someone makes them better co-workers, but I would say that the rest of their question indicates that's not necessarily the case.

She seems to be recruiting these sorts of responses. The first part of her question is, "I'm a people-pleaser and an empath." This person has created this scenario and then is surprised [by the outcome.]

I think she has two options. She can either decide, "I did this to myself. I said that this gives me energy, so I just have to deal with it. I recruited this behavior."

Or, she can figure out how to corral the energy that she's invited into one place. So maybe like, Friday lunch — save all of that information, all of that struggle for lunch. And then, when this person starts to bring something up, she can say, "This is Friday lunch material." And if it's exhausting, then it's the end of the week.

[To set that boundary,] next time this person starts dumping that emotional feeling on you in conversation, you can be like, "I've realized I've struggled with talking about our personal lives during the workday. Do you feel like we could try storing it up and putting it into a big lunch that we have together on Fridays?" Make it about the two of you, our conversations are overloading me, and that's true.

And if it feels like the negativity is making it hard for you to do your job, one piece of advice that Josh Gondelman had when he came on my show, was that you can always try to redirect the conversation. If someone says, "Oh, this isn't going well. This isn't going to work no matter what we try. Blah, blah, blah." You can pepper questions throughout the day or your relationship like, "What is working really well? What's a win that we've had this week?" Inserting a different frame into the conversation about the things you're doing well can be useful.

I think women, in particular, are socialized to believe that we're just supposed to be listeners and absorb everything that everyone throws our way. And just because you feel overloaded or don't like that, it doesn't make you any worse of a co-worker. It doesn't make you not a nice or kind of person. Setting up boundaries is an act of love for everyone involved.

Listen to Anne Helen Petersen's full response in the audio at the top of the page or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Dear Life Kit is hosted by Andee Tagle and produced by Beck Harlan and Sylvie Douglis with help from our intern Jamal Michel. Bronson Arcuri is the managing producer and Meghan Keane is the supervising editor. Alicia Zheng produces the Dear Life Kit video series for Instagram.

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