Are You a Reluctant Angel?

I’ve been thinking about angels lately. I’ve observed and heard about a consistent few who are always first in line to provide transportation, meals, and other heavenly concoctions to injured and ailing friends. Beyond cosmic cherubs, I’m also referring to those real live people who step forward to take on emotional responsibility for others. These angels don’t sprout wings or have halos. They aren’t showy and don’t need to be the focus of attention. 

Angels Are Often Found in the Helping Professions

More than likely, they’ve been drawn to one of the helping professions – therapist, minister, social worker, non-profit volunteer, or health care professional. A defining angel attribute is their ability to listen – with undivided attention and seemingly without judgment.

These angels often offer good advice for addressing anxiety-invoking issues, so it’s easy for the beneficiaries of this attention to come down with angel addiction. Even the self-sufficient among us, if given half an opportunity, will readily dive into the angel’s amniotic fluid, languishing in their warm, nurturing, healing presence.

Image credit: Liz Kitchens

A Conversation with a Dear Friend Prompted Me to Contemplate the Topic of Angel Addiction

What prompted this contemplation of angels is a conversation I had recently with a longtime friend. Once a year, Andrea and I make a date to talk. In the early ‘80s our talk fests took place on landlines. AT&T had a monopoly back then, charging around $20 a month for local calls, and between $1.50–$5.00 a month for the telephone rental.

And those telephones! Attached to a wall allowing no mobility for the user. A telephone call and a distracted mother provided the perfect opportunity for my toddler to crawl into the freezer. 

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Trash Can for Other People’s Emotional Refuse”

Our 2024 call occurred this month on the eve of the summer solstice. “I think I’m taking on the emotional baggage of too many people,” she wailed during our conversation. Andrea has a divinity degree and is a retired counselor at a northeast college (the name of which escapes me.) “Is it my age? I’m beginning to wonder if I have the strength to be there for others like I used to.”

Ah, I thought. She is becoming a reluctant angel.

Angels must beware. Supporting others and offering shoulders as crying platforms can lead to torn rotator cuffs and stress fractures. Just because angels appear to be adept at shouldering burdens does not mean they escape the emotional impact of these encounters.

There is a pattern to these encounters: The recipient (1) pushes the panic button, (2) offloads their worries and anxieties onto the angel, (3) feels better, and (4) leaves the angel to clean up the emotional mess and to absorb the anxiety.

Strategies for Setting Boundaries

Do you think you fall into this category? It can feel good to be needed. It feels like an honor to be privy to the intimate details of someone’s life. Until it dawns on you that the honor has morphed into an imposition. It’s at this point that sainthood flirts with martyrdom.

The world needs the angels among us. So, before you reach the point of saturation and burnout try these survival techniques:

(1) Be selective about the people in your life for whom you are willing to shoulder these emotional burdens.

(2) Impose a weight limit on the quantity of debris deposits you are willing to accept.

(3) Going forward, try to invest in relationships that are two-sided. It’s not worth the calorie burn to exist in a one-sided relationship.

I’m skirting around the “B”word – boundaries. Establishing boundaries is tough. It’s like trying to train a dog; hard to be consistent but worth the effort to have a non-barking, non-jumping canine.

Of course, do what I say, not what I do. I’ve been the proud owner of four jumping, biting, barking dogs. But the theory is good. Take care of those shoulders, Angels.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What about you? Do you consider yourself a reluctant angel shouldering the emotional burdens of others? Let me know by commenting here.

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