'Toxic handler': Secret struggles of the friend who's always there for you

Story highlights

  • If you're the person everyone vents to, you may be a toxic handler
  • Being a toxic handler can turn unhealthy, without you even knowing
  • Experts weigh in on how to stop being a toxic handler without losing friends

(CNN)You are that one person who family, friends or co-workers call first to dish about the latest drama, vent about their troubles or seek help about a serious issue.

If this is routine in your life, you might be what's known as a "toxic handler," and not even realize it.
"Absolutely anyone can be a toxic handler," said Sandra Robinson, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, who co-authored an article about toxic handlers in the Harvard Business Review in November.
"Toxic handlers are those who help others deal with their trials of everyday life and process their strong emotions. They may also work to constantly fix others problems directly or indirectly, much like a professional therapist, but without the training, especially with regards to helping but without taking on the pain of others," she said. "If you are the person who goes to bed at night with others' problems or acutely feels the pain of those around you, it may be a problem."

The good, the bad, and the toxic

On the other hand, toxic handlers can play a valuable and fulfilling role in both personal and professional relationships, Robinson said.
In their Harvard Business Review article, Robinson and co-author Kira Schabram of the University of Washington examined how toxic handlers can play an important role in the workplace.
"Toxic handlers absorb the negativity in day-to-day professional life and allow employees to focus on constructive work," Robinson and Schabram wrote.
In other words, toxic handlers -- sometimes called "toxin handlers" -- "serve as a shield for some of the negative emotions of the workplace, keeping dysfunction and upset from affecting their coworkers, often the coworkers below them," said Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who was not involved in the article.
However, for a toxic handler, taking on the stress of others can have negative consequences too -- especially if the toxic handler is experiencing toxic venting.
Judith Acosta, a psychotherapist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had a friend a few years ago who constantly vented about his boss and his work -- and he suddenly quit his job. She described him as a toxic venter.
Though Acosta said that she never chastised her friend for his decision, when she asked about how he planned to support himself moving forward, he became defensive and irate. One telephone conversation ended abruptly when he hung up on her, and Acosta said she never heard from him again.
That was the end of their friendship.
"I wasn't saying what he wanted me to say, and I wasn't agreeing with what he wanted me to agree with," said Acosta, who wrote a blog post about this toxic venting experience in The Huffington Post in 2011.
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Even as a therapist, Acosta said, she didn't realize she was in the role of a toxic handler until she wrote about it.
"The full kind of awareness came as I was writing the article and putting it together and thinking, 'Oh, that's what that was,' " she said.
"I love my friends, and I'm happy to be there for them, but there's something else with toxic venting that happens. It's the sensation of being used and of being inconsequential, except insofar as you contain their dumping," she said.
Acosta said another friend in her life has the qualities of a toxic venter, but now Acosta focuses more so on her friend's other qualities.
"She's generous. She's thoughtful. Does she vent too much? Yeah, but you know, friendships are not perfect. I'm not perfect. She's not perfect," Acosta said. "So you make accommodations for people like that."
When you have a friend who brings nothing else to the table but toxic venting, Acosta added, that's when it might be time to re-evaluate the relationship.

How 'handling' may hurt your health

"Typically, when we take on others' stress, we are putting ourselves in situations where we have all the drawbacks of a problem -- fear, worry, stress -- without any way of actually doing something about it," Bonior said. "We also are prone to feeling guilty or responsible for things that are not our fault or our duty to handle."
Those negative feelings can interfere with your stress levels and, as a result, might impact your mental and physical health, she said.
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Also, if you are a toxic handler, "you may be so busy helping others that you aren't helping yourself or getting those others to be there for you, too," Robinson said.
Therefore, experts suggest nourishing your personal and professional relationships while keeping toxic handling to a manageable level.
After all, there are many health benefits associated with maintaining a social life. Numerous studies suggest that friendships can boost longevity and your immune system, and even reduce stress -- when toxic handling is done right.

'These expectations are not real'

Stepping back from the toxic handler role actually did more good than bad for the relationships in Shelby Sever's life, she said.
Sever realized she put herself in a toxic handler role in her friendships during her last year as an undergraduate student at Oklahoma State University in 2014. Sever is currently a second-year graduate student of educational leadership studies at the university.
"I didn't feel like my friends appreciated all the things I did for them," said Sever, who wrote a blog about her experience as a toxic handler two years ago.
She said she was the friend who would have three-hour-long conversations to listen to someone else's problems, even if she didn't have the time.
After taking a month to herself, during which she stopped communication with her friends, she eventually opened up and told them how she was feeling.
"When I told my friends, they said, 'Well, we don't know how to talk to you, because you never let us know how you're feeling,' " she said. "That's when I realized ... I was trying to feel important, and I really didn't need to enforce that. People valued me anyway, and they wanted to be my friend whether or not I took on their burdens."
Since then, Sever said, she has started to say no to staying on the phone for hours and yes to taking care of her own well-being first. Now, she feels healthier and more confident in her relationships.
"I think the most important thing is understanding that these expectations are not real. ... I guess, understanding that the expectations you think others place on you are things that you put on yourself," Sever said.
"Now, my friends feel more valued in my life because I let them know who I am versus I just did things for them," she said. "I'm still friends with all those people but it's so much better because we communicate on a more authentic level."

How to stop, without losing friends

To determine whether you are toxic handler, consider how much of your time in a relationship is devoted to fixing problems; it shouldn't be all day and night, said Dr. Abigail Brenner, a San Francisco and New York-based psychiatrist and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.
"Nor should you feel that you need to take on the role of a therapist. Nor should you feel guilty if you aren't available to take care of people. Nor should you get physically or emotionally ill by assuming this role. Nor should you be taking on the role of a toxic handler in order to feel needed," Brenner said.
"A person who finds themselves in this role eventually needs to take a look at all of the dynamics, most especially their own, in ongoing relationships," she said.
Stepping away from the toxic handler role comes down to establishing boundaries, Bonior said.
"Put more faith in people. Help build them up and support them rather than absorbing their stress," she said, adding that it's important to let go of things that are not your problem.
Though friendships involve supporting each other in times of need, a healthy friendship does not require that you damage your own well-being on a regular basis in return, Bonior said.
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Additionally, "look at how your own specific behaviors and what you say to others draw people toward seeking you out for commiseration," said Robinson, the co-author of the Harvard Business Review article. "That's the place to start. Those are the things you can work on changing to lessen this dynamic."
If those tips don't help and toxic handling continues to wear you down, Robinson recommends consulting with a trained psychotherapist.