‘Accidental Confidante’ Questions Role, Responsibilities

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Dear Miriam,

A former coworker of mine lost her job, lost her work visa and had to return overseas. Things are not going well for her. Though we were never close, she writes to me regularly and tells me I’m the only person who writes back to her. She’s not asking for money or anything specific, but I’m still not sure how to navigate this communication. How can I help her? How much time should I invest in trying?

Signed,

Accidental Confidante

Dear Accidental,
How nice to be valued for being trustworthy and a good friend. And what a burden to be in that position for someone you don’t really care much about supporting. The very personality traits that made her reach out to you in the first place are probably the same traits that make you feel beholden to keep responding. Without compromising your own empathy, though, it’s time to figure out your limits.

Do you want to respond to her once a week? Once a month? Once a year? Do you think you could imagine ghosting her if the emails get too frequent or too intense? Is there some other short and concise response you could compose that shows compassion but creates emotional distance? Of all these options, a stock answer like, “Thanks for the update. Sorry things are hard,” might be your best bet.

More than anything, especially because of the geographical distance and related difficulty in offering practical help, you need to decide what feels doable to you. You also need to be able to switch gears nimbly if things take a turn and she does make specific asks that you can’t accommodate. You have a responsibility to be kind, but you don’t need to spend more time and energy on her woes than feels like it fits into your life.

While you’re in touch, see if you can find out if she has any family or friends nearby her current location. Encourage her to connect with people and resources near her. You could suggest local job search sites or social services, if that feels feasible internationally. Make sure you’re not saying or doing anything you’ll regret for your own sake, but don’t expect to solve her problems, either. It’s a hard situation, and trying to make the best of it still isn’t great.

Be well,

Miriam

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