Emotional Opportunity Cost

Dealing with difficult emotions is hard work:

  • Trying to stay focused and productive at work when you’re anxious about losing a big client
  • Trying to stay present and engaged with your kids when you’re feeling depressed and apathetic
  • Trying to accept and acknowledge your frustration when people bother you without lashing out and acting passive-aggressively

And it’s equally hard work dealing with other people’s difficult emotions:

  • Trying to stay optimistic and constructive in the face of your spouse’s incessant negativity and criticism is exhausting—not to mention demoralizing.
  • Constantly sacrificing your workout time after work in order to take your sister’s calls and let her “vent” about her relationship struggles is incredibly frustrating.
  • Even getting too sucked into the news and getting lost in story after story of tragedy and misfortune is kind of depressing and overwhelming.

But more than just uncomfortable, difficult emotions are also draining.

Like most forms of work, dealing with painful emotions takes energy. And when you have to deal with a lot of painful emotions—either your own or those of others—it quickly gets exhausting.

But emotional exhaustion is actually a double problem:

  1. On the one hand, exhaustion or fatigue is just unpleasant. In general, most of us would prefer to feel energetic and motivated rather than tired and apathetic.
  2. But emotional exhaustion also has what economists call opportunity costs.

Opportunity costs are all the things you give up as a result of a specific decision. For example, if you decide to spend $4 on a coffee from Starbucks, the opportunity costs of that decision are:

  • Not being able to spend that $4 on a muffin, or
  • Not investing it in your child’s college fund, or
  • Not giving it to that homeless guy in front of Starbucks, or
  • The nearly infinite number of other things you could have done with that $4.

Obviously, I’m not saying that spending $4 on a coffee from Starbucks is wrong necessarily. It’s just that to make a good decision you need to consider not only the benefits but also the costs.

Well, it’s not just money that has opportunity costs. So do emotions.

More specifically, the decision to engage with painful emotions has many hidden opportunity costs. Because when you invest time and energy dealing with difficult emotions, that’s time and energy you can’t be investing somewhere else.

Now, when it comes to your own difficult emotions, dealing with them isn’t really a choice. You can choose to deal with them now or later, but at the end of the day, your emotions are a part of you and you will end up dealing with them one way or another.

But other people’s difficult emotions are a whole different story…

Whether you choose to invest your time and energy into dealing with other people’s emotions is a choice. And if you make that choice, there will be opportunity costs because that time and energy could have been invested somewhere else.

To illustrate this idea of the emotional opportunity costs of dealing with other people’s emotions, let me tell you a quick story about a former client of mine named Nancy.

No Boundaries Nancy

I had a client once whom we’ll call Nancy.

Now, Nancy might have been the nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. She was kind, considerate, thoughtful, and helpful to an amazing degree. But her niceness had a dark side…

Nancy was virtually incapable of not being nice—even when it wasn’t in her (or really anyone else’s) best interest.

The most glaring example of this was her relationship with her mother.

To be blunt, Nancy’s mom was a mess. Her life was full of drama, stress, conflict, and volatility—much of it self-inflicted. And Nancy was her go-to emotional support person. Anytime Nancy’s mom was stressed, angry, anxious, overwhelmed, or possessed by any other difficult emotion, she called Nancy.

And like the nice, dutiful daughters that she was, Nancy always picked up her mom’s calls and talked as long as she needed to; she never said anything when her mom unexpectedly “stopped by” her house unannounced; and she never let anything she was in the middle of doing interfere with trying to “help” her mom.

Of course, Nancy’s mom never took her advice or implemented her suggestions. So, long ago Nancy had given up on the belief that she could actually help her mom do anything different. But she still felt like it was her responsibility to “be there” for her mom.

But one day, Nancy walked into my office and said “I can’t keep doing this.”

I asked her what she meant and she explained that she finally realized she needed to seriously rethink her relationship with her mom.

I asked her what had led to this realization, and with tears in her eyes, she said this:

Last night my mom called. Same old stuff. And as usual, I just listened as she ranted about how her boyfriend never listened to her, how none of her children care about her, and how unfair it is that everything’s so hard for her. And after an hour, she finally hung up.

Then, as soon as I got off the phone, I noticed how loud it was in the living room. My kids were running around being silly and wild and I just lost it and found myself yelling at them to be quiet and go to their rooms. They immediately stopped and looked up at me with terrified eyes.

I never yell at my kids. And the look of fear—fear of me, their mother—was awful.

And right then it occurred to me: I’ve put so much into my mom’s shit (Nancy NEVER used profanity!) that I yelled at my kids for no good reason.

What Nancy realized in that moment was that her decision to always be there for her mother had costs. In the abstract, yes, it’s good to “be there” for people we love. But it’s unwise to make decisions based purely on the benefits without considering the costs.

Nancy was so drained and exhausted from dealing with her mother’s difficult emotions, that she didn’t have the energy left to manage her own difficult emotions. And as a result, ended up acting toward her kids in a way she regretted.

What Nancy eventually realized was that the benefit of feeling like a “good daughter” to her mother was not worth the costs she was incurring in herself and her family.

Learning to think about emotional opportunity costs

Most of us have at least a little bit of Nancy in us—situations where we invest our emotional energy without considering the costs and tradeoffs.

For example: Deciding not to go to the gym because your husband is stressed and anxious and “needs” you to spend an hour talking it out and reassuring him. Or canceling your date night because your kid is throwing a tantrum about staying with the babysitter.

To be clear, I’m not saying any of these decisions are objectively wrong. Obviously, there are times when it makes sense to sacrifice your workout time in order to sit and talk through your spouse’s emotional struggles, for example.

My point is that those decisions should only be made when you’ve considered both the benefits and costs, including the emotional costs to you. Because if you chronically ignore or devalue the importance of emotional opportunity costs, it’s a recipe for burnout, anxiety, stress, and resentment.

Resentment, specifically, is very often a signal that you are incurring too many emotional costs and that something needs to change (usually better boundaries).

If you feel habitually resentful toward someone in your life it’s worth looking carefully at your relationship with their difficult emotions and your beliefs about how much responsibility you have for engaging with them.


Add Yours

Spot on! Sometimes is good to say: “Enough is enough!”, and move on with your life, without any regrets or guilt that you just couldn’t cope with someone else’s problems. Great reminder! Thank you!

Some good insights here, it would be helpful to learn some strategies for coping with friends or family who seem to create endless conflict and drama in their lives, and expect us to drop everything and be there to support them. How do we say ‘enough is enough’ without harming the relationship? How do we respond when they try to make us feel guilty for prioritizing our own needs?

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