Refueling Depleted Social-Emotional Reserves

One of my favorite images I use in training workshops is that of a dog lying on a deck, appearing as if it just collapsed there in exhaustion. The caption reads: “Me, after too much peopling.”

The humor in the meme underscores what we all know to be true: People are messy. We are an unpredictable or sometimes painfully predictable mixture of good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, interested and disinterested, loving and calloused, forgiving and resentful. If you work with teenagers, this experience can be multiplied to the power of 10.

Your experience with the messiness of others is primarily the result of the way they mess with your plans, comforts, ambitions, or peace of mind. Most of the time you find a way to keep moving forward. You make your best attempt at kindness, understanding and remaining flexible so you can maintain the balance necessary for social equilibrium (AKA: not being an impatient jerk).

This effort though, has its costs. Over time you lose some of the social and emotional reserves and with that depletion, you end up losing your willingness to deal with people at all.

You’ve probably experienced the compounding effect of this depletion. This is the state of being when you are already people-exhausted and yet your relationships (both personal and professional) continue requiring your support, energy, patience and understanding.

A colleague recently noticed my edginess and asked what he could do to help me out. I told him I was “okay” and “there wasn’t anything he could do.” As I walked away, I muttered, “What would help is if you and everyone else on the planet would just leave me the hell alone.” I felt bad for my attitude. He was concerned and his offer of help was sincere. My low reserves of social and emotional fuel were impacting my ability to deal well with ongoing relational needs and demands.

So, what can you do when you find yourself “peopled-out”? How do you replenish your depleted social and emotional capacity? Here’s a handful of ideas that have worked well for me.

Admit it

Like my colleague, people around you will pick up on the signs of your people-fatigue. Curt replies, aggravated expressions, avoidance tactics, ghosting communication, and increases in sarcasm or complaint are telling others that you’re running on fumes. Lying about it, like I did, sends mixed messages. My advice is to admit it. Let people know that your capacity to interact with others is low right now. Most people will understand and make efforts to give you a bit more space. There will be some people who can’t conjure this kind of empathy, but they will be in the minority.


It may be time to “fess up.” It’s the kind of confession that will help others help you by adjusting their expectations and like the old saying goes, “It will be good for your soul.”

Give yourself some relational distance, but keep being connected to investing relationships

Most of your relationships will fit into 3 types: outward giving, mutually benefitting, and inward investing. If you are a resourceful person and demonstrate care for others you will have a lot of connections that draw on who you are. People will seek you out for what you can offer them in support, guidance, advice, and encouragement. Some of your ego and sense of personal fulfillment comes from this outward giving activity. These relationships, while rewarding your need for meaning and purpose, are taxing your social and emotional reserves so you may need to create some boundaries and distance when those reserves are low.

Mutually benefitting relationships are a bit of a wash. You receive rewards of companionship, enjoyment, support, and friendship in equal proportion to what you give. During the low points of your social and emotional reserves, that exchange can appear skewed making ordinary invitations and interactions seem draining and disproportionate. It would be best to admit your people fatigue to those individuals and create some space, so they are not damaged by your emotionally distorted conclusions about those friendships.

The third type of relationship is an inward investing kind. You likely don’t have a lot of them. These are the folks you go to for advice, help and support. They may be professional relationships like a therapist, clergyperson, or sponsor, or they can be informal like a long-time friend who has been there at important points in your life, but you don’t vacation with them, share holidays, or meet for coffee every other Thursday.

This inward investing relationship is one-sided by necessity. In the same way that your outward giving relationships are one-sided, your go-to person provides perspective, counsel, and support best by not being too close and involved with your day-to-day life.

The main temptation you’ll face when you are running out of social-emotional fuel is to isolate… to cut off all human contact possible. My recommendation is to slow down the contact with the outward giving and even some of your mutually benefitting relationships but ramp up the interactions you have with the inward investing kind.

There’s a sort of rush that comes from being needed and staying busy and active socially, but that energy may be preventing you from seeing dysfunctions in certain relationships or where your unmet needs are contributing to unhealthy or unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior. Times of diminished reserves are excellent opportunities to slow down and get introspective. The hazard of introspection when you are feeling drained is the tendency to get overly negative or beat yourself up for not being able to cope with the demands in your life. Relationships that invest by providing insight, wisdom and perspective are essential to create positive introspective outcomes.

Identify and Tap into Your Energizers

In the youth coaching program I developed, we ask students to identify their weights and energizers. Knowing what drains and refuels you is vital to your self-awareness. There will be certain activities and practices that function as energizers for you. Knowing what those are and tapping into them is especially important in refueling depleted social and emotional reserves.

Music for me, is an energizer. I love just sitting with headphones on, closing my eyes and feeling the movements of chords, tempos, and complicated vocal expressions. I also refuel by playing music. I very seldom ever play to perform any longer. Yet a 45-minute break away from work, TV, and projects to sit at my piano and play through old songs I learned a couple of decades ago, or just mess around with chord structures and movements, is like an emotional defibrillator to get myself back in the correct life rhythm.

Know what adds energy to your social and emotional wellbeing and prioritize doing more of that.

Participate in Cathartic Practices

Getting frustrations, regrets, disappointments, and heartaches out of your mind and into the ether is vital for all human beings. As relationships have shallowed in our culture, we’ve lost the deep trust that’s required to be able to say what needs to be said aloud.

Speaking these unspeakable things still happens but we use people who are compulsive fixers or Facebook for our cathartic practices, and they are both horrible replacements for trustworthy ears.  It takes work to develop the kind of relationship where you can process the anxious thoughts, people problems and other bewilderments without being judged or put on a 5150 psychiatric hold.

If you don’t have a cathartic sounding board in your life, I’d recommend getting intentional about developing that kind of relationship for your future. In the meanwhile, consider other options to get the weight-producing burden of your inner world expressed outwardly with words.

Writing these things down can be an effective alternative to cathartic conversations. The greatest value is in giving a tangible form or expression to intangible thoughts and feelings. I can’t put a number on the times that I’ve heard the words I’ve said aloud to a friend or read back on the pages of a notebook and concluded that the case I had built in my mind wasn’t all that it seemed outside of my reasoning treadmill. There’s easily been an equal number of times that this cathartic conversation or written words on a page had served to solidify feelings into insights and resolutions to act on what I’ve been sensing or carrying around in my soul.

Refuel for the Future

Tomorrow’s demand within your personal and professional relationships will not evaporate and disappear. People need you and rely on your contribution to the social-emotional ecosystems that exist in relationships, informal community, and the workplace. You won’t be able to step up fully to those needs tomorrow if you neglect the practices that refuel those reserves today. Take care of the person you are so you can be better at peopling with others.

About the Author: Jack Witt

Avatar photo
Jack brings a Master’s level education in strategic leadership along with a successful training/consulting track record to the Elevate team. His skills include coaching services with a special emphasis on conflict resolution and improving social/emotional intelligence; creating personal development plans for individuals. His training as a certified academic coach and work within for-profit and non-profit corporations has given him a unique and valuable perspective which he contributed to the development and deployment of the EYS program.


Leave A Comment