She sat in front of me with her head in her hands. She was frustrated, tired, and angry. She is dealing with something major in her life, and also finds herself in the uncomfortable position of redirecting well-intentioned ‘help’ from friends who were making the current challenge even worse. We have all been where she is now: in transition, needing help from others who are just not ‘getting it.’
In fact, we have all experienced both sides of this issue at one point or another. At times we have struggled greatly with something and needed of the help of our support network, at other times we find ourselves as the supporters when someone we care about is struggling. This can be anything from addiction issues, relationship problems, or even every day issues such as work-related stress and parenting challenges.
As a therapist I hear a lot about how people support their friends in beautiful and effective ways. But sometimes, people unintentionally make the struggle more difficult for the person in crisis through their responses.
Supporting a friend in need requires finesse and a tentative dance. You have to watch closely to understand when to approach and be present, and honor when it is time to retreat and give your friend space.
Following these guidelines may help you to deliver this dance of support in a thoughtful, gentle, and effective way to any friend that is going through a challenging time:
‘Stay in your lane’
You are their friend. You are not their priest, teacher, therapist, doctor, or mother. You should not see yourself as someone that should ‘fix’ the crisis for your friend. Even if you felt you could, it is not appropriate or healthy to be their fixer.
It is reasonable to help out here and there when there is a specific and tangible need, such as watching your friend’s kids if and when you can, or bringing food to someone in grief. However, in a crisis your friend deserves to meet their own challenge with autonomy and will inevitably have to move through the challenge in his or her own way to resolve it. Try not to over-do the caring or interfere with the process of change and transformation that your friend is embarking on.
So, if you can’t try to fix the crisis what can you do? Luckily, the best and most effective thing you can do for your friend is simply listen to them. When they are talking about the crisis, do everything you can to give them your full attention. Reflect back on what they are saying to you, to show that you are listening to them fully. For example, “Joe it sounds like you are really angry about the way your boss talked to you yesterday. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
The simple experience of being listened to can feel like drinking a cold glass of water in a desert. Your friend will walk away from the experience feeling cared for, lighter, and perhaps will feel some emotional relief as well.
Wait For Them
Some people believe that because they know something about their friend’s crisis, they have the right to bring it up whenever they see the need. This is not the case. Just because your friend trusted you with private information, doesn’t mean they are comfortable talking about it anytime. Show your friend respect by waiting for them to bring up the issues for discussion when they want support. If you feel that they are holding back for some reason, tentatively ask if they would like some time to talk about the problem. If you do this, you must honor whatever decision they make (to talk about it or not).
This respectful approach will lessen the load for your friend in crisis and show that you are honoring his or her space in regard to the issue. Handling their private information this way will encourage them to continue to open up to you in the future.
Don’t Give Advice Unless Your Friend Asks For It
Most of the time, people just want their friends to know what is going on in their life and to have a listening ear. Jumping to advice-giving can feel abrupt and unsupportive to someone that is overwhelmed with a situation and unsure of what they want to do. Your first priority should be to listen fully and be present with your friend. If and when your friend asks for advice, you have the invitation to give your suggestions.
In the event that you are certain your advice could help the situation, but your friend has not communicated needing or wanting advice, simply ask. Asking first, before jumping in with advice, feels more respectful and is more easily digested by someone in a serious challenge.
Respect the Struggle
Going through a personal crisis, life transition, or major problem is tough stuff. Your friend may not be as available as they were before or may need a significantly higher amount of space than you are used to having in your friendship. Understand that it is not about you, and honor whatever space and time they need. Putting additional pressures on your friend to make more time for you when they are struggling is detrimental to your friendship and could curtail whatever healing time your friend needs for themselves.
Recognize that the process of change and transformation takes time. Just because your friend is better on any given day, does not mean the problem or crisis is resolved completely. Give the same support without pressure to ‘get over it.’ Remember, you do not have to fix the situation and the time they take to overcome the challenge is up to your friend and the circumstances at hand. Be supportive from start to finish by recognizing the struggle they are facing.