I have a lot of friends in tough spots right now. A lot of folks in my grad program are sick or injured, a few of them very frighteningly so. I have a few old friends dealing with difficult transitions and the anxieties and pressures of the post-graduation world. Financial difficulties, overwhelming work loads, loneliness and burnout….
February can be a tough month.
The first draft of this post was about how to be a friend to someone in recovery from an eating disorder. But when I read back through it, I saw that these “tips” apply to friends struggling with all kinds of issues, physical and psychological.
I’m a strong believer that giving a friend advice is not helpful. Refraining from giving advice is much easier said than done. In fact, I sometimes find it exceedingly difficult, especially when my friends’ values differ so much from my own. I’m not a perfect friend. But I’ve learned from my mistakes and from my own experience being “the one in need” that, no matter how heartfelt and loving the intentions of the adviser, giving advice rarely helps a) because it’s annoying, b) because your friend is an adult capable of making their own decisions (unless, of course, they’re not an adult) and c) because you are not the expert on their life. No matter how well you know someone, you don’t know as much about themselves as they do.
But just because advice doesn’t work doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to help your friend.
I remember, at the point when I was at my lowest body weight and feeling completely desperate and helpless, a yoga instructor of mine approached me. She sat down crosslegged beside my mat and asked how I was doing. She said she’d noticed how much weight I’d lost and how she was concerned about me, listened to me explain how confused and scared I was, and didn’t tell me what to do, but offered me the name of a doctor she loved. It sounds super-cheesy, but it was actually a tremendous turning point for me. Someone had taken the time to listen, to show that she cared about me…and so I called the very next morning to schedule an appointment with a doctor. It was the first baby step I took toward recovery.
I, like all of us, have been through rough times, and have cared for others in rough places, and have discovered that some kindnesses are more kind than other kindnesses. So here’s my personal list of ways to be a friend to a friend in need. I try my imperfect best to live by them.
- Listen and believe them. If you have a friend or loved one who’s struggling with really anything, often one of the most helpful things you can do is just listen and take what they’re saying seriously.
- Share your empathy if it’s genuine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “I empathize with….(being distracted by anxious thoughts. When I was at my friend’s party, I was feeling so guilty about not working on my homework.) I felt (frustrated) because (I know I would have had more fun if I had been more present.)”
- That said, if you don’t empathize, be honest but kind. I think it’s also valid to say, “It’s hard for me to understand what you’re going through, but I see that it’s a very difficult time for you and I’ll be here to listen if you need me.”
- Make ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements. (See the above example.) This will help your friend or loved one feel understood and supported rather than talked-down-to. (Also, “If I were you, I would…” does not count as an ‘I’ statement)
- Honor their wishes, and if appropriate, ask if there’s anything you can do. For example, when I was in recovery from anorexia, I asked a few of my closer friends and co-workers if we could refrain from commenting on what we were eating. That kind of talk didn’t so much trigger unhealthy thoughts, for me, at least, but it pissed me off. Give a hand with books and doors for a friend on crutches. Offer to your friend with pneumonia to help come over and take the dog for a walk.
- And the reverse of that: remember that they’re an adult. If they don’t want your help, don’t force it on them.
- Ask questions that show concern in a non-advice-y way, if your friend or loved one doesn’t seem to mind. (‘How was your appointment with the specialist?’ ‘How are you feeling today?’ ‘I remember you said you were feeling sad about not being able to participate in the 5K with your friends. Did you end up having a good night?’ etc.)
- On the other hand, do understand that in some cases they won’t want to talk about it. Giving them space is important too.
- Be clear about what you can and can’t do. “I can meet you for lunch once a week, but I cannot talk to you on the phone every single night.” “I’m happy to drive you to physical therapy on Mondays, but we’ll have to find someone else on Tuesdays because I work.” I’ve never had a friend tell me to set aside my own needs for them, unless it was a real emergency. Conveniences and comforts, certainly, but not needs.
- Be prepared that your relationship might change…and it might not be easy. I’ve lost friends when either I or they were in unhealthy places in our lives. I’ve also come closer to friends because of it. It sucks to lose friends, but if it happens, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s your fault or that there’s something you should have done differently.
Do you have any thoughts or tips on how to be a good friend to a friend in need?
Thanks to Amanda for her wonderful Thinking Out Loud Thursday linkup!