I’m convinced that friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. We can have fun together, rely on each other, and learn quite a bit along the way. But a long-standing friendship usually sees one or both individuals getting thrown an emotional curveball. Job loss, breakups, health issues, problems at work, mental illness, and just overall discontentment with life are all examples of negative possibilities that someone may have to face.
If someone close to you is experiencing something difficult, what is your role? How do you help alleviate the suffering? Is it even your place to get involved? As a therapist, I’ve noticed that sometimes our instincts of what to say or do are well intentioned but can sometimes be the opposite of what the other person needs. Here are some suggestions of how you can help a friend who isn’t happy.
The first step is to show empathy. Even in close-knit relationships, there are differing levels of intimacy, and if a friend is vulnerable enough to open up to you about a struggle, respond kindly and compassionately. Try your best to really listen, and don’t get weirded out or back away from something that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. Be a “bad weather friend,” not a fair weather one. Everything you say or do should be rooted in empathy.
So often we jump to solutions, but just be with your friend in her pain. Most of the time we just want to know we’re not alone in whatever hard times we face. And while you can be involved in an appropriate way, remember that you don’t have to own the problem. It can be a wonderful role for you to offer support, but it’s not your job to “fix” someone else or solve her troubles. If you find yourself bogged down by her problems or thinking about them more than you should, it might be time to take a step back and set an emotional boundary. Don’t take her load on as your own.
Another way to help is to ask questions and reflect back what she is expressing to you. This demonstrates that you care about her and are engaged in her situation. It can also give you a better understanding of what she’s going through. Consider saying something like, “How are you feeling about all of this?” or “So, what you’re saying is that ______.” Avoid statements like “I know just how you feel!” or “It’s not that bad.” These are minimizing and won’t help your friend cope or find relief. Sticking to questions and validating statements keeps the focus on her instead of on you.
So should you give recommendations to your friend about what she should do?
This can be really tricky. Unsolicited advice is almost always a bad idea. On the other hand, you may have some insight into her dilemma that could be helpful. A good way to approach this situation is to simply ask, “Are you open for feedback?”
If your friend is relaying something to you and you don’t exactly agree with her take on it, simply acknowledge that it sounds like it’s really difficult, then ask her if she wants to hear another perspective. This is respectful and gives her the opportunity to decide whether she wants to hear your ideas or if maybe what she really needs is for you to listen. Also, let your friend feel what she’s feeling. By this I mean don’t encourage her to just get over whatever’s bothering her. If she needs to cry, let her cry. Sometimes the only way to move past painful emotions is directly through them.
No one likes to see a close friend go through something difficult. However, this can be an opportunity for you to step up and be there for her when she really needs you and can even improve your relationship. Respond with empathy, use validating statements and questions, and just try be there for her in her pain.