How to actually support your loved ones
Something I’ve learned the hard way
Something that I’ve struggled with (and continue to do so) is knowing when to step back from a situation and not go elbows deep in the personal life of someone else. Sometimes, that’s just not okay. There are boundaries and some people need some space. In fact, some people just need a second. It’s in my nature to attempt to help someone I care about with something they may be struggling with, though. I like to give my take. At times, I do this without thinking of the person that is actually enduring the storm.
One of the big things people often say when they aren’t feeling the greatest is, “I’m just feeling blah” or, “I just don’t feel like me”. It’s one of the more puzzling things to hear as a friend, because how are you supposed to lend support to this person?
On the other side, imagine how frustrating it is for them to be feeling “blah” without the ability to explain what they mean by it, knowing there’s nothing you’d be able to do to get them out of that mood anyway.
Truthfully, most of the time, there isn’t much you’d be able to offer your friend that would currently help. You might be surprised to find out that they often don’t want your help. They especially become tired of the prying at their soul to investigate just what exactly is wrong with them. Maybe nothing is wrong with them. Have you thought of the fact that people go through mood swings throughout the day for no reason? Or have you thought maybe this mood swing came out of nowhere and your friend needs a second to compose their thoughts?
To be transparent, I never used to ask myself those questions. I try to actively steer towards those questions now. I get stuck between the need to make everything better and the need to take a step back, way too often.
The issue is that we think we know our friends and family too well sometimes. We think we have this formula figured out for every time they fall into a funk and need a helping hand. We’re the good friend, right? We’re always quick to think of the things we can do to help them out of that hole. The problem is we’re growing self-righteous when we walk away feeling accomplished, like we’ve just cracked the code and given them the advice they needed to hear.
In reality, they probably smiled and nodded because they wanted you to go away for a second so that they could gather their thoughts on their own without having to spew them all over the place. Some people don’t operate in the realm of spilling their life story when they feel stress, and some people do. I think it’s a valuable skill to be able to discern which type of person you’re talking to when they aren’t feeling their greatest.
What I think you’ll find surprising is that your advice-giving self is not a valuable asset to either one of those types of personalities.
Your friend that wants to spill their guts? They don’t want to hear your amazing advice. They want to be heard. They want you to listen to what they say, validating them in their thoughts, without telling them what they need to do.
Your other friend, the one that smiles and nods and waits for you to stop talking? They want to be left alone right now. They need to go to their quiet place so that they can collect themselves before they re-introduce themselves to the loud world around them. Respect that, and give them a second without overwhelming them with your thoughts and feelings about their current circumstance.
If you’re like me, it’s a struggle to come to the realization that the only people that might truly want to hear your thoughts on a subject, are the ones that actually approach you and go, “hey, I need your advice on something”. That can be a crazy revelation when you’re a person that’s walked away from countless situations with that self-righteous swagger because you feel like you really gave some mic-dropping advice to a buddy.
So, if you really want to help that friend that just cannot get out from under that dark cloud, you can actually do a few easy things.
1. Put them first
This sounds really simple, but many people skip this step in the process. When you actually talk to your friend — the one that’s hurting, angry, upset, sad, or is being held down by any other strong emotion in that moment — respect their place and their circumstance. Sit with them, listen to them, talk to them, but don’t instruct them. This is not necessarily a teaching moment, unless they’ve come to you and are inquiring, they may just desire that moment of solitude. If that’s the case, it’s okay to walk away and allow them some time.
By approaching the conversation and putting their needs ahead of yours, you will naturally let go of your own agenda. You won’t see the situation as an opportunity to grow your reputation. You’ll see it as an opportunity to be humbled and recognize a learning moment from your friend’s situation, whatever it may be.
2. Realize that it isn’t about your past experiences
Anybody ever have the friend that consistently one-ups everything you say? Don’t be that person, especially in a circumstance where your friend is having a tough time.
People that do this will usually attempt to listen to a friend’s situation but will continue to interrupt with their own similar experience from a time in their life. They do this as an attempt to relate and let their friend know that they aren’t alone in this situation.
If you do this, you should be able to see the flaw. You mean well, and you are trying to help, but you are making the situation about you. In turn, you’re making your friend feel like their current circumstance is insignificant and unworthy of the attention.
Check yourself at the door, and just know it isn’t about you.
3. Know when to be quiet
The third big thing that you can do to support loved ones during difficult transitions is to keep your thoughts to yourself. This is one that I’ve been practicing the last few years. Of course I still fail miserably at times, but I believe I’m getting better.
If you ask someone who isn’t familiar with therapy, they’ll probably tell you that it’s when you go talk to someone and they tell you how to deal with your problems. They may even say that the therapist not only identifies the problems but also helps solve them. There is some truth to this, but a lot of people have therapy misconstrued.
A lot of therapy consists of empowering the client. Sure, the client may be paying for the service and may be learning coping skills, but ultimately they are approaching the issue while the therapist is listening. Knowing when to allow someone the floor is a huge step in supporting someone in need.
Obviously these things aren’t necessarily fool-proof, and supporting your loved ones will at times be challenging and frustrating. However, if you commit to putting their needs first, realizing that their situation isn’t about you, and just listen instead of jumping at every opportunity to speak into their life, you may find yourself being the best support and the best friend someone could ever ask for.
And that says much more about you, than you ever could.