How To Be A Supportive Friend, Or Rather, How To NOT Be Hurtful When Someone You Love Is Hurting
Surely you have the best intentions. Someone for whom you care deeply is in pain. You want this to be better for them. You want an end to their suffering. This vulnerable friend approaches you for support. Ideally, your friend leaves your conversations feeling loved and supported. However, they might not feel better; their situation might not be improved. Can you tolerate the distress of your friend’s grief? It is a process, which is often long and arduous. If you are committed to joining your friend in this process, here are some basics. You might be tempted to become defensive as you read this. During my training to become a psychologist, I spent years unlearning well intentioned tendencies that likely hurt the people I desperately wanted to support. Officially, I am an expert, but I am still learning to improve my behavior in some of the following.
1) I’ll start soft. Most of us want to be heard at least and understood at best. As the supporter, listening without expressed judgment is all that is required of you. That’s it. Just listen. You do not actually have to say anything beyond confirmation that you heard what your friend is saying. If you are struggling to understand, that’s okay. “You don’t have to understand to be understanding.” The fact that it doesn’t make sense to you does not make the experience nonsensical; please do not invalidate anyone or yourself for that matter. Validation costs so little yet provides so much. Listen. Validate. Seriously that’s it.
2) Your friend is the expert on their life just as you are the expert on yours. They may have trouble accessing what they know in their pain, but it is in them. Your decision to impose your wisdom on them is likely to interrupt their process. Have faith in them to find it within them self rather than rely on your interpretation. Frankly, they know better than you do anyway. Allow them the space to explore them self. If they want your help, they can ask. Support them in their development of agency to help them self. If you can tolerate the distress of their process, you may be able to serve as an accountability partner. Remember that they set the standards to which they allow you to you hold them accountable.
3) Pain, suffering, grief and the like are NOT character flaws. Resist the urge to judge. Their apparent negativity is a result of their perception of their world through “hurt lenses.” We interpret so much of our experience through our emotions, which are NEVER wrong even if they are based on erroneous information. Resist the urge to “kick them while they’re down.” Your judgment isn’t helpful and will most certainly damage your relationship. Of course, you’re ready for them to be better, but they aren’t. They remain in their process even if you are ready to move beyond their pain. Challenge yourself to see the value in moving THROUGH grief.
4) It’s not about you. It’s NOT about you. How you feel about your loved one’s pain is important but less relevant when your goal is to be supportive. Your reaction or opinion does not indicate anything about someone else’s authentic experience. Your perception is influenced by your emotional lens and is not wrong…as it applies to you. Be careful about assuming your authority to speak into someone else’s experience. If solicited, you are welcome to share your thoughts and feelings. Please be careful and check your motivation. Who are you trying to comfort? If the answer is primarily or solely yourself, please refrain. See tip #1.
5) Acknowledge if you do not believe that you can love your friend the way they need to be loved. Giving advice or instructions and using language laden in “shoulds” is likely to land you on both sides of defensiveness. Please do not force those you intend to support into a position of justifying themselves or their experience, which is distinct. They are uniquely affected and free to engage feelings in response. This might be hard for you to accept. That is absolutely understandable. Not feeling equipped, energized, or even motivated to support a loved one does not indicate a character flaw or moral bankruptcy. Sometimes, you just can’t do it. That’s okay. If you find yourself in this place, bow out gracefully and admit your limitations; we all have them. Avoid the temptation to blame your hurting loved one or their perceived shortcomings.
These skills might feel counterintuitive. Even my mother is baffled that I don’t give advice for a living. If your goal is to be supportive, then love your friend through their building process. You aren’t the general contractor, and the good news is that you don’t have to be. Is that not incredibly freeing? It is amazing what we are capable of achieving, even within the depths of our despair, when we are supported well and allowed the space to believe in and develop ourselves. Now go love on someone, and let me know how it goes.
Dr. Janetta Jamerson is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. Dr. JJ believes in you and your ability to celebrate a healthy existence. Dr. JJ asserts that she does not work from home plate but is rather rounding the bases of this life right along with you.
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