What to do and say to help a friend who is struggling
Seeing a friend struggle is hard. Everything in us wants to fix things for them and that can create a lot of pressure to do and say the right thing. What is most helpful is often overlooked, so I’ve created this guide for the next time you want to support a friend…
A therapist shares how you can help a friend who is struggling:
Note: This article includes examples from members of The Moderation Movement Facebook group and their quotes are shared with permission. These are not quotes from clients. It is important to note that this advice is for anyone who has the mental, emotional and physical energy to be able to support a friend in need. It is completely ok if you are not in a place right now to help someone else who is struggling.
Know you can’t fix things
What brings so much relief is knowing that it is not your job to fix your friend or their situation. I’ll say it again because this is important - You cannot fix another person or their life. Striving to fix can lead to acting in ways that is actually unhelpful for your struggling friend. It can also put so much pressure on you that you might find yourself stressing out about what to say, what do do, and second guess what you have already said and done. You might even find yourself avoiding your friend because you feel so helpless. Put the idea of ‘fixing’ in the trash, and try the following tips instead.
There’s listening and then there’s really listening. As a therapist I am trained in listening. I’ll give you a few tips from our training. Listen with your whole body, not just your ears. By this I mean face the person, look at them, give them your full attention, keep your body language open (no crossed arms), nod your head, don’t interrupt, and you might even reflect back to them what they have said (which confirms you’ve heard and understood). You may like to ask questions but I’ll cover that later in this article. Try to make it all about them, and take yourself out of the equation for the moment. By this I mean put your opinions, experiences, stories to the side so you can listen better. Liz says, “I have a friend who is exceptional and supporting in the struggle. She usually reframes what I’ve shared with: “I see how having trouble with x is hard for you right now; have you checked in with yourself to find out what you need?”
Imagine what it would feel like to be in their situation. Rather than feel sorry for them, feel with them. Brené brown explains the difference between sympathy and empathy so well in this video below. Imagine what you would want to receive or hear if you were in this same situation, that can be a guide for you.
Hold your judgement
You may have judgements about the situation your friend is in or the way they are handling it. Expressing those judgements is not at all helpful. Put your judgements to the side and focus on the listening and empathising. When we find ourselves judging the empathy needs to be dialled up a bit. If you are experiencing strong judgements about your friend or their situation, and you can’t seem to put the judgements to the side, then you may not be the most helpful person for your friend right now. See the last point in this article about helping your friend to seek other help.
Don’t give advice unless they explicitly ask you for it
Even then tread very carefully with advice. We cannot make decisions for others, as they are the expert in their own lives. Have you ever given advice and then had it backfire when a friend tells you “I followed your advice but now it made everything worse”? It’s really normal to want to jump into problem solving and advice giving as we want to help. We want to do something. Please know that the most helpful thing is skipping the advice and remembering we are doing so much by listening and empathising.
Katrina says, “Being able to talk freely and not be judged by what comes out helps me. Once I’ve done this, having a friend help me unpack what I’ve said by asking me questions is a big help.” One thing we learned in our counselling training is that a Why question can feel judgemental. For example “Why did you do that?” or “Why do you feel like that?” can start a spiral of self-doubt or defensiveness. Instead asking How, When, What questions like “How did you feel when he said that?” or “How do you feel now?”. Statements that encourage more information or sharing are great too, like “Tell me more about that”.
Support them to explore options to make their own decision (if a decision is what they are seeking)
Helping our friend to come to their own decision will definitely include deep listening, but may also include gentle, non-judgemental questioning to help them explore their thoughts and options. For example asking “What are your thoughts so far on what you might do?” or “What are the pros and cons for each option?” could be really helpful. Then listening some more.
Help them to clarify and accept their emotions
When we are struggling it’s common to be overwhelmed with emotion and that can be confusing. We receive a lot of messages about emotions as a society, what is ok to feel and express and what is not okay. The truth is emotions are human and inevitable. The stereotypes such as “men shouldn’t cry” or “women shouldn’t be angry” are rubbish and harmful. Your friend may be feeling ashamed about the emotions they are feeling, or they may be feeling at a loss to understand what they are feeling. Encouraging your friend to name the emotions and allow space for them as best as they can. Acknowledging that their feelings are normal and understandable will be a relief for them. You might even share a time when you felt similar - without making it too much about you! Something like “Yeah I felt anger too when this happened to me” or “I’ve cried from frustration many times too”. Of course it needs to be true and authentic or it’s not helpful at all.
Spend time with them
When we are struggling it’s common to withdraw from others as we feel like we are a burden. Everyone needs different amounts of alone time, however prolonged isolation is unhelpful. Make it known to your friend that you want to spend time with them, and that they don’t have to be happy or joyous, they can just be. Ask them what would suit them - a quiet dinner with a few friends at home, or a movie, or a walk…? Let them know that they are not a burden and you would like to spend time with them. Amy says the best thing someone can do when she’s struggling is, “Just offer to spend some time with you. I don’t even care if I talk about what’s happening with me most of the time; I just want to interact with a friend.” Doesn’t that ease the pressure you feel? You don’t need to solve the problem or offer sage advice, it’s more helpful simply to be there.
Don’t infer that there’s a simple solution, or that they are making a big deal out of nothing.
Your friend’s feelings are valid, even if you wouldn’t be struggling in the same situation. Keep in mind that we all have different strengths, pasts, vulnerabilities, fears, and skills. Often the reason why we don’t tell people we are struggling is because we are worried that our concerns are petty or unimportant or we’ll be seen as overreacting. Reassure your friend that their feelings are valid. Focus on the listening and empathising.
Don’t say “Everything will be ok”
It’s completely normal to want to reassure our friends with promises that everything will be ok. We so want it to be true, but we really don’t know if it will be. Sometimes things just aren’t ok. Your friend may have received news that their loved one has a terminal illness. Saying everything will be ok ignores the fact that your friend is facing a devastating loss. Instead of saying “Everything will be ok, he will pull through” it is more helpful to express “This sucks. I’m so sorry for your pain.” When we say everything will be ok we are not only trying to comfort our friend (ineffectively) we are also trying to comfort ourselves. It can minimise what our friend is experiencing (“Well if she thinks everything is going to be ok, she will think I’m overreacting if I tell her how hard this is for me”) and it can also shut down the conversation. We want to be opening up conversation and connection with our struggling friends.
Skip other platitudes too
When I asked our Facebook group what they needed from friends when they were struggling, Tara from Nutrition Guru and the Chef shared, “Don’t just say 'make sure you look after yourself' or 'make sure you get some time to yourself to rest'… I often feel that those things are said just so the person saying it can feel like they have done the right thing. Instead, offer suggestions on how your friend in front of you who is struggling can look after themselves...suggest a book they could borrow from you so that they can have some down time reading the book. Offer to look after their kids. Offer to do the shopping for them. In other words, don't just tell someone who's having a hard time, to ‘make sure they look after themselves and get some rest'. Actually help facilitate that for them.” Great advice, which leads to…
Assist them with the practical things
When we are struggling, basic life chores are so hard. It can be difficult to grocery shop, cook, clean, wash clothes, drive your kids around if you are experiencing grief, depression, anxiety, or very challenging experiences. Turning up with a meal that can be put in the freezer or a bag of groceries might be a welcome sight. Offering to do the shopping or other errands, or take the kids to school could be much appreciated. Keep in mind that your friend may refuse these offers out of politeness or embarrassment, so you may need to preface it with “I’d really like to do something to help, can I please do X for you?” or start with something really small like “I’m currently at the supermarket, is there anything I can grab for you whilst I’m here?”. Kate says, “Don’t wait for them to ask for help.... if you are genuinely offering to do something, take the time to look at what would be helpful to THEM (rather than what you want to do) and just do it.”
Keep it confidential
Your friend has shown deep trust in you by sharing their struggles. They may be feeling vulnerable that they showed their pain and hardship, after all so much of our society is about putting our best foot forward at all times and demonstrating that we have ‘everything under control’. The best way you can respect their bravery and live up to that trust is by keeping what they’ve told you confidential. You may want to process what you’ve heard by telling others, but always ask your friend first if you can do this. Otherwise your friend may feel like you have turned their pain into gossip. This makes it less likely that your friend will confide in you (or anyone else) in future.
Check in on them again (and again)
Knowing that we have people caring about us and our struggles is so important. Following up with your friend will be so helpful, even if it’s just something small like a text message. You may worry that you’ll be getting in the way, or invading your friend’s privacy but it’s still better to check in. Something like “I’m not sure if you need space or contact right now but I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and I’m here” or “I’m here if you want to talk, but understand if you need space”. I’ve even appreciated it in the past when friends who know I’m struggling simply send me memes or GIFs via messenger to show they’re thinking of me.
Assist them in getting help (if applicable)
Your friend may need support in finding professional help. Their GP can be a good start if they are experiencing mental, emotional or physical illness or challenges. Other professionals that might help are: counsellors, couples counsellors, financial counsellors, Alcohol or other drug counsellors, gambling help counsellors, end of life support and planning, community organisations or government assistance etc. If you’re in Australia you can find a fantastic list of resources here.
Kate says, “I don’t need advice or to be told what to do, or that it will be OK....usually just a warm hug tells me that they get it and understand.” Not everyone is a hugger, but even just sitting with your friend and offering them warmth and acceptance is a hug of sorts.
If you would like support with your struggles, I’d love to work with you.