We’ve all been there. A friend calls us crying or sends eight paragraph-length texts in a row. Of course, we’re immediately concerned. We want to help and make them feel better in any way we can. Sometimes that backfires because we go into problem-solving mode and unintentionally invalidate our friend.
No one wants their friends or loved ones to be upset. I know I become a protective mother hen when someone I love is sad or angry. It’s easy for me to take on their feelings and become just as riled up as they are. That’s not helpful, though. It’s taken a few years to really perfect being a good friend in the aftermath of a crappy event for others.
In this post, I’ll tell you what works for me when a friend is in a serious amount of distress.
My 7 secret weapons
1.Use active listening skills
This is not the time to accidentally zone out while on the phone, via text, and especially important if you’re together. Give them as much time as they need to get the problem out. Show you’re paying your full attention by nodding, keeping your body facing them, and not trying to fill in the quiet spaces with talking. This lets your friend know that you are interested in what they’re saying.
2. Say, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”
This one is a must for me. When I’m venting to someone and they’re like, “Wow, that sucks.” No shit. Duh, that’s why I called you. Saying, “I’m sorry that happened to you” is a more genuine, empathetic, and sympathetic response. It makes me feel like the person I’ve run to really understands and has taken what I’ve said very seriously.
3. Don’t try to fix the problem for them
A lot of times when people vent, it’s to process the event that upset them. Instead of saying, “Well, you should [insert fix here],” ask questions. My go-to’s are, “How can I help?” and “What do you need me to do right now?” or “How do you think you can solve this?” and “What will make you feel better right now?”
One of pet peeve is being told what do when I haven’t asked, “What do you think I should do?” It’s annoying to say, “I stubbed my toe on the bed frame this morning.”
And the response is, “You should move the bed” or “Watch where you’re going.”
I just told you something happened. I didn’t ask a question or ask for your opinion. I merely made a statement. The response I would rather hear is, “Are you okay?” or “Ouch, I bet that woke you up!”
4. Invite them to a low-stress event
For example, invite them over to watch a movie together and bake brownies while putting on face masks. Practicing self-care with a friend is a healthy alternative to destructive behaviors like binge drinking or self-harm. It also gives them an opportunity to think more clearly while removed from the situation. Some people like to do “retail therapy” when they’re upset, but I try to stay away from that. I tend to overspend when shopping emotionally, whether its clothes or food. Keep that in mind. When I lived near the beach, I would invite my friends for sunset walks. The beach is a really peaceful place during sunset. The sound of the waves, the seagulls, and the dying sunlight is such a stress reducer.
5. Help them play through scenarios of how they will respond to an event
Ask how they want to handle the situation, then say, “Okay, would you like to practice that?” One instance could be a disagreement with a co-worker. Let them practice being assertive and take the role of the coworker. This helps raise their confidence and feel prepared for confrontation in the future. This is also more productive than saying, “Yeah that guy sucks! He should be fired!” Although your friend would probably agree with you, they still have to deal with their coworker.
6. Tell them to breathe
Say your friend calls, and they’re crying hysterically. You can’t understand what they’re saying, and you’re very concerned. Say their name and then ask them to take a few deep breaths with you. Ask if they can do that. When they say yes, count while you’re breathing in slowly and out slowly. My mom used to do this with me when I would have flashbacks and be inconsolable. Deep breathing calms us down, because more oxygen gets to the brain and it stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system.
7. Tell them that you are here
One thing I’m always super afraid of is being needy. I don’t want to overstep my bounds when I’m in crisis. Because of this, I kept a lot of things to myself in the past. I didn’t want to “burden other people with my bullshit when they had bullshit of their own”. That’s a direct quote from my journal when I was in the Air Force. When I got out of the Air Force and had a couple of rough days, I called one of my guy friends that I had met during a hospitalization. One of the best things he had said during that conversation was, “Hey, I’m here,” after I started backpedaling and saying, “Actually no, everything’s fine. I don’t want to whine and complain.”
I have no idea why that touched my heart, but I do remember getting misty-eyed. It was the same feeling as when you’re sad, and somehow your dog or cat knows, and they put their head on your lap and stare up at you. I felt loved, heard, understood, and seen perfectly despite all of my imperfections and flaws by hearing three words.
An extra step
Follow up with your friend a day later. Ask if they’re doing alright and how their confrontation went or how they handled the problem. Then use all the steps above as needed.
And there you have it. These are my seven secret spices and herbs when it comes to being a good friend during another’s time of need. Will all of these come naturally to you? Probably not. It takes practice to not want to fix someone’s problem immediately rather than help them come to a logical conclusion on their own. It’s worth the effort, though! Being a good friend is a rewarding experience for anyone involved.
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