Botta: Being a Supportive Friend

by Katherine Botta | 10/8/15 8:10pm

It is safe to assume that most people want to be a good friend. When loved ones come to you for support because they are sad or angry, the usual response is that you instinctively want to help that person feel better. Unfortunately, from a mental health standpoint, many people’s instinctive approaches for helping do not always lead to the most effective support. No matter how well intentioned, sometimes a person’s idea of aiding just exacerbates the situation. While I am certainly not an expert, my training as a Sexual Assault Peer Advisor has helped me to become a better support network for my friends by replacing instinct with a more introspective, intentional approach.

Most people’s first instinct when they see their friends feeling low is to explain to them why they should not be sad. It seems like a logical first approach — if your friend is not sad anymore, then everything should be better. There is a key misunderstanding at play that taints this approach — the absence of sadness is not the same as happiness. Simply shoving negative feelings into a corner does not generate positive ones. When people feel dejected, being told that their feelings are irrational or unwarranted usually only makes them feel worse. In my experience, the best way to help friends in this situation is to let them feel whatever they need to feel while validating their reaction and reminding them that you are there to support them.

Another problematic approach people may take is relying on comparisons and the “it-could-be-worse” mindset. True, it could almost always be worse — but this does not invalidate a person’s pain. Although this response may seem to help a friend put their problems in perspective and remember the big picture, from most friends’ points of view, this response only belittles and invalidate their feelings. When people seek comfort, they usually do not want their feelings to be undermined in this way. Just because a situation could be worse does not mean it is not bad and valid.

When supporting friends, it is important to remember that they will always know their situation better than you do or can. People understandably tend to look to their friends for advice, and there is certainly no harm in discussing options with them. No matter how clear or obvious a solution may seem, however, it is not your place to make the final decision. You, like me, will never be able to fully understand a situation that you are not a part of, and making the right choice may be more complex than it seems. Regardless of the decision your friend makes and whether or not you agree with that decision, it is important to continue to support that person. Simply because the conversation is over does not mean your friend will not still be looking for help.

It can also be tricky to break the habit of offering up potential solutions to a friend’s dilemma when, in reality, that friend is often simply looking for someone to with whom to discuss. It is understandably frustrating when a person tries to vent and, instead of being met with open arms and active listening, he or she is bombarded with irrelevant life advice. No matter how genuine and well intentioned the guidance is, it likely will not be sufficient to magically erase the problem. The most important thing is to address the way your friend is feeling in that moment rather than thinking ahead to solve your friend’s problem without his or her input. If having an emotional release is all your friend is looking for, respect that and try to be a good listener.

Finally, the best advice I have learned is to simply ask your friend how he or she wants to be supported. What a friend needs in a given moment can frequently change, so often the best way to be a supportive friend is to simply ask what you can do to be most helpful and to respect your friend’s answer. Sometimes he or she may want to be distracted, or to vent or to just be alone — the best thing you can do is to listen to their response. Ultimately, supporting a friend really can be as easy as just asking how to help.