There was a time when I thought that giving advice to a friend required talent, rather than effort. I was a perfectionist, obsessed with doing everything faultlessly to avoid self-reproach. This included, but was not limited to, my academic performance, my looks, and my relationships. When someone I loved came to me with a valid concern I had never experienced, I would think, “OK, there’s no way I can be of any assistance in this scenario that I completely do not understand. It’s not even worth a try, because I’ll fail, and awful advice is a lot worse than no advice.”
It took me a while, but I’ve realized this is precisely the wrong approach. In high school, as my friends were getting it on with cute boys and I remained a dreamy bystander who hadn’t gone past very light flirting for many years, I would make sure to stay away from their love problems, deeming myself unfit to (even try to) comprehend their experiences or offer any support. What I didn’t understand was that my friends could have felt that I was acting uninterested. I may have seemed like a lazy friend who wouldn’t even listen to her friends’ issues and would just bail whenever someone wanted to talk about anything remotely foreign to her existence.
I’m in college now, my love life is still virtually nonexistent, and I have been told several times I give the best advice on love! You can sympathize with a person even if you can’t empathize with their situation. Being there for a friend is not about mastering an art, saying the perfect thing at the perfect time, or telling someone what they should do. It’s much more about showing that you are there, and you are LISTENING. Here are a few ways to do just that.
1. Think about what your friend needs from you right away.
Truth is, when someone is devastated because their crush won’t text them back, or because they lost their job or failed an exam, they probably won’t want to hear a “HEY, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU SHOULD DO” or “BUT LOOK AT THE BRIGHT SIDE!” immediately. Your friend will probably need a few words of compassion, a hug (if they’re into that), or just a few words of consolation followed by a shared silence. Sometimes we need a couple of instants to wallow before jumping right into the process of figuring out a feasible solution. Bring your friend an inordinate amount of junk food, suggest you watch a movie together, have an emergency dance party to CrazySexyCool, or simply let them cry and/or yell until they feel better! Your friend will feel grateful they’re not alone.
2. Ask them how they feel.
Sometimes just being asked “How did it make you feel?” can make a person feel much more seen and heard than if they were getting your point-of-view. This applies when you have no clue what your reaction to the same situation would be because you have never experienced it, AND when you’ve actually gone through something similar. Everyone’s feelings are distinct, and what your friend feels during a breakup might be unlike what you felt when you went through a breakup! Your friend will likely find it therapeutic to attempt to put their messy glob of feelings into coherent sentences, and you will find it easier to offer aid.
3. Direct them to a more knowledgeable source.
Sometimes offering support to your friend will mean pointing them in the direction of other trustworthy resources or people. You don’t need to have all the answers, and it may be a big comfort for your friend just to know that there are places dedicated to what they’re going through, available at any time.
- If your friend is actively suicidal, urge them to call a suicide hotline, a crisis center, or a hospital. 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available 24 hours a day, from anywhere in the U.S., and suicide.org has a list of resources for outside the U.S. If your friend won’t call, you can, and when someone answers, just say, “I’m having an emergency and need help.” The Trevor Project also has a 24/7 crisis hotline, for LGBTQ+ youth: 1-866-488-7386.
- If your friend is facing a problem regarding sexual health and can’t talk about it with their family or family-insured doctor, urge them to see (or accompany them to) a Planned Parenthood or Teen Clinic. Mental Health America has resources for both you and your friend if they are struggling with self-harm. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a help line 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and list of resources for your friend if they or their family member is struggling with mental and/or substance abuse disorders.
- If your friend’s problem is not urgent, but they are seeking an informal source of information and support, they may find solace in communities like Doll Hospital (an online and print journal dedicated to mental health) or Sad Girls Club (an online community and events network dedicated to mental health for women of color). Player.fm has made helpful lists of their favorite podcasts for mental health, substance abuse recovery, and trauma recovery.
And remember: Don’t compromise your well-being.
Being a considerate friend does not mean neglecting your own health. If a friend comes to you for advice on a topic that brings up traumatic experiences of your own, do not disregard your instincts. It’s more than fine to admit there are certain things we can’t discuss. Your friend may not intuit this by themselves, so be as straightforward as possible: a simple “I want to be helpful, but I’m not equipped to talk about this, and I think you should talk to someone else” will do. (This is also where the resources from #3 can be incredibly useful.) Remember–your first friend is (and should be!) your own self, and we can only properly help someone else when it won’t also compromise our own safety and well-being.
Reminding your friend that you care about them goes a long way, and doesn’t require being an expert of any kind. So many of life’s challenges could be more manageable if we just felt less alone in facing them, so while offering that support could feel like a small gesture, it makes a HUGE difference. ♦