by: Mark Kline, PsyD. Vice-Chair, TakeThis, Inc.
Friends and family are the first line of support for people with emotional problems. While it is wonderful to be trusted, this often creates anxiety and dilemmas. Friends worry they will say the wrong thing. Tolerating another person’s pain and distress can be difficult. While there is no one right technique for every situation, here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Listening Goes a Long Way — For many people in distress, lending a calm, empathic ear can make all the difference. This means listening and reflecting what you hear in an emotionally engaged manner. It requires paying attention and being present in the face of pain and discomfort without assuming you know the answer or it is your responsibility to make it “go away.”
2. Ask Questions — Don’t hesitate to seek clarification and ask for specifics when someone wants support. Try to learn more about what they mean and what made them think of a topic rather than rushing in with answers. Gentle questioning can help a friend sort out their thoughts and come to their own conclusions.
3. It Isn’t About You — It’s easy to turn away from a friend’s distress to your own experiences with seemingly similar problems. This can end up with more talking and less listening. While sometimes helpful, it is important not to assume that your experience is similar, relevant, or that what worked for you would necessarily work for a friend.
4. Don’t Be Afraid Not to Know — It can actually be comforting to someone in need to hear that you also don’t have the answer. This can legitimize discomfort and communicate an appreciation that they have good reason for what they feel. A good friend is responsible for caring, but not for fixing.
5. Withhold Judgment — Friends can sometimes see a bad decision in process and anticipate a painful outcome. A true friend offers perspective, and may have an opinion, but will support you even when you make a mistake, and won’t shower you with “I told you sos.”
￼6. People are Resilient — Even a struggling person has strength and resources to cope. Communicate your belief in your friend’s capacity to tolerate distress and find their way through it. Believing in someone else often helps them believe in themselves.
7. Trust your Instincts — If a friend shows signs of a serious or unremitting problem, urge them to seek professional help. A friend knows the limits of friendship and realizes they can not take ultimate responsibility for someone’s safety or well-being.
Dr. Kline is Clinical Director of The Human Relations Service, a non-profit mental health clinic serving Wellesley, Weston, and Wayland, MA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.