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.
Mark Kline is a licensed psychologist in Wellesley, MA where he has maintained a private practice for 34 years. Mark retired as Executive Director of the Human Relations Service, Inc., in Wellesley after 32 years of service in various roles in 2019. Mark provides psychotherapy to children, adolescents, adults, and families, and consults to school staff and leadership around a range of mental health issues. He learned about video gaming from his clients, and began writing and speaking about gamers and mental health in 2009, with articles in The Escapist, an advice column called Ask Dr. Mark, and workshops and lectures at PAX events and other gaming conventions. Mark was a co-founder of Take This, in 2012, and played a key role in the development of early programs such as the AFK Room. He continues this work as a member of Take This’ Board of Directors.
This article is not a substitute for medical advice or professional counseling. While we at Take This want to provide you with resources, we do not recommend or endorse any particular site, treatment, therapy, or resource. We provide these links at our sole discretion but have not necessarily vetted or reviewed any particular resource. We assume no liability for the use of the information or resources on these sites and encourage you to use your own best judgment when reviewing these resources.
If you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or call/text 988. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide.