The Art of Friendship

This time of year is really stressful.  No matter who you are, or where you are in your life, there are pressures upon us all.  So if there are extra stresses, not related to holiday commitments, they become Really Big Things in a hurry. This has been my life lately.  For reasons, my stress level since December 1st has been sky-high.  These are not trivial reasons. They are real, true issues with which I’m dealing that are difficult and emotionally draining.  They are temporary issues, for certain, and I will make it through.  But they are here, now, and they are difficult and painful to deal with.

So like anyone with a support network, that’s where I turn.  But in the last year, I’ve noticed a trend in people in general.  Support networks are failing, not just for me, but for others with whom I’ve spoken, and I see some reasons why. Mostly, it’s where people focus their energy while they are being engaged for support. That focus turns unfailingly to themselves.  They want to diminish, dismiss or invalidate the struggles of their friends, while simultaneously jumping head-long into the list of troubles on their own minds.  So I’m compiling a list of the tactics I try to employ when a friend comes to me for help.  I’m not saying I’m perfect, or that I manage to follow these 100% of the time, but I do at least think about it, and try my hardest.

*Note: I have also had some amazing friends support me in ways in which I am forever thankful.  You all know who you are 🙂

Back to the list…

respect1) Listen for the sake of listening.

You are not just waiting for your chance to speak.  You may have anecdotal stories for you friend as she talks through her troubles.  You may have an opinion. You might even have an answer.  That can all wait.  Let your friend speak through her thoughts without interruption.  Ask questions, rather than offering advice.  Help her dig deeper, rather than sharing your analogies. Get her through all of the bits and bobs of her feelings before jumping in and offering words of wisdom.

2)  Avoid the one-up.

You might have it in the back of your mind that your problems are bigger, tougher, meaner, harder. And maybe they are. But not to her, they are not. You telling your friend how bad you have it right on the heels of her trying to work through her issues is not, in any way, shape or form, helpful.  You might as well add an “Oh yeah, well I…” before you start talking.

The place where I see this attitude the most isn’t so much in face-to-face discussion.  It’s typically in online groups.  Sometimes, members of an online group or forum will decide that someone’s plight is a First World Problem.  I have two issues with this thinking.

First: If you are sitting in your home on your personal computer, using the Internet to post on Facebook…. you probably also have first world problems.

Second: If it’s something that is causing your friend stress and anguish, or it’s keeping her up at night, then it’s something that she legitimately needs to deal with.  You can dismiss it, or you can help.  If you’re inclined to dismiss it because you perceive that someone else (including yourself) “has it worse”, then either keep it to yourself, or refer her to another friend.

Attempting to diminish or one-up the issues of your friend will only serve to drive a wedge in your friendship.  No two people walk the same path, therefore no two people share the same struggles.  Regardless of your perception of your friend’s struggles, to her they are valid and they are difficult.  Approach listening with respect, and give her the benefit of the doubt that she knows what constitutes a problem in her own life.

3) Check the armchair psychology at the door.

You JUST read an article on how people should be thankful for all the good in their lives even though they are wading through knee-high shit.  It even had a beautiful picture of someone doing yoga on a windswept mountainside. It’s so inspiring! You should just go share that!  It will solve everything!

No. It won’t. Chances are, your friend is well aware of what she is grateful for.  She knows the things in her life that are going right, and she knows the corners of her life that are safe. If she’s coming to you with a problem that she needs to discuss, chances are she’s thankful for YOU.  But if you dismiss her concerns because: Great Job/Healthy Kids/Whatever Else…. you’re not doing her any favors.  In fact, you’re probably just insulting her emotional intelligence.

It is entirely possible to be thankful and grateful for the good in your life, and still be stressed out and worried over an issue.  Believe it or not, those are not mutually exclusive.  If you look to your own life, you will probably realize this to be true.

4) “Bad things happen to everyone.”  Just don’t go there.

Yes, bad things do happen to everyone.  We all know this.  It simply is not good advice for someone who feels like they are about to throw up because: Stress.  When your friend comes to you for support, this statement rings clear as: “I don’t really want to listen to you.”  Because honestly, why would anyone say that, if not to just keep the other person quiet?  It is the largest invalidation you can throw at someone.  And when that someone is stressed and worried, invalidating them isn’t just unhelpful, it’s cruel.

5) Know when you’re in over your head.

Maybe what your friend is talking about is uncomfortable. Maybe you feel like it’s beyond your reach as a friend to deal with.  That’s really ok.  And if that’s the case, encourage your friend to seek help from a professional.  But if not, part of the unwritten friendship contract is sucking up your inner-critic so that you can help your friend own and deal with her own problems.

Here are some great phrases you can use to offer validation and encouragement to your friend. They are kind, sincere, and they encourage your troubled friend to dig deeper and examine her own feelings and reactions to her stressors.

  • “I’m sorry you are experiencing this.”
  • “That sounds really difficult. Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “You sound very overwhelmed. What is bothering you the most?”
  • “If you could magically get rid of one of these issues, which would you pick?”
  • “I love you, and you know I’m here for you.”

Being a good friend means that occasionally, you’re going to have to listen and offer support.  In a balanced and healthy friendship, the speaking-to-listening should be fairly even. So if your friend is the one to initiate a conversation as a plea for help, be there. Be present. Show up with your ears and heart open. Give the gift of compassion and understanding. Don’t do it because someday it’ll be you on the other side of the conversation. Do it because you want to practice the art of being a good friend.


2 thoughts on “The Art of Friendship

  1. Very well-written, kind, and practical. I’m sorry you are going through tough times, even if the issue s are temporary.

    I don’t normally open up to people, but last year I was in such a crazy emotional state, I decided to reach out to a couple of friends. I was very fortunate that they were good listeners, and I think we were able to help each other.

    While I think there is a lot of merit to the inspirational choose to be happy pretty-picture quotes that I am always seeing on Facebook, sometimes it’s just not that easy. The feelings need to be felt and processed. It also takes a lot of love and patience to go down into the pit with someone and stay a while.

    Liked by 1 person

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