A little while ago, I wrote a blog post about how to do long distance friendships well: as I have grown up, I have come to treasure the people in my circle who are really around for the long run. There is such value to be found in these friendships that we are really doing life with, on the good days and the bad days – to be open, and honest, and vulnerable with the people who are closest to us, and it is a privilege to be the person who can be present for others. However, the result of having friendships like this in our lives, naturally, is that there is a massive chance that we will see the people that we love go through some rubbish, and some huge issue issues, and we might be the person that they turn to for support.
Honesty time: although it is an incredible privilege to be someone that people come to with openness and honesty and vulnerability, there have been times in the last few years when this has made me feel like a massive failure as a friend: the advice to talk to your friends about your problems is good, and it is so important to be open with the people who are closest to you – and yet as a culture, we have an expectation that the friend will be able to find a solution, or at least make the situation better in some way, and a lot of the time, this is not the case. Sometimes there is nothing that we can do to help, and this is OK – where this would have made me feel as if I’m doing this whole friendship thing totally wrong or as if I wasn’t doing enough to help, it is something that I have changed my approach around a lot. It can feel like inaction to not have a fully formed solution to the thing that they are going through, but providing a solution is not the objective of you being their friend in that context.
Here are some of the things that we have found helpful, in the times that we have been helping friends work through those big things:
Let them know that the way they feel is valid:
Problems that do not have an immediate answer make us feel helpless – and sometimes the least helpful thing in that moment is for someone else to come in as if they have the solution – there’s no quicker way to make somebody feel totally inadequate for not working out the solution for themselves, and useless for not being able to make the solution work. We need to go in with humility, not taking the glory for ourselves by providing the instant solution, but asking thoughtful questions, helping them to process the things that are going on for them; and then when the time is right, helping them to find the next steps to take. There is a big difference between “here is the answer, duh!”, and “how do we find somebody who can help with this?” – you do not need to take on their problem as your own.
Know that it is OK to not have an answer:
…And if they are opening up and talking to you as a friend, chances are they are not expecting an answer – just someone to be on their team and sit with them in it. There are some issues that need to be passed on to the police, or to someone with more experience and expertise, and knowing that they are not alone in it will make all the difference for them.
Help them to see that their life is bigger than the thing that they are going through:
There is a time for talking things through – but as their friend you also know what they need to be able to take a step back from the things that they are feeling swamped by, and see the bigger picture: whether that is a movie night with lots of chocolate, a trip somewhere that they love, or even a walk out the front door – you can bring a different perspective that says that this is not the end for them, and that this is not going to define them – they can look away from it for a moment.
Speak to who they are – not just who they think they are in that moment:
This is one of the things that came up as super important when we were thinking about how to do long-distance friendships well, and it applies here too: as their friend, you have the honour of being one of the people who knows them to their core, and your input in that moment has value. Use your wisdom and be kind – but you can speak some truth into them in that moment that they are not able to see for themselves.
Leave the ball in their court:
There is a kindness in empowering your friend to respond to their circumstances in their own way, instead of taking the power away and making decisions for them, in a situation where they are already feeling so disempowered. We can help them to come to a conclusion, and even ask how we can help them to take steps or check in with them along the way, but at the end of the day it is them that needs to be taking their next steps. Let them know that you are, that you love them and that they are not on their own.
As I have met and chatted to young adults, this is the area that comes up again and again – how can I be there for my friends, when the things that they are going through would be things that I’d struggle with myself? How can I help, when life hits the fan and there isn’t really an answer? Know that as you love your friends, you are not alone – know that you are enough, and know that you are not the answer that they need, and you never need to be.