How to support your struggling friend

Statistically speaking, you probably have a loved one with some kind of mental health concern. And even if you don’t, everyone struggles from time to time with stress, grief, pain, or confusion–particularly during a pandemic. One of the greatest tragedies of human disconnection is that when things are at their worst, the people we love may drift away because ‘they don’t know what to say’. Being there effectively for each other in difficult times is one of the most worthwhile skills we can learn. It’s not as hard as you may think, and in fact, may be less energy-intensive than what you’re doing now.


The first step is to listen.

No, I mean really listen.

Listen to listen, don’t listen to reply. Don’t check your phone, don’t talk over them, don’t rush in with solutions or similar stories. Don’t assume you know what they really mean, or what they really need, or what’s actually going on for them. Don’t occupy your thoughts worrying about the right thing to say when they finish speaking.

Being deeply present with someone and providing a non-judgemental space for them to share and be heard is such a healing gift in itself.

You don’t have to fix it

When we see someone we love in pain, it’s natural to want to fix it, like popping a Band-Aid on a child’s scratch and kissing it better. When we become aware of their uncomfortable emotions, we want to offer solutions, give advice, use humour, distract them with nice things, or remind them that at least they have their health/children/partner/job/you! as though that should negate their pain.

Unfortunately, grown-up pain is seldom so easily resolved, and if you think you’re responsible for fixing someone else’s complex crises, it can all feel like an enormous burden. And when we rush to solve their problems or take away their discomfort, we deny them the chance to process what they’re feeling.

There is a journey through healing and it can’t be rushed.

You don’t have to understand it

Sometimes we have no idea why someone is so upset. Their problems may seem minor or irrational, it may appear they brought it on themselves, or you may feel they’re overreacting or ‘being dramatic’.

It doesn’t matter.

You don’t have to understand why someone is hurting to acknowledge and validate that they are. The truth is, why people suffer is unique and individual, and you can probably never fully understand why or how someone else hurts.

A small incident may have triggered deep childhood trauma that you know nothing about.

The minor thing that caused their crisis could be the final straw on top of larger, accumulated troubles.

There are numerous things that could be going on that you know nothing about.

Assume they have their reasons. Assume those reasons are valid. Assume they deserve your compassion.

You don’t have to know what they need

For such an obvious solution, this is one of the best kept secrets there is when it comes to supporting others. Instead of guessing at what they need and then getting frustrated when they don’t want it, why not ask?

You can start with an open question. How can I best support you?

Sometimes, people don’t know what they need, and that’s okay. In this case, you can offer choices.

Would you like my help to find a solution, or do you just want to vent right now?

Are you looking for advice, empathy, or cheering up?

I’m heading to the supermarket later, would you like me to pick anything up?

Would you like my company, or should I check in on you tomorrow?

You don’t have to memorise the ‘right’ things to say

When you’re upset, having someone in front of you repeating the lines they learned, ‘I hear you. Mmhmm. It sounds like you feel very angry’, can be just as bad as unsolicited advice or trite platitudes if it’s not genuine.

Don’t know what to say? Afraid you’ll get it wrong? You can tell them that. Don’t make it about how hard it is for you, of course, but own your insecurities and then get back to the business of Just Being There.

Because there IS no standard script for supporting everyone. Humans are delightfully complex like that.

You don’t have to take responsibility for their happiness

Your distressed loved one has the answers inside of them. They have strength, wisdom, knowledge, and the potential for growth and problem solving, and your job isn’t to provide those things. Rather, your role is to walk with them lovingly through the rough bits so they can return to a place where they have access to these resources.

If you try to take sole responsibility for their journey, you may disempower them or create a dependence that hurts you both. You may also create burnout and resentment for yourself, until soon enough, YOU are the one needing support. Remember to lovingly maintain your own boundaries and needs, and if necessary, help your loved one get the professional support they need.

If you’re looking for support for yourself or a loved one, click here to organise a free consultation call.