how to respond

The 4 Best Responses to a Hurting Friend

On my way to meet a girlfriend for an afternoon tea yesterday, I turned the radio on and was immediately pulled in to the last 15 minutes of an interview on Fresh Air with Allie Brosh, the author and artist of Hyperbole and a Half.  Her honest voice talking about her very real and dark journey with depression held my attention.

The Wounded Shouldn't Be Pressured Into Becoming the Encourager

Listening to an interview with Allie Brosh, the author of this book--based on her famous blog--moved me, especially when she shared about journey with depression.

And one statement has stuck with me.  When she was asked about why it had been so hard to reach out to her mother or husband for help during her journey, especially when she was struggling with thoughts of suicide, Allie's answer haunted me.  Her answer was along the lines of, "Because I knew that once I told them, I'd have to deal with their emotions, and I knew I couldn't handle that.  Seeing them get all upset, hurt, or fearful would have put me in the place of comforter; comforting them, trying to assure them that I wouldn't kill myself, etc. I was barely able to hold my own thoughts, let alone worry about receiving theirs." The result? Someone who was suicidal suffered in silence for far too long.

Her profound answer resonated with me because that is indeed what so often happens when we confess our hidden/dark/shameful thoughts to friends and family. Automatically, instead of the attention staying on the person sharing, the person who is hearing it is filtering it through their brain, basically trying to answer the question, "How does this information affect me?" 

Here are some examples:

  • She tells me she had a miscarriage and I feel guilty for having kids.
  • She tells me she's been having an affair and I feel mad at her because my own family has been hurt by these types of actions.
  • She tells me she's depressed and I feel scared or responsible for trying to fix her.
  • She tells me she's been fired and I feel worried that our planned vacation together is going to have to be cancelled.
  • She tells me she's going through a divorce and I feel scared for my own marriage.

It's not selfish or malicious as much as it's the default response we feel through much of life: "What does this mean to me and my life?" We do it with nearly every piece of information, including when we're watching the news, and are relieved when we can say, "Oh that's so sad... glad it doesn't affect me" and move on.  But when it's our friends, people we love and know, it more often than not will affect us.  It just will.  That's the truth of being in relationship: we are connected and we impact each other.

But what maturity does for us is give us the awareness to whisper to ourselves, "Don't make this about me right now... stay present for her.  I will process my feelings later."  And later you should.  So this isn't an issue about ignoring your feelings, but an issue of knowing when it's the right time and with whom you to ought to be processing them with.  (I wrote a  relevant post to this subject that gives you a visual to remind you that it's not the person whose story it is that should be turning around and becoming your comforter or counselor.)

The Four Best Responses to Keep the Attention on the Story-Teller

I know that my default is to try to fix, encourage, share my own stories, or any number of other things that are done with good intentions.  But I also know that in this moment-- it's less important that I feel like I fixed something and more important that she feel heard.  So my mantra is "Keep this about her.  Keep this about her.  Keep this about her."

So all this got me thinking about sharing the four things I try to remember to do whenever someone is sharing their pain with me:

  1. Affirm:  Depending on the situation, appropriate affirmation can be as simple as "Thank you for having the courage to share that with me," or it can be as bold as "Thank you for telling me this... I hope you know that I absolutely adore you and love you and this doesn't change that one iota."  But affirmation after vulnerability is so important-- it reminds the revealer that their honesty was heard and valued.
  2. Ask Feeling Questions:  And then this is where we so often go awry because we usually start going into problem-solving mode (i.e. "My mom had someone who was diagnosed with that and she said that x helped her."), encouragement mode (i.e. "No don't feel that way!  It's all going to be okay!), or, if we do ask questions it's often about the story and the details that really aren't that important (i.e. "When did the affair start?").  When the very best thing we can do is let her keep talking and sharing about her experience.  So favorite questions of mine, include anything that asks her to keep sharing her feelings:  What did you feel when you first found out x?  What has your experience been so far?  How has this impacted your identity?  What are you most scared of?  What has been the most surprising part?  What part of it do feel like is hardest for those around you to understand? 
  3. Validate:  To validate is to "demonstrate or support the truth or value of."  It doesn't mean you have to support their decisions, agree with their assessment, or think you'd feel the same way in a similar circumstance.  This isn't you voting; you're not saying "Yes, I think you have reason to commit suicide," or "Yes, I'm in favor of divorce." It's you demonstrating that you have heard them and that their feelings are valuable.  The goal then is hear their feelings (as opposed to the details/circumstances), tap into your own empathy with similar feelings, and try to say back to them what you heard them say.  It can as simple as, "I ache with you and for you. I'm so very sorry you're going through this." Or it can be as detailed as saying, "Your feelings are totally valid!  It makes sense that you'd feel betrayed."
  4. Ask how you can help: And then a crucial and meaningful step is to ask, "How can I best support you right now?"  If it's someone you know well, you can offer as much as you're comfortable extending: "How can I best support you right now? If you could ask for anything, what comes to mind?  Do you need tangible things like rides to the hospital or a place to stay?  Do you need me to call you regularly during this time?  I know it's hard to ask for detailed help... but I'd so appreciate you telling me what I can do that will be the most meaningful to you if you ever know it.  I want to journey this with you."

As always, I cherish hearing your feedback, your own stories, what part spoke you, or advice on this subject that you want to share with others.

Other relevant posts:

How To Respond to a Friend in Crisis

9 Principles for Responding to a Friend in an Affair

 

9 Principles for Responding to a Friend in an Affair

This time last year I wrote a blog post that quickly became one of my most searched-for articles online: Help! Should I Tell My Friend that Her Husband is Cheating on Her?  In that post I mused that I should probably write a post to guide us through the angst when we find out it is our friend who has cheated. It has taken me a year to want to sit down and write it. Finding Out That Our Friend Has Cheated

While statistics are all over the board about how many of us actually admit to having extra-marital affairs, it does seem that due to women having more economic and sexual freedom, our numbers are on the rise in the last two decades. It appears that now one in every 5 or 6 of us will end up doing what we all of us swore we never would.  That means if you have 5 friends-- chances are high that this issue will impact you.

This is such a difficult subject to cover adequately due to all the possible complicating issues that could be present.  For example, is she confiding in you or are you finding out another way? Does she seem intent on trying to pull it off or is she confessing that it happened and she's trying to end it?  Do you know her partner and/or her lover?  Is your significant other involved in any way (i.e. as a friend to her partner)? Is she confessing or is she asking you to be an alibi for her and to aid her in the relationship?  Have you been wounded by marital affairs in the past, making it harder for you to come to this one without your own scabs getting pulled off? Are you happy in your own relationship?

Different answers to any of these questions would prompt different insights into the best way for you to respond, but without knowing you or the situation, all I can give are some principles that will hopefully lay a foundation for any choice you end up making.  Having been on both sides of this issue, and journeying closely with several friends over the years who have confided in me the angst of juggling a second relationship, I offer my wisdom with hope and humility.

Nine Principles to Remember:

  1. This is her crisis, not yours.  Yes, it could impact your friendship, your picture of her, your belief in love, and possibly even your own marriage, but, and this is important to remember: getting hit by some of the debris of an accident isn't the same as being in the accident. Keep this about her as much as possible. See my blog post about helping a friend in crisis to better provide a visual of how to act when you're in the outer rings.
  2. Nurture yourself and your relationships. With that said, if you are in a romantic relationship, be mindful that it may be impacted.  It may be as a result of conversations that you have with your significant other about the subject of infidelity, the insecurities it brings up in you, or simply the questions it raises about whether you're happy or not.  Recognize that while your friend is responsible for her life, she is not responsible for yours. Life will throw you a variety of subjects to process, this is your time to do so on this one.  In some ways it's a gift. Be extra gentle on yourself (and your partner) as you work yourself back to a place of alignment and peace through journaling, counseling, meditation, and other self-nurture and self-growth actions.
  3. Don't make it personal.  It is not because she doesn't trust you that she didn't tell you sooner.  It is not because you were in a happy relationship that she felt tempted to go find that, too.  It is not because you weren't there for her... blah, blah, blah.  She made choices and you are not to blame.  Additionally, there are a thousand reasons women don't tell their friends, many of them very valid reasons, so don't get steamed up about when and how you found out.  Just breathe deeply and acknowledge that in the big scheme of everything she's sorting through and trying to juggle and process-- the last thing she wants is to lose a friend and the last thing she needs is to spend energy now processing yet another relationship in her life. The more you can keep reminding yourself to not take this personally, the happier you (and she) will be.
  4. Draw your boundaries. It's okay to say that you're not willing to lie for her, be an alibi for her with her husband, or to talk about it ad nauseam.  It's okay to tell her that due to your religious beliefs, moral code, or personal history, this is a subject that you are very against or incredibly uncomfortable with.  It's okay for you to state what you are able to do and what you cannot do right now; but do so in as sensitive a way as possible, with as much respect as you can, and with the intention that you still want to do what you can.  It doesn't need to be all or nothing.  Perhaps start with something like, "This is such a hard situation for me, though I recognize it's even harder for you.  I want to love you and support you through this in the ways I can, and be honest with you where I can't right now.  In what ways do you most need me right now?" And then, ask her to tell you what would be most meaningful.  From there, you can honestly say yes to what you can and no to what you can't.
  5. You are her friend, not her counselor.  She may be so relieved to finally have you know her secret that she's at great risk of confiding waaay too much to you.  This is her affair, not yours, you don't need to hear all the details. Tell her with all the love you can, "I want to try to navigate this in a way that protects our friendship and serves us both as best as possible... and, I think, that includes you making sure you have the expert support in your corner to process this with."  It's unfair to put you in a place of counselor. And she needs one.
  6. Acknowledge that she is still a good person.  I really do believe that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have at the time. She didn't wake up one day with the intention to hurt anyone or to not live up to her own values.  She made bad choices, but that doesn't make her a bad person.  Be very cautious to protect your thoughts about her, whispering a form of the prayer, "Help me see her the way God sees her." Or, "I see that part of her that is beautiful, good, and pure."
  7. Her feelings are real.  We might not like them, but they're real. Real in that regardless of how we feel about her inappropriate relationship, she is feeling intense feelings of love, hope, and feelings of being valued, admired, and needed.  In other moments she is, undoubtedly, feeling shame, denial, and guilt.  We all know those feelings.  We might hate what is causing her to feel that way or disagree that she should feel them, but far better for us to try to empathize.  We know what it feels like to be torn; we know what it feels like to want to be loved, we know what it feels like to think about breaking up with someone you care about.  We don't have to condone her behavior to say, "It makes complete sense to me that you'd be drawn to that," or "I can't imagine how sad you must feel as you grieve the end of that relationship."  Love doesn't have to agree in order to support.
  8. Be mindful of our judgment.  From the Christian scriptures comes a saying: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." It was what Jesus said to the crowd who wanted to stone a woman for committing adultery.  I invite you to be mindful of the fact that we are all in process and all struggle with actions that are hurtful to ourselves and others.  Yours may not seem as glaring, so be thankful for that!  Then with humility recognize that you, too, have made mistakes, and that you're still struggling with discontent, jealousy, complaining, greed, criticism, or gossip. We are all learning the lessons we need to learn.  She will learn hers.  And she'll surprisingly learn it better when compassion is shown (so she doesn't have to feel defensive) as love is what empowers us to grow.  Shame simply paralyzes people.  We want her to grow so we want to act in as many ways as possible that invite her to courage, compassion, and hope.
  9. Know that this too shall pass.  Yes it will!  I promise.  It may feel like more drama than you can handle right now (and that's okay, try to be present as you can and honest when you can't) but someday she is going to wow you with the rebuilding of her life.  She's going to be laughing again, present again, and hopefully more healthy and mature because of the life lessons she is learning now. And when you find yourself in a crisis, she'll be someone you know you can trust to not judge you, to support you, and to understand.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  I could keep going for days.  And I'm very aware that you could get done reading the list and still not know the best way to respond.  I therefore write these words with a prayer that accompanies them that anyone who reads this looking sincerely for guidance will find it. May those who seek, find.  May those who are unsure, err on the side of love.  May you be given an extra dose of compassion, energy, strength, and love today... your friend needs it.