How to Be There for a Friend Who’s Struggling, According to a Therapist
I might be biased, but I think that having girlfriends is the most special privilege in the world.
There’s nothing that sets my soul alive quite like a Bachelor wine night with my girls, hitting up our favorite brunch spot, celebrating job promotions accordingly, traveling the country (world, we’re coming for you!), or singing to our favorite songs at the top of our lungs on a routine drive to the store for Slurpees. Even more importantly, between the laughs and “wanna get food?” texts are the inevitable lows that allow us the opportunity to be there for our friends—and allow them to be there for us.
Life can get heavy. As much as I wish it were all sunshine and champagne, it is more deeply complex. We find ourselves broken-hearted. We struggle with mental health issues. We lose loved ones. We get rejected from jobs. We wonder how we’re going to financially stay afloat. While figuring out how to align our values with our actions, we sometimes falter.
Allowing others to help us pick up the pieces can be a difficult task. In the same breath, figuring out what a friend needs during a difficult time can be hard to navigate.
Therapist, writer, and speaker Nedra Glover Tawwab believes that our impulse to “fix things” can be a barrier in the pursuit to ease our friends’ pain. Nedra has worked as a licensed clinical therapist for 13 years, in addition to being an entrepreneur as a group practice owner for the past nine. About two years ago, she started taking her expertise to a space that has extended her professional outreach past her North Carolina practice. That platform? Instagram. She is able to share her work with relationships in the form of listicles with her 334,000 (and growing) person following. “It’s really interesting to not know folks but to still be able to connect with them on such a deep level,” she told me over the phone.
“I have found that a common thread in most relationships is boundaries; allowing people to understand how to communicate better, how to argue effectively, how to accept people as they are, and how to move on from disputes,” she added. “Those things are important for all types of relationships, so I give people the space to talk about these issues and do a lot of skill-building around that.”
My first exposure to Nedra’s work was her post that made its way to the Explore page of Instagram. The post, People Don’t Want to Hear, was a listicle graphic that was easy on the eyes and the brain, and more importantly, held information that resonated with me. How would my best friend feel if, even with the best intentions, I told her to “let it go” or “it could be worse” while she was struggling with her breakup? I’m not sure, because I’m not that friend, but I know that I would likely feel dismissed and embarrassed towards my own feelings.
“In our attempts to help people, we actually irritate them,” Tawwab explained. “I think it’s because we’re so hellbent on making them feel better that we’re not listening to them. We’re not really sitting with them in this uncomfortable, sometimes tragic space. A lot of the time, it has to do with our inability to deal with other people’s emotions so we quickly try to say things that we have heard, or on some level, things we believe.”
“Allowing someone the space to talk and vent is so important,” Tawwab explained. “Often, people don’t have the capacity to say ‘I don’t know how to help you with this’ or ‘you crying in front of me makes me uncomfortable,’ but your behavior and words reflect that through saying what you think you’re supposed to say in the situation. My job is not to say any of these phrases to people.”
In her role, her goal is not to “fix” her client. She allows her patients to speak, reflect, and feel empowered to set boundaries and build coping skills. “I certainly think that more people could practice listening and holding space for discomfort without saying something that is actually not going to help that person at the moment,” she added. “If you’re having trouble, admit that you don’t know how to support them. Ask ‘how can I help? What do I need to know? How do I address this?’ Ask the expert.”
Sometimes, we aren’t looking to be fixed; maybe, we just need to be heard. Maybe, we’re just looking to feel like we’re not so alone among the mess of our current realities. You don’t need all of the answers to repair your friends, and most of the time, they aren’t looking to be repaired. A good start? A bottle of their favorite wine, a listening ear, and simply being present when they’re feeling low. And that’s something that we can all do.