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


How To Respond to a Friend in Crisis

I read a lot of articles and books every week (I prefer the term "learner" to "self-help junkie" but the latter is just as true!) so when one still sticks with me a few days later, I figure I may as well share it on my blog.  The visual that the LA Times included with the op-ed piece, "How Not to Say the Wrong Thing," could save a lot of friendships if we took it to heart.

The Ring Theory

Whoever is in the center of the story gets to stay there... according to the LA Times op-end piece by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.

The piece written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman speaks to the temptation all of us have to take someone's story and turn it into ours because their life impacts ours.

After Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to field such comments as, "This isn't all about you," she created the diagram to the right to help us all see that while all of us may be impacted by someone's crisis, we have to stay mindful of whose crisis it actually is.  She calls it the Ring Theory and says it works in all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.

The person at the center is the one in crisis.  Everyone in that person's life is placed on a concentric circle, starting at the center with the people who are closest to the crisis (i.e. spouse, parent) and moving out to the people in our lives who are less close to us.

How it works, in a nutshell:

"The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" That's the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help.

Comfort In, Dump Out."

Implications for our Friendships

Now, there are times in every crisis where I don't need everyone acting strong around me, where it can be meaningful to hear from people close to me about how this situation is impacting them, and where real authentic conversations and intimacy about what we're both feeling can be helpful.  And there are times where it feels good to have people around me vent, letting me still be a good friend to them, too; reminding me that they still have lives and issues and feelings.  Indeed, whether it's a cancer diagnosis or a divorce, we feel each others pain. But with that said, I think the above diagram is still an incredibly fabulous visual for helping us all keep perspective on where we are, and what our primary roles should be, when a friend is in any crisis.

Does their change affect us? Absolutely.  It will undoubtedly bring up our own fears and memories of loss that need to be processed.  And our schedule might change-- more serving and caring for them, less fun times out.  Our conversations might change and be way less meaningful, mutual, or energizing.  So undoubtedly our friendship will feel like it's changing, but that's not the same as our entire life changing.

I know my divorce impacted my friends-- they were losing a couple that they loved spending time with together, they had more tough conversations in their homes having to process who's fault it was and how to support each of us, and it undoubtedly brought up tough conversations about their own marriages. We both ended up moving away so it's fair to say many people "lost" a lot in my divorce.  But... the rings remind all of us that no one lost more than my ex-husband and I did.  I keep this front-of-mind when I'm heartbroken by the news of friends of mine....

A very aware person notices in those moments several things:

  1. This is her story.  I'm only a supporting actor in this movie starring her.
  2. Therefore she gets to call the shots.  Caring for her is the highest priority in this particular story.  I may be the center of another story, but this one is hers. I will try to be mindful of what she needs, and participate as I can.
  3. This does impact me.  I need to own that so I can be mindful of it.  I need to find the appropriate places to process what I am feeling. Most likely, especially early-on, she probably isn't the best person for me to go to for comforting.  She needs to stay in her role of grieving, processing, and healing-- not feeling pressure to "be there" for me. Remember, I'm only a supporting actor in this scene, not the one who steals the show.  In another scene, with someone else, I can be the main character. And need to be.
  4. I will do what I can. Just because she's in crisis doesn't mean I can show up in all the ideal ways. I may be in the center of another story that prevents me from having the bandwidth, or I may have too many unresolved feelings that I can't stop from bleeding out on her, or I just may not be able to serve all the ways she needs or I want to... but I'll be thoughtful in remembering that it's her right, as my friend, to ask. I won't resent her requests-- I'll just do what I can and lovingly say no to what I cannot.

The point is that their story gets to stay theirs-- always. Which sounds obvious, but can be so very hard to do.

In the Good Times, Too?

I think it's appropriate to expand the word crisis to include pretty much any life change, transition, or profound experience.  I personally think more friendships suffer misunderstandings with these circles in the good news more than in the bad news.

Because when she announces her promotion, her wedding, her retirement, or her pregnancy-- our first reaction will be about how we feel about it. We'll immediately start feeling something-- and whether it's joy or jealousy--we're at risk of putting our feelings on her experience.

In crisis we can be the heroes, the rescuers, the good friends, the shoulder to cry-on, the one who wows.  In good news though, when we might be more at risk of feeling jealous, forgotten, or alone, we may struggle more with letting her stay the center of attention.  She may not "need" us as much and instead of being grateful we're not the one who just got cheated on, we're now wondering when it will be our turn to have good-luck fall on our plate.

To be so mindful in those moments that she is in the center of the circle (her life is changing) and we are on the outside rings (we might feel different about her or us, and the time we spend with her may be changing, but our actual lives really aren't changing) helps give us perspective.

Our role in all these moments is to keep her in her center.  Whether it's in the gloom of her bankruptcy, the dissolution of her marriage, or the death of someone close to her, or whether it's letting her be wedding-crazy, baby-obsessed, and filled with retirement-glee-- let her stand in the center of her life, trusting that a ring or few out, we'll be there with as much support as possible.  We can do this because we will find other people in our lives to process our own feelings about what is shifting. We can take care of ourselves so we can help take care of her.

There's no better way to end this post than with the same words the authors ended their article:

"And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that."


I'd love to hear other insights and reactions some of you have when you look at the concentric circles....  what's helpful? what's difficult? what's clarifying?


It's Hard to Maintain Friendships Through Stress & Change

I'm tired. May was one of those months for me. A month where so much energy was spent planning, thinking, deciding, wondering, processing and aligning. Change, Stress & Transitions

I'm sure you've had those life phases where there is just a lot going on?  Sometimes your call to change is prompted by something external (job loss, break-up, lack of funds, a move, a death), but sometimes it just starts inside as a whisper, a question you ask yourself about your own life.

We are called in these times to invite alignment in our lives.  Whether it's catching up our heart/mind to wherever our bodies are, or influencing life events to align with whatever internal decision we've already made--we're trying to line up life with what we feel. And while it all sounds important and valuable, that doesn't mean it's not mentally, physically or emotionally tiring.  Even good change can exhaust us. (I posted on Huffington Post last week that a move across town takes 6 months for your body to recover from the change!)

For me, this month to step into alignment meant making some tough decisions.

I know from my own life experience as a life coach and pastor that many people pull away when they have stuff going on in their lives.  It's always struck me as unfortunate that sometimes when we need people the most is when we withdraw.  And yet, I get it.

The Toll Our Stress Can Have on Friendships

Loss of Energy: For me, the most obvious was that as my energy flagged, it was harder to keep engaging with everyone.  Even a very social person, I kept feeling a need to pull away, conserve, withdraw.  Having commitments on the calendar felt stressful to a life that felt up-in-the-air. Hard to keep up friendships, or forge new ones, when my energy feels used up in other endeavors, real or imagined.

Unsure of What to Share: I think part of the hesitation to "get out there" was connected to the fact that my ability to engage in small talk decreased during this time.  When you have big things going on-- everything else seems to pale in comparison.  Harder to flippantly answer "fine" when people ask how you're doing. And yet, sometimes those big things aren't ready to be shared with the world, are still being processed or simply aren't appropriate to talk about with every person.  And so the conundrum-- if I don't want to talk about the small things or the big things-- what do we talk about?

Self-Focused: There's no question, when you have things going on that matter-- it's harder to be present for everyone else.  Which is understandable-- you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.  But still... hard to show up on their doorstep with the proverbial chicken noodle soup when you're sick in bed yourself.

My Stuff Brings Up Their Stuff: Undoubtedly, this is one of the hardest part of being in a relationship. We're so inter-connected that it's difficult to have a conversation about anything that matters without it reminding us of our experience or feelings on that subject--divorce, having kids, career choices, dating, retirement, health. My friend talks about moving away... I just think what I'll lose if she does.  One friend decides to take a job for the money and it makes me re-evaluate my own career.  When I went through my divorce-- it brought up all my coupled friends greatest fears.  When we're under stress-- it invariably will be felt in their lives.

I'm sure there are so many other ways our stress impacts our friendship and countless nuances to the ones I've named. (feel free to name others in the comments!)  We simply show up differently when we feel insecure, scared, and tired.

The Commitments that Helped Me

If left to my own feelings this last month, I surely would have been inclined to be a bit more of a hermit.  And to be sure, I certainly did pull back.

But there were some commitments in place that provided me the support of friends whether I had the energy for them or not.  Which was a good thing.  For friends, even though they take energy, end up giving us more energy.  The investment is worth it-- you stick five friendship dollars in the stock and you'll ten back.  (Compared to say, watching TV, where it might only cost one dollar of energy, but neither will it give you more than one dollar back, if that.)

And by the word commitment, I mean things that are routine in my life.  The things that I have put in place because they are important so it's never based on my mood whether I engage or not.

For me, talking on the phone every Wednesday at noon to my girlfriend in Texas is one of those things.  It's not that I wanted to call her those days when I was tired.  It's that I didn't even ask myself if I wanted to.  Hanging out with four friends (we didn't all start as friends!) every Tuesday has taken on sacred significance-- we schedule our lives around that night.  We show up-- no matter how yucky our day was or how intense our PMS symptoms.

My friendships were still impacted by my stress, undoubtedly.  But I still showed up.  (granted, not always full of energy, but still...)

In Latin, the word crisis means "to decide."

Which is ironic because usually in a crisis-- we are prone to feel like a victim, not necessarily someone ready to make choices.  Yet, choices we do have. We still get to choose-- no matter what we're grieving, deciding or feeling-- how we want to navigate it, and with whom.

As you encounter your stresses and life bumps, may you build in the routines that can help sustain you!

p.s.  In the ebb & flow of life, I'm thinking I'm headed back into the flow... :)