A lot of people had and are having a very difficult time right now. Often, only few folks know what’s really going on. It’s difficult to open up and seek help when there is already so much mess. Good support makes a world of difference and can really lighten the load for someone. Experiencing care keeps us within the fold of the human family, and that is particularly helpful when things have gone wrong.
Sometimes, though, the opposite of “good” are “good intentions”. Your approach to help can have unintended consequences that make the situation more difficult for a person who is already struggling. That is likely not what you have in mind as you are trying to help, so here are a few pointers, in no particular order.
When in doubt, ask what would be helpful first, and listen to what they say.
1. This isn’t about you. This should be about what is genuinely helping the other person with their situation. Otherwise, they might have to manage your efforts on top of an already crushing situation.
2. Don’t make your awkwardness their problem. The stiff upper lip is all too real, and the situation is often more awkward for them than for you. Use your bigger holding capacity to hold what’s yours.
3. Doing vs. Being. We often think of help as “doing something”. Often there isn’t actually anything you are able to do. Being with the person can also help, that might be what they crave the most.
4. Emergencies can require interventions. Like helping an addict friend to targeted support, or encouraging someone to leave a horrible living situation, or calling an ambulance for someone who initially refuses. Some of this can get messy and you might get yelled at and called things.
5. You might never get thanked. Lots of rough emotions around. Try not to add yours. Doing the right thing has its own reward.
6. Keep your relative privilege in check. Massive rifts might mean that your friend who might have been similar might no longer be in the same “lifestyle bracket” (and might never come back). Your ideas of help will now likely be vastly different from theirs.
7. Plan WITH that person, not FOR that person. Whatever your idea, make sure this will actually improve their situation and not just add another project on top. Don’t insist if your idea doesn’t land.
8. Money stuff might change the dynamics of the friendship. Be clear what you are expecting if you help with money, particularly if this is meant as a gift, or a loan, and what the terms and conditions are. Also, your own self-care still applies.
9. Show them they are still a part of the human family. They are still the same awesome human, the same accomplished professional even though their outside circumstances might be vastly different now. Participation will matter more than ever. Maybe they just want to talk about football or the neighbor’s cat rather than their current situation. Let them.
10. Ask before jumping in to problem-solve or to give advice. Jumping into advice mode is a lot of people’s default setting, and you probably have good intentions. Your friend might have already consulted lawyers or citizen’s advice or other experts for their mess, and that might be better suited than your neighbourhood whatsapp group or the hot take you just read somewhere on the internet.
11. Resist the urge of bombarding them with this long tickbox list of questions “have you…”, “oh but surely…”, “but what about…”. These are about your own need for information and clarity, and this is unlikely to help your friend (unless they asked for thought partnering).
12. No sales (unless they specifically ask). Social media can be a horribly ambiguous place. This is not the time to highlight the fact that your best friend runs this amazing program on “money consciousness” if you are indeed a friend.
13. No platitudes. Instagram pseudo-psychology stuff like “every cloud has a silver lining”, “love the life you have”. This signals something like “I am just going to ignore all the difficult things you just told me, I’ll just say something nice-sounding so I feel better”. An “oh shit mate how awful I don’t even know what to say” is better than a platitude.
14. Be prepared for the long-haul. Your friend might have experienced something that drastically altered the course of their lives. This might take years to mend. They will need all the strength they can muster as they sustain themselves for the long-haul. All support must help with that.
15. No diagnosing. People who get to diagnose other people get a lot of training to do this, and often have to pass state health-board examinations or similar. Unless you did that and are qualified and use proper process, stay clear of labels. Don’t use labels with third parties. You might make their situation worse by spreading rumours. If you are worried of course do bring up the concern to get professional help and let them do the diagnosing.
16. Keep things confidential you hear. Particularly when your friend asks you to. Be mindful on social media and what you might inadvertently disclose about their whereabouts or circumstances. Your friend’s safety is more important than your feed.
17. This is not your story. Big rifts have these epic, cinematic qualities, and some details are freakishly gruesome. Some of this might, indeed, make a great story later. This is, however, not your story, and likely isn’t yours to tell. If you need entertainment, read a book or watch a film and live a life rich enough so you will have your own conversation points.
18. Respect boundaries: Theirs. This is particularly key when you work in a people profession and have some training that might or might not be useful. Helping professions, charities and similar organizations normally have rules of engagement. Coaching and other interventions need contracting. Don’t casually drag people into stuff. Respect your tools and use them responsibly.
19. Respect boundaries: Yours. As a friend, your help might only go so far. It might not be able to fix everything. You might not be trained to do this, or it might be too much for you to hold on top of what is happening in your life. The long haul might be longer than you are willing or able to see through. You drowning alongside them won’t help the other person either. Be clear about what you are or are not able to do so you know what you are committing to. Help can come in different sizes. Thank you for yours.
A longer version of this is a bonus chapter in my upcoming book “The DIY Phoenix — How to drag yourself out of the ashes, mend your wings and start flying again”.