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Relationships Sundays

Other Relationships

How to Support A Friend Through a Tough Time

Watching someone you love go through something painful is always a difficult experience. You want to help them, relieve their pain, free them of the struggle they're going through. But what do you do when there's nothing you can do?

When a situation is beyond your control, showing up for someone can feel impossible -- but it's not. The most powerful thing you can do is to be present. Tell your friends that you're there for them. That you have their back no matter what. Let them know that they are free to ask for what they need, and you will be there.

Validate what they're feeling. It can be an extremely powerful experience just to have someone affirm you. Ask what you can do to help. If they seem like they need to talk, just listen. Let them tell you what they're thinking and feeling, and don't put yourself in the centre of it.

When it feels appropriate, offer statements of hope and encouragement, but don't overpromise. You can't control the results, so don't put their hoeps in them. Remind them of things that are true about themselves, their community, and the love that people have for them. 

All you can do is all you can do, and your friends know that. But showing up however you an usually means a lot, so don't hesitate to do it. Love your people well, be there when they need you, and offer grace, support, and love.

Recommended Book

The Friendship Cure

Oct 23, 2018
ISBN: 9781468316605

Interesting Fact #1

Studies have shown that our brains react the same way when our friends are hurting as they do when we are.


Interesting Fact #2

Babies as young as nine months can spot friendship, even among people they're not familiar with.


Interesting Fact #3

If you quit smoking, your friends are 36% more likely to do the same.


Quote of the day

A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.

- Walter Winchell

Article of the day - How to help a friend through a tough time, according to a clinical psychologist

Science supports what we intuitively understand: Strong relationships enhance the quality of our lives. We have all felt our outlook brighten after a meaningful conversation and our mood sour after conflict. We have all had a bad day turn around after an afternoon of laughter and story-swapping with good friends. That’s because having social support not only boosts our mental health, research has found, it also softens the impact of stress.

Our desire to belong is so universal that psychologists have labeled it a fundamental motivational drive. Social isolation is linked to a variety of problems, including attempting suicide and premature death. Loneliness, in other words, is finally being recognized as a public health issue.

As a clinical psychologist, I provide therapy to people who have been through heart-wrenching experiences that can leave them feeling deeply alone — the death of a family member, sexual assault, domestic violence, unemployment, and other hardships. One of my top priorities as a therapist is working with patients to increase their sources of social support. Many have loved ones who are eager to help. The problem is, they may not know how to.

When we are not equipped to support loved ones through a hard time, our discomfort can compel us to point out a bright side or offer a simple solution, which may come across as dismissive. Sometimes, my patients say they walk away feeling judged or burdensome. While putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and treating people how we want to be treated are generally useful principles, they are not always the most effective ways to cultivate compassion. It is hard to imagine being in a situation that you have not actually been in, and people differ in what they find comforting.

Through years of working with therapy patients and conducting mental health research, I have found some useful approaches for comforting people in pain. These are the most effective:

Ask them how they are feeling. Then, listen non-judgmentally to their response.

The simple act of asking someone how they’re doing, with an open-ended question, shows that you care. Listen attentively rather than interrupting or offering your opinion. Ask simple follow-up questions like, “What does that feel like?” or “What has been on your mind as you’re going through this?” This communicates that you genuinely want to know how they’re doing and feel comfortable hearing the truth.

Show them that you want to understand and express sympathy.

For example, if someone is struggling with a new medical diagnosis, you can say, “It sounds like you’re most worried about the side effects of the treatment. Is that right?” If you’re speaking in person, nonverbal communication, like a concerned facial expression, is a powerful way to convey support. You can also express kindness and validation through statements such as, “I’m sad that you’re in so much pain right now,” or “You’re in such a tough situation.”

Ask how you can support them and resist jumping in to problem-solve.

As a therapist, I help patients assert their requests for emotional support to friends and family members. You can’t be expected to mindread and know what will comfort every person in every situation. Acknowledging that and asking, “How can I support you?” or “What can I do to help?” expresses a desire to assist without presuming you know what is best for them.

Check in to see if they are suicidal.

Emotional pain can feel unbearable at times, especially for people lacking support and resources. Sometimes, this leads to suicidal thoughts. If someone you care about is going through a hard time, especially if they’ve had suicidal thoughts in the past, ask them directly if they are thinking about hurting or killing themselves. You may feel uncomfortable bringing it up, but research shows that asking about suicide is unlikely to harm people and may benefit them. It opens opportunities to share mental health resources, like the Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s also helpful to talk about a plan for safety, including reducing access to firearms and other lethal means.

Reassure them, realistically.

Statements like “Everything will be fine,” “It could be worse,” or “You just need to stop thinking that way,” often lead people to feel ashamed for expressing pain, and rarely set them on a better path. Instead, try saying things like, “There’s help available; we’ll find it together,” “A lot of people love you. You don’t have to get through this alone,” or “I’ve seen you get through extremely challenging times in the past, I believe in you.”

There’s no perfect thing to say in the most difficult situations, but we can support each other by opening dialogue, expressing compassion, and listening with the goal of understanding. Though sometimes hard to initiate, these conversations are the ones that strengthen our relationships. They make us feel we have a place to turn the next time the world feels lonely and dark.

Question of the day - What's something that comforts you when you're struggling?

Other Relationships

What's something that comforts you when you're struggling?