There aren’t many feelings worse than knowing your friend is going through a tough time, especially when it feels like there’s nothing you can do to help. And it’s a fairly awkward position to be in, especially if you don’t have much experience. Through trial and error, for example, I’ve figured out that asking a visibly upset friend to weigh in on my definitive ranking of breakfast foods is a terrible idea, as is invoking a string of cliched phrases I’ve stockpiled since the third grade (“time heals all wounds, “there are other fish in the sea,” “you have to look up to see the rainbow,” “baby now we’ve got bad blood,” etc).
Here’s what you should keep in mind to get your friend through a rough patch, so that you might both emerge from the other side polished silverware/smiling faces:
Know that you can’t fix everything
For a lot of us, knowing something’s wrong means we’ll do anything in our power to fix it. And of course we do—the only way we’ve survived as a species for this long was by figuring out the answers to questions like “How can we be less hungry?” (foraging) and “Is there any way to stop that mammoth from trampling us?” (reflexes, sometimes). The unfortunate truth is that you can’t fix everything. If your friend’s parents are getting divorced, there probably aren’t any parent traps you’ll be able to pull. If your friend has a sick pet, there’s not much you can do unless you’re a veterinarian. And even vets aren’t wizards, no matter how often they tell us otherwise.
It’s frustrating to know you can’t fix everything, but refusing to accept that mammoths sometimes trample will just make things more frustrating for all parties. There are other ways you can be there for your friend.
Let them talk to you as much as they want
Okay—maybe not ~actually~ as much as they want, since you likely also have your own life to live and muffins to bake. But most of the time, just being there to listen is what your friend needs most. Your ears are a cup that your friend can pour their troubles into (that sounded less weird in my head). There may not be anything you can say to make it better, but giving them a chance to unload can be a huge relief. It’s like offering to take the tent pack off your sunburnt friend on a very long hike. Coincidentally, a very long hike is a great activity to engage your friend in so they can tell you what’s bothering them.
But don’t force them to talk
Guess what? Sometimes people don’t want to talk. Maybe it’s because they’re hiding behind a door for a surprise party. Maybe it’s because they don’t feel comfortable talking about the personal trouble they’re going through. You should ask if anything is wrong either way, but don’t push them too much. Let them know that you’re there, and where to find you if they need it.
Ice cream turns sad into happy. It’s formulaic. Unless your friend is lactose intolerant. Then you may have to downgrade to strawberry sorbet. Unless they’re allergic to strawberries. But then you can just get them a lesser flavor of sorbet. Feel free to engage in a sorbet argument in the comments section.
It’s not about you
Think about every movie you’ve ever seen where the main character knows someone who’s going through something difficult. Being that it’s a movie, the friend’s trouble is usually an excuse for the main character to learn something. It’s a great plot device. But even though you might like to think of yourself as the main character of your movie, your friends aren’t just having problems to teach you a lesson. When you help them out with their problems, it should be because you want to be a good friend, not because their sadness is bumming you out. And that’s really what these tips are all about. Put your friends and their needs first while they’re going through a rough patch for their sake alone—not for a pat on the back at the end of it.
What would you do to help a friend through a slump?