When a good friend expresses that they are facing tough times, we may feel an impulse to reach out and help. However, unless this is someone you are particularly close to, you may not know how. So if you tell them that you want to support them, then they'll just reach out whenever they need support, right?

Well, not exactly. A person who is struggling isn't necessarily going to reach out, and those who do are more likely to reach out to those closest to them -- a partner or best friend. A generic offer of help doesn't often do much because it doesn't let the person know how you want to help. You could be imagining yourself as a shoulder to cry on for a recent divorcee, while what they may really need is a place to stay or help moving. They may choose to not ask for help if they fear rejection, or may ask you to help with one of those things, only to result in an awkward conversation due to differences in expectation. So how do you ensure you actually get to help your friend?

One way of doing this is by saying specifically how you're willing to help. The more specific, the better! Even "I'm here if you need to talk" could result in misunderstanding if they want to vent and you think they want to problem solve. If you know more about your friend and their failure modes, you can find ways to help that are specific to them. For example, offering to spend time supporting them as they answer old emails, or message them with encouraging thoughts when they're about to step into a date or job interview. A particularly social friend may see something as simple as planning to spend time together as a way of showing you care, while some may think the same of starting a text or online conversation. If you can't think of specific ways to help someone, initiating contact may be a good place to start.

Some people are liable to forget what thing you offered to do, especially if their life tends towards the more stressful. Asking someone how they're doing can be a good move here, particularly for friends with more stressful lives. This can be an easy way to transition into a venting or problem solving conversation if that is your preferred way of helping, or you can discuss other ways they could use your help. Even if your friend doesn't need help in that moment, they will feel good about the fact that you reached out.

Caring for someone doesn't just have to be for times of stress. If the only time someone gets care is when they're struggling, it can create perverse incentives for them to continue to not be okay. In a sense, then, continuing to show care for someone when they're doing well helps too. It can top off their emotional reserves so that they are less likely to be depleted. Spending low key one-on-one time with someone can do a lot to help with this (especially for the more introverted among us), as does having ongoing conversations with them over email or messenger, or creating affordances for lowered emotional barriers.

When you want to offer support, it's also good to keep track of what kinds of support you are good at giving and what kinds of support you enjoy giving. Often, people have stable preferences for the kind of support they need, so although it's always best to ask first, it may feel nice for a depressed friend if someone checked in to see if they are hungry, and then prepared food for them. This is especially the case if the depressed person often struggles to prepare or order food, and the helper enjoys cooking. Essentially, a person's love language (service, words, etc) may determine the best way to help them, just as your preferred love language giving-wise may be your preferred way to help others in need.

It is easy to fail to be helpful, despite good intentions. Results can range from awkward to hurtful, and it's often hard to disentangle how things could have gone better. We can play by the golden rule here, but let's take it a step further and help people as they would like to be helped. It can create more work upfront, but in the end you are not only helping the person, but also meta-helping by doing so in a more helpful way.


2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:51 AM
New Comment

Is there a reason you reposted a thing you already posted a couple months ago? https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/e5YmMZ9ZAaexTJRRi/when-i-m-here-means-nothing

Oops this is my mistake. All these posts were imported to LW2 in the past day, I accidentally did a double import. Will fix presently.