Everyone faces struggles in life.
Whether it’s a job loss, the death of a loved one, divorce, mental health, or a substance abuse issue, we all face difficult situations. When we see our friends facing one of those tough times, it’s hard to know how to help a friend while keeping appropriate boundaries.
We all wish we could spare those we care about from facing hard times. Sometimes, we’re not sure how to interact or communicate with them in a way to let them know we care. Other times, we may feel frustrated because we can’t control or “fix” their behavior.
Navigating the waters of friendship isn’t always easy, but our friends play an important role in our lives. Here’s how to help a friend who’s going through a hard time.
Whenever we’re faced with a difficult situation, there’s a temptation to enter what we refer to as the drama triangle. The drama triangle is similar to the Bermuda triangle—we get sucked in and kind of lost within the drama.
Like a triangle, the drama triangle consists of three roles. For many of us, we shift between the roles within our various relationships and situations. We all play all the roles from time to time.
The three roles of the drama triangle are:
Within almost any relationship, we’ll see all these patterns. In each of the roles, we aren’t taking appropriate responsibility for our part in the situation. The victim is taking no responsibility. The persecutor is shifting the responsibility to someone else. The rescuer is taking responsibility for other peoples’ problems, but not their own needs.
We may likely take on the role of rescuer because it feels good initially. We want to help people through their problems and resolve their issues. Often, rescuers think, “If I’m nice enough and rescue you enough, then you’ll reciprocate.” Unfortunately, when we’re falling into the drama triangle, reciprocity is rarely the case.
Instead, it’s important to point out the truth. Speak honestly and openly to help a friend, but don’t take on the role of rescuer. Be straightforward. Point out that you notice they’re unhappy. Let them know they aren’t as helpless as they feel and help them identify proactive ways to move forward.
In our relationships, especially in challenging circumstances, it’s important we don’t become the rescuer. It shifts our friend into the victim role, which is disempowering and may actually hold them in a difficult place. At the same time, we can’t become the instigator or persecutor either, giving them direct orders or telling them how wrong we think they may be.
When we’re trying to help a friend who’s going through a difficult time, it’s important to watch out for the drama triangle. It’s very common in these challenging situations and gets us stuck in a continuing pattern that’s hard to break out of.
So, if we want to help a friend, how do we actually assist them? How do we help them realize the power to get through the tough time is within their capacity?
If we look at many famous friendships we’ve seen in films and books, we see examples of the friend/ally relationship at work. There’s a particular scene in the movie Goodwill Hunting where Matt Damon’s character, Will, is talking about how he doesn’t want to move forward with his life and take on a career using his genius abilities in mathematics. Ben Affleck’s character takes on the role of empowering ally when he tells him his abilities are special—abilities Ben and the other guys in their neighborhood don’t have. He tells him the best part of his day is when he walks up to Will’s door and imagines he won’t be there to drive to work at the demolition site.
“I think maybe I’ll get up there and knock on your door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see ya later, no nothing. You’ve just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
In this movie, we see a powerful example of what it really means to help a friend. It’s important we offer honest feedback, empowering our friend to move forward and meet their yearnings.
Often, when someone is struggling, they may lose sight of their vision or feel unsure of themselves. As a friend, or better yet an ally, we can help them realize their vision. We can speak the vision and hold it for them as the purpose of the conversation.
When we’re working toward a clear vision, it’s a little easier to offer feedback (even if it’s tough love), because we have a picture to work toward. We’re looking at the larger picture and helping our friend realize there’s more for them out there.
When a friend is going through something painful, like a loss, we’re not sure how to navigate at all. We may feel unsure of what to say and how to help our friend feel “better.”
The reality is, there are times when there’s really not much we can say or do to take away someone’s hurt, especially if they’re grieving. At that point, what we can do is hold space for them to go through their emotions. Rather than taking away the pain, sadness, and sorrow they feel, simply be there to listen and offer emotional support.
In other circumstances, especially times when a friend may have gotten themselves into a situation of their own making, we may wonder how to help them pull themselves up and move on.
As your friend is ready to move forward, ask them what kind of support they want from you. Rather than offering up unsolicited ideas of what they should do, pose it as a question: “What kind of support do you want from me? This is my vision for you—is this what you see for yourself too? Is this what you want?”
It’s important to remember you can’t wave a magic wand and hope what you want to happen, happens. There are times in friendship when we can’t help our friends. There may even be moments when we just realize we can’t magically make someone less of, well…an idiot.
At those moments, we may need to embrace tough love. It’s important to set boundaries and limits in all our relationships. When you’re faced with a friend who’s really spewing negative garbage or who’s using you as their emotional punching bag, it becomes a destructive situation.
In cases like this, it’s 100% appropriate and necessary to tell them, “Hey, it’s not okay for you to dump this on me. It’s not okay for you to say harmful things. I’m here for you, but if you can’t take responsibility then I can’t be here for you.”
If we really want to help a friend who’s going through a tough time, it’s important we also look out for ourselves. Be honest, kind, loving, and open with your friends, but use those same qualities toward yourself (and expect the same from your pals).
Ultimately, being a good friend means staying out of destructive patterns, encouraging, and empowering our friends to become all we know they can become. We should aim to not only act as friends but as allies, helping our friends along on their journey toward living their best life.
For more on living your best life please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where you’ll explore relationships and connect with others as they work toward their goals.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.