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How Do I Help My Friend Without Smothering Them?

Stop thinking of yourself as a burden.

by Gretchen Brown
January 21, 2021 | Living
colorful thought bubbles surround the column name, Ask Me Instead, help friend

Hi Ask Me Instead,

My friends and I have a text thread where we encourage each other to stay active as much for the sake of our physical health as mental health because: pandemic. Some friends chime in daily, others every few days or few weeks. 

One of my friends was in there, every day, sharing activities and workouts with us, really digging in and then, just stopped. One day turned into two, three, a week and then over one month. 

Some of us in the group grew worried, reaching out individually to check in, but it never seemed like this friend wanted to talk or connect. Responses were, "Oh, I'm fine, just busy." This didn't feel right. 

Turns out, this friend had been experiencing some acute seasonal affective disorder, had multiple family members ill and dying of COVID, was stressed about work, and to top it off, was experiencing migraines almost daily from it all. 

When this friend came around, they said they didn't feel comfortable sharing, saying something to the extent of, "all of us are going through shit right now." I mean, they're not wrong, but when I learned this was what kept my friend from sharing, I couldn't help but feel like I could have done more to support them. 

In normal times, I would have just driven myself over to visit and been like, "Hello? Are you okay?" or asked to meet up for a drink or lunch, but with IRL visits not being an option because of the pandemic, I felt more helpless.

Luckily, this friend came around, but what if this happens again to someone I love? How could I be more proactive in a situation like this without coming off overbearing or like I'm smothering them?


Dear Worried Friend,

We tend to simplify friendships in our minds. We imagine them as perfectly symbiotic, a mutual give-and-take.

So when we slip up, we blame ourselves for being so stupid as to not follow the rightful order of things. If it's so symbiotic, how could we have missed our turn? Shouldn't we have sensed it somehow?

But a person who is drowning isn't always able to say so. And when we're only seeing our friends via Zoom and over text it's even less obvious.

It's natural to feel bad about missing the warning signs. But these times are an opportunity to learn new ways to support our friendships as they truly are, which is messy, and ever-changing, and both drifting and coming closer as the days go by.

two hands in an abstract style. ask me instead rewire pbs love help friend
Credit: Ben Malley // TPT and splitov27 // Adobe

You say you're worried about smothering your friend. As someone who has been both the worried friend and the silent one in this situation, I can say your fear isn't irrational, but it's really quite impossible to smother a friend truly in need.

Next time, do not meet their silence with silence. Keep checking in, even if they brush off your first attempts. Even if you're met with more silence.

Send them "How are ya?" Send them memes. Send them a new song you've been into lately. 

Help doesn't have to be smothering. If it's physical acts of support you're missing, there are creative ways to keep doing them. Think about what would mean a lot to you if you were in their shoes.

Don't put the onus on them to come up with a list of ways you can help.

Send them a letter or a $5 gift card to their favorite coffee shop, leave their favorite food on their doorstep, be spontaneous in all the ways you love; just wear a mask and keep your distance.

Silence, here, isn't necessarily a sign of failure. It would maybe be more satisfying for your friend to spill all of their feelings to you in response to your support. But that's not the way all people work through things. It's not the way all things need to be worked through.

I usually love to vent my feelings to my close friends. But sometimes, I'm not in a state where I'm able to even verbalize all that I'm feeling. 

Regardless, it's comforting to see my friends reaching out, like a sign I'm still a physical person in the world.

Your friend may be indifferent to or even kind of hate your messages in the moment. Sometimes your mind is so loud that anything else feels like static. 

But after the fact, chances are good they'll be grateful you reached out. If they aren't? The way I see it, it's always better to have reached out on the off chance it helps, than to not reach out for fear of annoying someone.

This is a concept I've had to reshape my own mind to understand. I used to be constantly worried about annoying my friends. 

But thinking of your very presence as a burden is not a very good way to think about yourself. It is dismissive. It highlights only the things you don't like, and completely ignores all the good you are.

Most of all, it's a missed opportunity. Because when you think of yourself as a burden, you don't think about all the ways you can help the folks around you. You don't think about how you can make the world better.

So I'd encourage you to push past this feeling and see where a world without it takes you. Your empathy is an asset.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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