I’ve always said that my favorite thing to give is my opinion.
Need me to give you advice on that problem? I’ve got introspection and suggestions out the wazoo, all totally for free.
But guess what took me nearly 40 years to realize: just because I am most comfortable giving someone advice as my “gift” to them doesn’t mean that it’s actually the most helpful thing for someone to hear or receive. And believe me, it can be so frustrating when you’re looking at someone else’s life and you obviously know that if they just did this or said that, all their life’s troubles would disappear…but that’s not the way it works.
We are all going through our own sh*t in our own perfect timing. And if you’re stubborn like me, you’ll learn it when you’re damn well ready to. So no, our well-intentioned, extremely honest feedback or homemade pie to cheer someone up may not be the best way to help the people we love. (Just kidding, you should definitely bake your friends a pie.)
I am so grateful to have the friendship of my best friend, Megan, to help me learn and practice what actually being there for someone looks like (oh, and Brené Brown’s talks on empathy, of course). One day, I was expressing feeling upset about something (probably a guy) and Megan offered advice, which is the same thing I would normally do.
But instead of listening to her advice, I thought to myself (in a grumpy, pouty way), “I don’t want advice! I want her to say, ‘I’m sorry that happened, that sucks!'” When I was in the middle of my feelings storm, I was in no way ready to look for a way forward, or even out of the storm. I just wanted to feel acknowledged that I was in it and that it sucked. And not too long after that, I did the same thing to Megan and I rushed to want to solve her problem instead of just being there with her.
So we both realized after talking it out that our old ways of being there for each other weren’t really helping us in the ways our hearts needed at that moment. And now, we do this really cool thing when any time something crappy happens in either of our lives, we simply say to each other, “I’m sorry, friend.”
And I love this.
It instantly makes me feel better. No, it doesn’t solve my problem or hers, but you know what helps you have the confidence to step up to the plate to solve your own life problems? Knowing that you have someone in your corner.
So here are my three tips on how to actually be there for the people in your life:
1. First, say “I’m sorry that happened.” Don’t say “I totally understand” and go on about an equally or worse thing that happened to you. This is not an opportunity to talk about yourself. I repeat: this is not about you.
2. Second, ask, “What do you think you need right now?” This is important, because sometimes when we are in the midst of an emotional sh*tstorm, we might have no idea what we need. So be patient. Ask them if they just want you to listen, or if they’re ready for feedback or advice. Maybe it’s a glass of water (or wine), maybe it’s to yell “f*ck” as loud as possible in the middle of the street, who knows?
For me, sometimes I just need a really good hug and for someone to tell me it’s going to be okay. Or sometimes, I just need to vent. I’ve literally messaged my boss at work to ask her if she has five minutes for me to vent. When she’s free (because you shouldn’t vent all over someone when they are not ready), she lets me know, I vent, and voila! All better and I can move on.
Sometimes you just need someone to listen to you and then agree that, “Yes, Lorena, what that person did is indeed dumb. I can see why you’d be upset.” Do you need to be alone, do you want to be distracted, do you want someone to be honest with you, do you want someone to temporarily be on your side, even though you probably know you were in the wrong?
We all have different coping and conflict styles, so figure out what you need and learn how to ask for it. If you don’t know, get curious. Ask your friends what they find helpful, start to pay attention to what kinds of things make you feel better. You can’t be upset with someone who is trying to be there for you in the wrong ways if you’ve never shown them the right ways.
3. Third, remember that we all have the ability to solve our own problems. If you solve something for someone else, they might not receive the gold nugget that’s theirs to discover. Within you is all of the knowledge and wisdom needed to solve whatever you are going through. So before you offer them advice, try asking them, “Well, what’s your first thought on what would be a solution?” or “What does your gut, or your heart, tell you is the right move?” Help them Sherlock their own solution.
Having people depend on you for their life’s advice might seem glamorous, at first, but when they don’t take your perfect advice and continue making the same silly mistakes, well…that grows to be frustrating. And you start to think your friend doesn’t value you because they don’t take your advice, when in reality, the whole time you are making it about you! Stop that.
Bonus Tip: try unexpected acts of thoughtfulness.
When you are feeling those feels, how nice it is to have a surprise reminder that you’re not alone and that someone believes in you and cares about you. I have some seriously amazing friends who have out of the blue sent me cards and gifts, left baked goods on my doorstep…I even had a friend who recently went to my favorite Italian deli and brought me my favorite sandwich and a slice of tiramisu on my lunch break. I have another friend who pulls a tarot card for me and sends me a reading on a homemade postcard every so often.
Being thoughtful doesn’t have to cost a penny, but the feeling someone can receive from being thought of while they are going through something tough is priceless.
The morale of my story is you don’t have to have a college degree in psychology to know how to solve your friends’ problems, because guess what? It’s not your job to solve them. It is your job to love the sh*t out of them, show up, and be present with them.
It’s a simple as “I’d like to be there for you, show me how.”