Dear Miriam | How to Help a Troubled Friend

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Dear Miriam,

Say you had a friend you were very close to once (let’s call her Lisa). And now you are watching her make a series of decisions that are, one by one, hurting her and all the people that were once close to her (but aren’t anymore because she pushed them all away). And you know the circumstances, and you know this Lisa isn’t the same person you once knew, but she’s too overwhelmed to see it. How much do you keep reaching out?

Signed,


Friendship from Afar

Dear Friendship,

You can only do so much. You can only reach out so many times. You can only offer so much help. You can only try so hard to let Lisa’s other friends know that this isn’t about them. And then you have to draw a line for yourself and let Lisa know you’ll be there for her if she wants support, but that you’re not going to be the one to keep approaching her.

Not to make every column ever about the pandemic, but the specific challenges of right now are likely affecting Lisa, her decisions and her friendships. Maybe she’s particularly struggling with the social isolation of the past year, or maybe she’s online all day and can’t bear to connect with friends at night through the only means that are available to her. Maybe she’s struggling with the enormity of everything right now, and her decision-making and friendships are suffering as a result.

That’s not to make excuses for bad behavior, but to contextualize an entire impossible year that we’ve all endured in different ways.

You also need to think about yourself and your own needs. Are you hoping to get some answers from Lisa about why she’s behaving this way? Do you need validation or support or understanding from your mutual friends? If it feels like it’s serving your own needs to continue attempting to connect with Lisa, you’re not wrong to keep trying. But pay attention to how this one-sided experience is impacting you, and back off when you can tell you’ve had enough.

Make sure you have other social outlets for yourself and that you’re not falling back on “helping” Lisa because it’s a familiar pattern and because some connection is better than no connections. The other friends that she’s spurned may be good contacts for her, too, not to talk about Lisa but to spend time (even virtually) with other people who have shared this unfortunate experience.

If you believe that Lisa is making bad decisions that rise to the level of creating a dangerous situation for herself and others, you have more of an obligation to step in, either by reaching out to members of Lisa’s family, to her rabbi or similar, or to a therapist or other support person either for yourself or for Lisa. If, though, she’s making bad decisions that are “merely” hurtful, you may have to step back and let Lisa manage the consequences of her own actions.

Be well,

Miriam

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