Published: 12 December 2020. Written by: Geraldine Meadows
Have you noticed that your friendships mean more than ever this year? Here, a psychotherapist leads us through the ways we can be a better friend, even when times are tough.
It doesn’t need repeating that this year has been HARD.
2020 has taken its toll on us all and, at times, it’s made it tough to stay in touch with our social circle. But why? My theory, based on my work as a psychotherapist and anecdotal evidence from my own social circle, is that it’s because we fear we may not have much to say.
Let’s be frank, no one has been up to much this year, so it’s easy to feel worried we’ll be subdued or find ourselves without much to contribute. This can make us shy away and keep ourselves to ourselves, feeding into a vicious cycle of isolation.
Loneliness has become more of an epidemic than ever before with ONS figures showing 4.2 million adults reported feeling ‘always or often’ lonely in early November. Staying in touch and showing you care has never mattered more.
But remember, it’s not about being your best at all times; many of us are sensitive and emotional right now, and we deserve kindness and self-compassion. This is just about being there, in a supportive circle that can benefit us all.
Let’s take a look at five ways you can be a better friend as this unique year draws to a close.
1. Be an active and authentic listener
This is the first and most important technique taught when you train as a counsellor or psychotherapist – a type of careful listening with the intention to understand what is being said. It involves listening without judging, allowing space for thoughts to be completed and using techniques like summarising or reflecting, to show you’ve accurately picked up the message.
The results can be profound and mean the speaker feels truly understood. So if your pal tells you: ‘It’s so hard at work at the moment. I really feel invisible and misunderstood.’ You might mirror back: ‘You feel invisible and misunderstood…’ You’ll often hear a resounding ‘Yes!’ in reply, and your friend will go on to further explore how they feel.
Other useful bridges can be to simply say: ‘Tell me more’ or ‘Keep going’. Active and authentic listening has been shown to be a valuable tool that can even increase our own sense of wellbeing.
2. Validate your friend’s feelings
This is about accepting and honouring your friend’s feelings, whatever they may be, and not asking them to change them in any way. For example, when I felt sad at the start of the second lockdown, I was told by a well-meaning relative to ‘Just get on with it and be positive.’ No malice was meant, but it left me feeling unheard and as if my feelings weren’t right or didn’t matter.
It’s like telling someone to ‘Cheer up, it might never happen!’ Or trying to comfort a recently unemployed friend by saying: ‘It’s fine… something exciting is right round the corner!’ While these are all well-meant, they leave little room for the speaker’s true experience to exist.
Validating feelings is an invaluable technique and is about holding space for how someone feels. Just allowing them to be. Your friend will feel listened to, respected and understood.
3. Be wary of offering unsolicited advice
This is tough as we all want to help and, if we’re honest, might truly think that we know best! Of course, we mean well – it’s an automatic response to want to help a friend in need. However, in opening up, what someone wants is to feel heard.
Unless they specifically ask for your input, try to listen actively and ask questions rather than jump in with your own opinion. It can put you in the position of expert and take away from your friend’s ability and power to decide for themself.
Imagine you are weighing up whether to leave your current job. Your friend jumps in, telling you what to do. Does it actually help you make up your own mind, to work out what you think is right? More often, it adds additional clutter and noise to all the uncertainty that’s already in your head.
It may feel like a new skill at first, but try asking gentle probing questions instead such as: ‘How would you feel if you leave?’ or ‘What are the pros and cons for staying and leaving?’ This empowers your friend and helps him/her move towards making the decision for themself.
4. Steer clear of judging
Although it can feel cathartic to have a moan with a friend, it’s not always a great idea.
Talking about your own experience is healthy and can help us find support. However when it comes to talking about others, we’re entering into trickier water. That’s because judging others – or ourselves – ultimately doesn’t make us feel good. As a 2018 report shows that the more you judge the worse you feel. Gossiping about others may lead to feelings of connection, but if the content is negative or judgemental, it can leave a trace of ill-feeling.
A litmus test I use is to ask myself: ‘Would I say this to the person in question?’ If the answer is no, it’s clear that I shouldn’t say it to anyone else either.
5. Remember that little things count
No one could have foreseen what we’d all have to live through this year. We’ll all come back to life one day but, until then, the smallest, simplest things can help those you love keep going. Sending a short but sweet ‘How are you? I miss you!’ text can brighten someone’s day. I received one like this last week and it lifted my mood considerably.
To know we’re being thought of is a comfort. So even if you’re low on energy or don’t have much to talk about, just reaching out to say you’re thinking of someone can really make their day.
And bear in mind…
All this applies to you, too. Now’s an important time to be a good friend to yourself, if you can be. Being kind and non-judgmental, giving yourself treats when you can – new fluffy socks, a hot bath, a delicious dinner – can all lift the mood. And we all deserve all the kindness and care in the world right now.
Take a look at the six forms of self-care that could give you a gentle boost when it comes to your mental health.
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, visit the NHS website for a list of charities, organisations and support groups for expert advice.
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