Why You Shouldn't Feel Responsible for Your Friends' Problems, According to an Expert
When a friend is going through a difficult time, it can be tempting to try to step in and fix all their problems for them.
As nice as that sounds, it's usually not the right solution for anyone. So how can we truly help a friend in need? We reached out to Patti Criswell, clinical social worker and author of the American Girl book A Smart Girl's Guide to Friendship Troubles, to learn more about the subject and understand just why we're not responsible for fixing our friends' problems.
Sweety High: When a friend is going through something tough, we often feel inclined to help. When is that healthy, and when should we step away?
Patti Criswell: First, you have to recognize that there's no way you can know all the variables of their problem. I'm not a fan of giving direct advice, because if they follow your advice and it doesn't work out, it can come back on you.
Instead, the magic question is "What are your options?" The role of a friend is to help someone process these options, going through them together and looking at the pros and cons of each one. It's a facilitative role rather than the role of an advice-giver, or a therapist, or a parent. In the end, they're making their own decision, and they need to be responsible for it. We're never responsible for fixing our friends' problems. As a good friend, we're responsible for helping them come to their own conclusions.
SH: What are the biggest problems with being a direct giver of advice?
PC: If someone is dating a straight-up loser who's terrible for them, it might be abandonment issues, or codependency, or inability to set boundaries that might be keeping them there. They have to come to those things in time. You may say, "You need to dump this person," but if they're not ready to do that at that time, then we lose them in the process.
There are too many other variables at play that we can never know about, so we're better off just saying, "I will walk this path with you, but I don't know what the right answer is." Lean out when it comes to having the right answers, but lean in when it comes to supporting. Let them know you have their back, and that you'll help them figure it out, but that they have to come to their own conclusions.
When people ask direct advice, it gets really difficult because young people are still figuring things out. They don't actually want someone to tell them what to do. You're not responsible for that. Unless your friend is in imminent danger, that just isn't your job.
SH: Some people see themselves as "fixers" who are always trying to solve other people's problems. What can they do in these situations?
PC: They need to redefine their role, and their goal. It isn't to raise that person. It's to be their friend. People that have that natural fixer personality need to focus on projects, not people. If you have that inclination, you need to decorate something, or make a quilt or scrapbook or become a teacher. That's not your goal in friendship. There are always variables clouding things so that they're never clear-cut. If it were that easy, people wouldn't be in distress or need support.
SH: What's the healthiest way to help a friend who seeks advice?
PC: When someone is distressed, they have a lot of stress hormones flowing through their body. Friends can help them organize their thoughts. We have to look at ourselves as consultants. You can say, "Here's what I hear you saying," and ask questions like "Is this what you're thinking? Is this what you're feeling?" We're collecting and clarifying. I love the concept of mentally looking through your wise person circle. What would your sister say? What would your friend say? What would your mom say? Then from there, you come to your own place. When you help someone organize their thoughts, it helps them get to the place they need to go and validate them.
SH: Are there times when validation isn't helpful?
PC: Sometimes, people can be caught swimming in the muck. When someone is seeing themselves as a victim in a situation and you validate that victim status, you let them swim in that negativity. In those cases, don't agonize, organize. Let them know you've got their back and that you see their point of view, and ask them what they're going to do about the situation.
Keep things action-oriented instead of letting them stay in a place where they feel disempowered. Empower them. Help them find their locus of control and their ability to change the situation. Sometimes we do just need to vent and commiserate, but I think it's harmful and unhelpful when it turns to pity. We need to have faith in our friends, and faith in their ability to get through a situation. That counts for a lot. When you're down and out and someone says "I know you, and I know you can get through this," it validates the positive and strong parts of them at a time when they can't see them for themselves.
SH: How do we help the people who are always asking for advice, but never seem take it?
PC: You need to release the expectation that they should. You're a consultant. They respect you and they want to know what you'd do. That doesn't mean there's any obligation whatsoever that they will. So be honest and give your two cents, but don't expect them to follow along, because what's right for one might not be right for another. Again, it's about helping them see their option and make the right choice for themselves.
If you're looking for further advice from experts, click HERE to find out how to conquer doubt in your life.