In general, humans kind of suck at helping each other. Most of the people reading this would find it about a hundred times easier to diagnose and fix a computer problem than to help a friend in crisis (if only you could just wipe people and reinstall their OS without the cops freaking out about it). I know, because every time I write an article like this, I'm buried in messages that begin with "I'm really worried about a friend ..."
Well, here's something I'm an expert in: fucking up in the face of difficult problems. So while I can't give you expert advice on how to help your friend/sibling/boyfriend through the disaster that is their personal life, I can give you some great tips on what not to do, because I've been on the other end of this shit a lot. In fact, you can help me with my "I don't have a gold-plated house" problem right now by buying my new book for a dollar. I think you'll be better at this than 90 percent of the people on Earth if you can just avoid ...
#5. Making It All About You (Instead of Just Listening)
The single worst response to a cry for help that I've ever seen (and I see it constantly) is the "one-up." Everybody knows this jackoff. It's the person who listens to your story before blowing it off because he's been through worse, in many cases interrupting to do so. "You think that's bad? Wait until you hear what happened to me today!" Fuck you with a thousand dicks. There is nothing more infuriating to a person who's ass deep in a personal crisis than someone who just erases the whole thing with a single sentence. Doing that is the same as telling their friend, "Your problems don't mean jack shit. I couldn't care less about how you feel. You are only here as my personal dumping ground for my own problems. Here I go."
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"No, that's fine, I only told my story to trigger yours, because you are interesting and totally not a piece of shit."
That person has fallen into an extremely common trap: forgetting that everyone handles stress and problems differently. "Your dog has a broken leg, and you feel bad? My dog died four weeks ago. You don't see me crying about it." "Awww, you only got a B on your test, and it ruined your 4.0 GPA? Poor baby -- I've been fighting for a high D all year. But do you hear me complaining?"
It's for that exact reason that it is physically impossible for me to feel sympathy for the rich. It's how we treat strangers. They aren't people; they're chunks of meat floating around, far outside the boundaries of our Monkeysphere. We cannot let ourselves do this with friends. Knowing how you react to your own problems does not have any bearing whatsoever on the way your friends feel about their own, and it is so goddamn vital that we keep that in mind when speaking to them about things that they consider important. Even if it seems as insignificant as a popcorn fart to you.
In these situations, listening is the most basic thing you can do to show your support. It's perfectly fine to have exchanges -- you don't have to sit there in total silence while they spill their guts about how sad Justin Bieber's new pants made them. That would be, quite frankly, unsettling. But for many of us, it's just a natural reflex to jump in with our own related stories when a friend is telling theirs.
We think what we're saying is "See, we're all in the same boat!" but all they're hearing is "Sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of my own, much more enthralling life."
#4. Giving Meaningless Advice Just to Be Saying Something
Regular readers know I have a hard-on for bitch slapping bad advice right in its stupid goddamn word hole. Most people who give it really are just trying to help (although some get off on the sense of power and moral superiority that comes with hearing themselves say something wise). Unfortunately, it's extremely easy to interject some flowery piece of philosophy into a situation that in no way benefits from it, just because it seems like the sort of thing you should say. "I know you miss your boyfriend, but just remember, if you really love someone, let him go. If you were truly meant to be tog-" Oh, go fuck yourself.
So try this: Stop and ask yourself, "Do I actually have any idea what I'm fucking talking about? Or am I just quoting something I heard a wise character say in a movie?" That doesn't mean that (for instance) someone who's never drank can't be an immense help to a struggling alcoholic, but there has to be some sort of connection or experience behind the advice for it to have any weight. Maybe your dad drank. Maybe you've had friends in the exact same position, showing the same patterns of behavior. Maybe you've been doing a blind research project on them for 10 years, attempting to turn them into alcoholics for science purposes.
"Good job, ladies. Now just pour this into his tea and watch him break."
Yes, I know my car has an engine problem, because it won't start. But since I know exactly nothing about fixing a car, I can't walk up to a stumped mechanic and say, "I saw this show once where a guy's car wouldn't start, and when they opened the hood, they found a severed head in there. Did you find a severed head in there?" I'll sound like I'm talking out of my ass, because I am. Not only will you not be taken seriously at that point, but there's a good chance that the person you're trying to help will take offense at the fact that you just pretended to understand a problem that is obviously beyond you.
That's the precise moment where you go from "concerned friend trying to help out" to "annoying douchebag who's just getting in the way." You become a hurdle. Now, don't let that idea prevent you from stepping in if you have some honest words of wisdom to pass along. Even if you're saying something they already know, sometimes we need reminders. For instance, it's hard to remember in the throes of depression that your actions are affecting more people than just you. That the longer you go without treatment, the more your friends, family, and kids suffer right along with you. That reminder could be the simple nudge that triggers a recovery. You'll know you've made the right choice of words by the rainbow that instantly shoots out of their asshole.
Like this happy fish.
But when you really examine the advice that you're about to whip out like a homeless guy's dick, you're going to find occasional times where you're just talking for the sake of talking. Because repeating those old sayings feels like help, doesn't it? But that's the problem -- you're not worried about your friend; you're worried about patting yourself on the back for being awesome.
#3. Forcing Your Help on Them (or Giving the Wrong Kind of Help)
Are you sure your friend even wants help? That seems like a weird question -- someone is struggling, so obviously they want help, right? Unlike what most movies present, if someone doesn't want your help, it's not because they're just too darned feisty and full of pride to accept it. I remember plenty of times growing up where the only things left in the fridge were half a pitcher of Kool-Aid, a jar of mustard, and stink. But I promise you that in those situations, asking for help wasn't so much about pride as it was about depression and feeling like a total failure.
No, it doesn't mean that pride is completely removed as a factor. We're human, and humans are prideful animals. I've been meaning to get a penis reduction for years now, but my pride won't allow me to accept the countless invitations from limping, bow-legged women to pay for the procedure. And yes, for my mother, there was a certain level of pride at work when she refused to ask for help with groceries. But lording over all of that was a black hole, sucking up every last ounce of hope and motivation to get up and get that shit fixed.
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Mom could never accept that her dreams of being a minor league hockey star just plain couldn't put food on the table.
From the opposite end of that friendship, our first reaction in those cases (for those of us who have the means to fix it with money) is to fill their fridge. Their problem was that they had no food. Now they have food. Problem solved. But as someone who's been there can tell you, that can actually make the situation worse.
The depression worsens because they had to take "charity" from you in order to feed their kids or themselves. In turn, their stress levels shoot through the roof while they lie in bed under two tons of embarrassment and guilt. Instead of using that time to improve their financial situation by getting a better job (or in my family's case, any job at all), they're walking through life, turning down even the idea of prostitution because life has already dicked them into exhaustion.
But change the phrasing and the terms of the offer, and you'll be shocked at how much difference it makes in their lives. "Hey, I've got some stuff I could really use some help with. Mostly lawn work and painting flames down the side of my private jet. Why don't you let me hire you? I get the help I desperately need, and you get some extra cash -- everybody wins." Now they're not taking charity, they're helping you out in an employment sense. Even more importantly, they're not taking a solution from someone else -- they're actively solving their own problems while helping you with your rich asshole problems in return.
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"When you're finished painting, let me know. I'll fire it up and we can throw kittens into the engine. It pays $15 an hour."
I understand that the scenario I laid out was a specific circumstance, but the point is that if you walk into their lives like you're a prince on a white stallion, throwing out magical cures for the helpless, you're going to make them feel like they are helpless, and the ensuing emotional shitstorm is going to adversely affect the way they handle the actual core of their problem.