I just read a great post on another advice blog, Captain Awkward, about how to listen to someone who just received horrible news or is going through a bad time. It’s well worth a look. Whether or not you agree with the politics of her intro, her advice is sound. The number one thing to keep in mind if you want to help someone feel better is: don’t derail her. Don’t take her crisis and make it about you. If you force a friendship on someone who’s rebuffed you, no matter how much in need she seems, you’re derailing her. And on a similar note, if you just don’t have enough of a personal history with someone, or enough patience and pure altruism to go through Captain’s Awkward’s steps to being a good listener, then it’s a favor to yourself and your potential helpee to just stay out of the situation. There’s actually nothing wrong with saying to yourself, “Well, there’s nothing I can do here,” or “I don’t think I’m up for this,” when the situation calls for it.
I once had a long talk with another friend about “charity friendships.” Those are friendships you start up solely because you feel sorry for someone. I batted around the idea that charity friendships aren’t charity at all, because I’ve seen them go through their entire natural cycle:
1) You start with pity, then you strike up a one-sided relationship where you provide all the emotional support to the other person,
2) Then the other person’s problems drag on and on and you wear thin as you realize all you do is talk about her because you have few other common interests (after all, couldn’t that be the reason you weren’t friends to begin with?). A lot of people tap out here. But some make it to…
3) Your charity friend’s problems have been resolved! But now you’ve set a pattern in your relationship in which you are fixed as the giver, and she’s fixed as the taker. It doesn’t even necessarily reflect poorly on your new friend — after all, all this time you’ve never indicated you needed her help and support, so she might assume you don’t want or need those things from her. It’s hard to break that kind of pattern, and unfair of you to whine about her sticking to it when you’re the one who set it up. So you’ll wind up either feeling burned out all the time on that friendship, or you’ll blow up when you’ve had enough and then move on from the friendship entirely.
Not every charity friendship turns out that way. But it takes a lot of work, and two very special people, to transition from a charity friendship to a more reciprocal one.
Am I saying “Never try to be someone’s friend if they seem sad or lonely”? No. Of course you should extend friendship when you’re moved. But don’t force it if it doesn’t feel natural. And don’t make pity the only reason to become someone’s friend. Focus instead on your good deeds: the little things you can do to make that person’s life better when you’re thrown together naturally. Friendship isn’t a good deed; it’s a relationship that has to be nurtured by two willing parties. If friendship springs from your good deeds, that’s a wonderful byproduct. But don’t become someone’s friend because you think the friendship itself will “help” her.
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