from cracked.com, the source of most of my wisdom…
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: screwing 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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#2. Declaring Their Problem Solved, Then Walking Away
It’s in our nature to want quick fixes. The best charities are the ones where you can just easily hand over a few dollars and then go about the rest of your day, knowing it’s going to be used by honest, upstanding people. Don’t ever think that’s a bad thing. The fact that you’re helping out a good cause at all is super fucking admirable, and I respect the hell out of people who do it.
But it’s also easy to get tricked into that frame of mind when helping out a friend because we want their problems to be like a movie: Here’s the part where they’re struggling, then here’s the part where they get rescued and everything is fine again. Roll credits! But in virtually every case where a person needs help, the problem cannot be boiled down to a simple one-shot cause like “addiction” or “a bad relationship.” Most of those problems are caused by a deeper, darker undercurrent, something that bubbles up from time to time, manifesting itself in different ways. It’s frustrating to see the same mistakes and bad habits bite them in the ass again and again. You start to feel like they’re your patient instead of your friend.
But that’s how real life is different. In a movie, once a person goes through rehab, her drug problem is over. When a person starts laughing and joking, his depression is cured. In reality, people can and do suffer from this shit their entire lives. Even if we’re not talking about actual illnesses (in which case, your first advice should always be “see a fucking professional instead of my dumb ass”), the destructive habits all of us have are the result of decades of repetition and reinforcement. That shit doesn’t change overnight, no matter what background music you play over your homemade montage.
If you want to continue being their friend, then that means you still have to be there for them. That means checking in even when they’re in one of those stretches where they’re not fun to be around. It doesn’t even have to be a big deal — a call, an email, stopping by on your way home from work. Just knowing that someone out there gives a shit is more help than you’ll ever realize (if you’re lucky). I’ve lost count of how many messages I’ve gotten from readers saying that nobody cares about them or their problems. As a friend, 10 minutes of your time could easily change all of that. If you don’t believe me, try it.
#1. Not Knowing When to Back Off
This is the single hardest part of being a friend, and by far the hardest to know when to implement. Let me give you an example:
One of my family members was, like me, an addict. But also a career criminal to boot. He spent a massive amount of his life in prison for … um … “borrowing” other people’s things to support his … um … “huge drug problem.” Our family reached out to him many times, offering places to stay, jobs, money, food, and anything we could reasonably sacrifice on our end. But his cycle of uncountable crises continued for most of his life. He’d clean up and do great for a year or two, then fall back into a self-destructive pattern that would land him in prison once again. Here’s the crazy part: At no point (when he was clean) did he ever consciously look around at us and say to himself, “I think I’ll fuck over this person for personal gain.”
But each time that cycle started back up, all of our help was flushed down the shitter. His problems were out of his control … but more importantly for us, they were out of our control. There came a point where we had to finally grit our teeth and say, “We’ve helped as much as we can, and his disasters are now affecting our own families. Helping him at this point is just perpetuating a cycle that we cannot end.” Then we all stripped naked and ran through a field, screaming, “FREEDOM!”
Did it make us bad people? To some, it would seem that way. Our kids certainly didn’t think so when the danger of break-ins and the volatile atmosphere disappeared.
Regardless, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this point can be — because if you decide to pull out at the wrong time, you could be fucking your friend out of what could potentially be life-changing input. That … didn’t sound clean, did it? If you wait too long, you’re letting their problems spread to you and your family like a case of emotional crabs. I understand that the Internet seems to universally hate Dr. Phil, but one of the wisest pieces of relationship advice I’ve ever heard came from him:
“Ask yourself, ‘What is it costing me to be in this relationship?’ If the answer is your dreams, identity, or dignity, the cost is too high.”
In that quote, his ridiculous child-molester mustache was talking about bad romantic relationships, but it applies just as easily to friendships. You can only sacrifice so much of yourself on their behalf before you finally have to step back and say, “Enough. I’ve done all I can. It’s time for them to deal with this on their own, regardless of the consequences.” Good-hearted people will have such a hard time coming to that decision. They’ll feel guilt, shame, anger — basically all the stages of grief. But in extreme cases, you have to eventually put your own sanity and health at the top of the Good Deeds queue. Otherwise, your friend could be in a dramatically worse situation in which they never change their behavior for the better, and instead grow a dependency on you to dig them out of the quickshit pit. There is no help in that. It only sustains their problems, perpetually, until one of you gives up.
Or, worse, ends up on a massive ratings factory of a reality show. People seem to be making a pretty good living out of being a fuckup these days. Whatever, you see what I’m getting at: There’s a point where you’re not helping, but you still want to be the hero, and in the process of trying to be the hero, you’re hurting everyone else. So print this out and hang it on your wall somewhere: Sometimes being a nice person is all about knowing when to be an asshole.