The Best Way to Support a Friend Who Is Having a Hard Time

What is the best way to support a friend in need? According to research, this may be the wrong question. Simply showing up and expressing warmth and love is what matters most. The study, Too Reluctant to Reach Out: Receiving Social Support Is More Positive Than Expressers Expect published in Psychological Science found that all too often we hesitate to express support because we worry too much about saying or doing the “right thing” and question our competence to provide what the person needs.

According to the study, there is a gap between how expressers and recipients perceive the very same supportive act. Expressers tend to focus on how effectively they are supporting another person whereas recipients tend to focus on the warmth and kindness that they receive. As a result of the mismatch, we systematically miss opportunities to help others more in daily life:

“Each day offers opportunities to reach out and show some form of support, however large or small, to a person in need. Our experiments suggest that undervaluing the positive impact of expressing support could create a psychological barrier to expressing it more often. Withholding support because of misguided fears of saying or doing the wrong thing could leave both recipients and expressers less happy than they could be,” explained the researchers.

When in doubt, send that text, make that phone call and show up. It means more than you realize.

West Wing fans may remember the iconic scene when Leo McGarry tells his friend, Josh Lyman, the story about the man in the hole. Josh is having a hard time and Leo shares these words of wisdom:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he cant get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps into the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Simply being there for someone is an act of grace. As Cecilia Irene reflected on her blog “Leo’s quotation is the definition of love and friendship. Prayer is infinitely valuable. Medicine is good. But sometimes what you really need is for someone to meet you where you are and try to help you climb out of the pit.”

The Man in the Hole story reminds me of a beautiful letter poet Robert Lowell wrote to his fellow poet John Berryman who was going through a rough patch:

“I have been thinking much about you all summer, and how we have gone through the same troubles, visiting the bottom of the world. I have wanted to stretch out a hand, and tell you that I have been there too, and how it all lightens and life swims back … “

Don’t let agonizing over finding the right words or doing the right thing keep you from expressing warmth and love. Reach out to others in need more often and remind them that life swims back.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman