I know you mean well... but you're making it SO much worse. Image: @TheHappyTalent
During a recent trip to Cape Cod, I put on my swimsuit and frolicked in the gorgeous Provincetown water. The water was surprisingly warm — maybe 68 degrees or more! — and even though the air temp was dropping, the setting sun felt incredible on my body.
I was completely immersed in this wonderful, magical moment, when my former buddy Glen jerked me from my bliss with an obnoxious question:
"Aren't you cold?"
I wasn't offended — I was confused!
"No... Why would I be cold? This day is perfect!"
"Look at you! You look miserable! You have goosebumps!"
I knew what he was doing — he was trying to be some kind of hero by "noticing" I was cold, then running to get me a jacket.
"Glen, I could splash a few drops of water on your face and you'd probably start shivering. It's a physiological response... but it doesn't mean your body temperature has dropped or you're cold! I'm honestly loving this!"
"Are you sure? I can go back to the car and get you a jacket."
I should have sent him back to the car, just so I could have a few moments of peace. Instead, I told him, "Glen. I've been scuba diving in Alaska. I've surfed Santa Cruz until my hands were so frozen, I couldn't even get my car key in the door. I've trekked the Andes in the shoulder season, surviving not only below-freezing temperatures, but also 90 kilometer per hour winds. I used to jump off the bridge into the Exeter River on the first snow of the year... I think I can handle a warm summer day in Cape Cod."
The hike back down Rinjani was much warmer than the hike up, which started at 12:15am, and during which there were moments I sincerely thought I might lose my fingers to frostbite. Image: The Happy Talent
"Just let me get you a jacket. You look miserable."
I didn't respond — I just turned around and dove into the bay.
It wasn't a big deal — I'm happy, healthy, and strong. Glen could annoy me, but he couldn't completely undermine my self-image and mental health.
What he just did. The thing I just described. That's the kind of thing well-meaning "heroes" do to their friends all the time...
And if they're vulnerable, or at a vulnerable time in their day or life, your concern trolling could be completely demoralizing to them.
It's like I wrote in For the Love of God, STOP Asking People If They're Okay! (Ask This Instead):
All of human interaction can be graphed on an X-Y axis, where X is communion (actions that show caring and bring us closer to others) and Y is agency (actions that establish power or authority.
So let's go back to Glen. He asked if I was cold (or, more accurately, he demanded that I admit to being cold) and offered to help me by getting me a jacket. This is an action that is high in communion, because it showed care and concern. HOWEVER, it was also high in agency, because he put me in a position where I needed help, and he put himself in the position of the helper.
I am not struggling with feelings of agency. I feel more empowered now than I ever have in my life. Even so. It really did yank me from my moment. It really did confuse me to think, "I feel so happy! Do I really look that miserable?"
Now imagine if I were struggling with agency. Imagine if I were barely holding my shit together. Imagine if I were proud of myself, just for managing to get out of bed that morning, get dressed, and stick my toes in the water...
And then fucking Glen said that.
Indeed, the post continues:
We all want to help our friends. And, living in a society that is obsessed with telling people they are weak (see also: today's teenagers have worse self-soothing skills than literal babies), that insists that rather than aim for self-improvement, we indulge in "self-care" (yes, rather than dealing with your shit, you should totally paint your nails and take a bubble bath), we think the way to help our friends is by concern trolling them.
But it's time to unlearn toxic social messaging and pay attention to the actual research.
How can you help your friends when they seem to be struggling, whether with depression, an injury, sexual trauma, relationship abuse, unemployment, or something else?
It's hard. Everyone is different and has different needs. But here's a REALLY easy way to get started.
If someone tells you they are okay, BACK OFF and LET THEM BE OKAY.
Even if you want to be the hero. Even if they say they're okay and you don't believe them.
Because if they say they're okay and you insist that they aren't, what you're really doing is telling them that, as hard as they’re trying, they’re failing at being okay.
They’re not strong — they’re weak.
They’re not independent — they need your help.
They don’t look good — they look like shit and everyone can tell.
You’re robbing them of their agency at what is possibly THE time when they need that agency more than ever.
If you really want to help someone who says they’re okay (but you think they’re not), use words and take actions that empower them and boost their agency, but also build feelings of communion.
Instead of, “Ohhhhhh, honeyyyy!!! Are you okayyyyyyy????? Are you SUUUUUUURE you’re okay???!!!!”, try something like:
All of these actions are high in communion. All of them are directly actionable. ("We should totally hang out sometime," is not the same as, "Get out your calendar. Let's pick a date.")
And all of them build up, rather than tear down, the other person's agency.
If they say they're okay and you don't believe them, creating space and time for them to talk to you if they want to is going to be a lot more helpful than badgering them to self-disclose at a time or place they might not be comfortable doing so.
Some people aren't very comfortable with self-disclosure — especially men. One way to make people feel comfortable self-disclosing to you is for you to self-disclose to them. It's not "making everything about you." It's letting them know that you trust them. It's letting them know that, even though they may be struggling, you still value their opinion and advice.
Besides, research shows that asking someone for a favor actually makes them like you more. So by doing this, you're not just helping a friend. You're helping yourself develop closer and more supportive relationships. You're not pretending they're helping. You're sincerely allowing them to help you.
However, keep in mind that even if you create time and space for them to self-disclose, they still might not want to talk to you about what's going on. Fine. Unless you're genuinely worried for their safety, BACK OFF AND LET THEM BE OKAY.
Insisting that someone isn't okay and needs your help may be the most demoralizing thing ever.
Imagine surviving a rape, and being terrified that you lost the person you were and you'll never be the same again... and then having all of your "friends" reinforce that fear by insisting that you're helpless and broken and something is obviously wrong with you.
With friends like that, who needs enemies?
If they want to tell you, they will. If they don't, you should respect that.
One last point, which I shared in Unless the Next Words Out of Your Mouth Are Going to be, "Can I Help ___?" Do NOT Tell Me I "Look Tired":
I'm sure plenty of readers won't make it this far. They'll be annoyed or disagree with me or get hung up on how Glen was "just trying to help."
Good! Be critical! Be skeptical!
But I hope, if you truly care about helping your friends, you will turn the same skepticism on yourself and your own actions. It's not a sign of a bad thinker to use new evidence and ideas to hone your opinion — it's actually a trait of all the best thinkers.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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