Supporting a friend who’s struggling isn’t totally altruistic. Of course, we want to see our friends thrive and succeed, but it also feels really good to be there for a friend in need — and being supportive can bring us closer together. That said, it can also be complicated. Especially when there’s an imbalance in the giving and receiving of support or when we feel like a friend is overly “needy”. Even more difficult is when a friend repeatedly asks for advice about the same problem, but never actually seems to do anything about it. It doesn’t take long before this takes a toll on our patience, willingness to support them, and ultimately, the closeness we feel in our friendship.
Here are a few strategies to help you navigate this situation so you can continue being the supportive friend that you are.
Figure out why it frustrates you
If you feel like helping a friend who repeatedly deals with the same problem is frustrating, you’re definitely not alone. But the reason why it’s so frustrating or upsetting can really differ from person to person.
Is it that the balance in your friendship feels off or unfair? Do you feel like the advice or support you’re giving is underappreciated? Are you left feeling helpless or concerned? Or maybe the issue they’re struggling with relates to your own experiences or insecurities.
Whatever the reason, taking a step back and figuring out why it bothers you will help you decide whether and how to broach the subject. It can also create some emotional distance, which makes it easier to support your friend going forward.
Adjust your approach
When we have the same discussions over and over again, we tend to fall into certain patterns or habits. Over time, we might learn to respond to our friend in very specific and predictable ways, like sitting back and listening, commiserating about how difficult the situation must be, jumping at the chance to offer advice, or reminding them that nothing will change unless they do.
As a starting point, it’s worth taking stock of how you typically relate to your friend and seeing whether trying out a different approach makes any difference. Sometimes, our friends don’t want or need advice. They might be looking for validation or emotional support so that they can feel more confident handling the situation on their own. Conversely, sometimes they might actually really not know what to do and are looking for possible solutions.
It can also help to think about why the support you’re giving doesn’t seem to be helping. What works well in our own lives doesn’t always translate to our friends. Being sensitive to the personal and practical barriers that might make it difficult for your friend to handle the situation can help you give more targeted support that has a better chance of actually working!
Help them problem solve
Instead of offering up solutions or dishing out advice, help them come up with strategies that are all their own. Asking questions like “What are the different ways you can handle or approach this situation?” and brainstorming the pros and cons will help them come up with more realistic strategies they’ll be willing to use.
Make sure to validate their strengths and highlight when they are being proactive. Usually, we withdraw from a situation when we overestimate how hard it is to handle and underestimate our ability to cope. Boosting your friend’s confidence in this way makes it more likely that they’ll feel comfortable tackling the problem head on.
Talk about it openly
If you’ve tried to adjust your behavior and support your friend in changing theirs, you might decide to label what’s really going on. This doesn’t always have to lead to conflict and it’s absolutely possible to talk about this situation in a way that doesn’t come across as judgy, mean, or fed up.
The conversation shouldn’t focus exclusively on your friend’s behavior, nor should it center on how great you think your advice and support has been. Instead, frame it as a dynamic or process between the two of you and emphasize the fact that you’re bringing it up because you want to help (a help me help you kind of approach).
It’s probably best to avoid going on about how frustrated you are. Instead, focus on how you feel like the support you’re giving just isn’t working. Ask if this is something they’ve noticed as well and, most importantly, if they have any ideas about what would be helpful. They might have some great strategies you hadn’t thought of, and, at the very least, it’ll get them thinking about the things they could do differently.
When we’re feeling overwhelmed, concerned, or annoyed, it’s normal that we want to reach out to other people, whether it’s to see if they’ve dealt with a similar situation or just to vent. As much as possible, it’s usually best to avoid involving other people, especially when you have friends in common. True, you might feel less alone. But venting to someone else isn’t going to help your friend solve their problem. And you might end up feeling guilty for gossiping or dealing with the tension or conflict that ensues.
Take care of yourself
Supporting a friend who can’t seem to sort out an ongoing problem can leave you feeling frustrated, stuck, and helpless, which really just reflects the way your friend is probably feeling. Don’t forget to take care of yourself! Find an outlet that will help you cope, whether it’s getting some distance and spending time with other friends or making time for self-care. It’s also worth reminding yourself that even if your friend is still struggling, there’s value in the support you’re giving. The fact that they keep turning to you is a testament to your friendship and the trust they place in you. Keeping this mind and setting aside time for yourself will help you be there for your friend when they need you the most.