How to Be a Supportive Friend

Davidson students are no strangers to stress, and there are a large number of students who are no strangers to a whole host of emotions even more difficult to handle day-in and day-out.  As so many of Davidson's students of color grapple with the violence and racism that burst to the forefront of our worlds this past week and the instability, anger, and fear that it generates... and as women face the third Timely Warning of this year with little to no information about who to look out for and where is safe... and as we all face an incredibly stressful and high-stakes Presidential Election... not to mention homework, relationship troubles, general mental health struggles, and so much more, it is important to be there for each other.  Without judgment.  And yes, that includes taking some time before you bring up those politics you and your struggling friend disagree on.  

1. Have grace and patience.

Immediately after experiencing trauma, which is a "deeply distressing personal experience" and therefore not up to anyone to decide except the person himself/herself, understand that different people will cope with and respond to the event and subsequent emotions differently.  Try to think back to a time you felt unmoored, unsafe, and unstable and how ready or able you were to engage in a "discussion" about anything except processing what had just happened.  If you're someone who doesn't respond to incredibly shitty situations in such a way, then try to figure out how and why this person is and be there for them as they give you hints about the kinds of support they need.  Sure, it might not seem "rational" in the moment, but in some moments, there's nothing more "rational" than being irrational. We have to remember that we see each other at every point of the day, not just the professional/hold-it-together hours.  

2. Figure out the support they need.

Some people need a ride to Cook Out, others need two ears and no mouth, others need blankets and Netflix, others need a ride to a protest, others need to go out and dance, others need to go out and keep an eye on problematic behavior... pretty much the list of what people need for support is as varied as people themselves are.  If you know the person well, you'll likely have some previous information you can work from.  If not, think back to the last time this person helped you out... what tactic did they immediately go for?  That likely says something about how they want to be supported.  When in doubt, listen and affirm.  They will drop hints about what they want. You just have to be ready and able to pick up on those.

3. Make yourself available.

No, we don't need to be "on-call" for everyone all the time, but if you're comfortable, make sure people know how to reach you and that you are emotionally available to support them.  Be honest when you're busy, and make sure they know a time you can come to their rescue if it can't be at that exact moment.  Make sure you reach out to friends you think might be upset; that casual text "hey I'm here if you need anything, feel free to reach out any time" can be a literal lifesaver depending on the severity of the situation.  No pressure.

4. Don't pressure them into being "ok."

We're all already really good at pretending we're doing just fine or ignoring emotions for the comfort of others.  There's really no need to compound that issue by implying that there's a right to way to process or that they could become a burden (or already are).  It's very possible people feel like burdens sometimes.  That's ok.  You have definitely felt like a burden to someone else.  It's ok to set your own boundaries and all (see #5), but be present and attentive to your friend when you're with them.  Make them feel valuable and roll with what they throw at you.  Again, it might not feel rational or make any sense, but they're smart, they know it doesn't, and they just need to externalize.

5. Self-care, self-respect, set boundaries.

You can only be good emotional support for a friend if you're feeling up to it.  Sometimes putting two or more people in a room who are distressed can be cathartic, which is why we all need to have enough self-respect to look at what kinds of things and support we are able to give at any given time.  For instance, I know I'm very good at turning off my issues to help someone else cope, but every once in a while there comes a thing I can't turn off. In those moments, I'm not going to be helpful to anyone.  That's when I set boundaries and stick to them.  You get to decide what your boundaries are, and it's important to also think about what your responsibilities are here too.  Are you a white person that wants to affect change in the racist status quo?  Then probably you shouldn't be setting boundaries your less woke white friends can never cross because that doesn't do anyone much good.  Are you a mentor to someone?  Then you have to remember that you signed up for that job and fulfill your duties while also being a good example of how to take care of yourself. 

If all else fails, go the fuck to sleep.  No one can text you, call you, or upset you when you're sleeping.  And if there's one thing Davidson students understand besides ignoring self-care because of the #collegegrind, it's falling dead asleep whenever you can.

Also important here: make sure you are caring for people and that you have people who can care for you.  A time will come when you need help, and if none of the people you've been helping will be around, take that into consideration when setting boundaries.

6. Keep checking in.

We all go through crises of varying severity, and it's great to have someone there for that ugly cry, but tomorrow will come, and then the next day and then the day after that. No one really knows how they'll be feeling or coping in the future.  If there's one thing I've learned from Eating Disorder recovery, it's that that process is NEVER linear. It's filled with ups and downs and loop di loops like some sick roller coaster you can't get off of and didn't really choose to get on.  So make sure you're as consistently there as you're able.  It can be even more meaningful when a friend doesn't get "tired" of hearing you process or is at least willing to pretend they're not.

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