How can I help a hurting friend?
What to do when a hurting friend just seems to push you away
It is so hard when people we love are struggling. It is even harder when they do not want us to be with them or to try and help them.
We love them and want to come alongside them to help ease their burden. So how do we lovingly and gently support them when they seem intent on keeping us at arm’s length? It is a delicate situation because we want to help but we also want to be respectful of our friend.
Remember their pain
The first thing I want to offer is to remember your friend is in a lot of pain. Do you know what happens when someone tries to help an injured dog? It bites. Perhaps your friend is hurting so much that she "bites" — even the people she cares about. Now, that doesn't excuse her behavior, but hopefully, it makes her behavior more understandable, and promotes compassion for her. Hopefully, it also makes it easier to be with her. Her hurtful behavior is a reaction to the pain she is feeling; it is not necessarily about you.
I wonder if your friend is struggling with feeling like she is too much, like she is just too hard to love. Her pushing you away could be a self-protective measure. If she makes you leave, then she won't be abandoned, which would be less painful for her than if you leave on your own. If you leave on your own, it would confirm one of her worst possible fears — that she is just too much and not lovable. That is potentially why she is so harsh and distant with you. She doesn't want her fear to be confirmed.
The sad thing is that even though this distancing is a self-protective measure, it actually is a self-fulfilling prophecy because she will end up alone and feeling unlovable. Ironically, if you communicate to her that you really care about her as a friend and that you aren't going to leave her, her behavior might soften. She might begin to treat you more kindly because she won’t have to fight the fear that you will leave and that her worst fear will be confirmed. Hopefully, understanding this will also help you have more compassion for her and make it easier for you to be with her.
Be gentle and respectful
When people are struggling with anxiety and depression, that is when they need others the most. Let your friend know that you care for her, that you want to be respectful of her and that you want to be there for her. Be available to her and ask her to talk with you about how she is doing. Respectfully and gently nudge her to get some help, preferably professional, if needed. Let her know that you really value her and you don't want her to go through this hard journey alone. We all need others to walk with us through difficult times. Let her know that you want to be respectful of her, but you also aren't going to leave her. If you feel like you are able, offer to go with her to talk with someone.
Look after yourself
It is also important for you to get support as well. There is such a thing as “compassion fatigue!" Being there and caring for your friend can be hard, not because you don't care enough, but because it can take a lot of emotional energy. Make sure you are being supported and cared for by others as well so that you will have the emotional energy to be there for your friend.
Most importantly, pray for your friend! Does she know Jesus? Whether she does or doesn't, let her know that Jesus KNOWS her and LOVES her completely, and that he never gives up on her. Her pain is not too much for him. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Pray for her if she is not able to pray for herself.
It can be so hard when someone we love is hurting, especially when they push us away in their pain. Hopefully, by demonstrating to your friend you are there and that you care, by supporting her in getting some help with her pain so that she can begin to feel better, and by getting the support you need as well, you can bring some help and hope to the situation, and to your friend as well.
Written by Willa Williams from Biola University. Find out more about Biola today.