How to help a friend (when you haven’t been asked)

I’ve got a friend who’s wreaking havoc on her life. How can I help her?

Are you trying to put my colleagues and me out of business? Kidding! In all seriousness, I think this a really important question. For me, being anything less than a real good friend is against my religion. Love they neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat all lifeforms respectfully—these are the nuts and bolts of how I roll.

So when I have a friend who is seemingly screwing up his or her life and comes to me for help, I do it without hesitation or reservation! My feeling is, if I’ve got it to give and if the helping doesn’t compromise my values and sense of integrity, then I hook him or her up as best I can.

But I get the sense you’re seeking advice for the other kind of help: unsolicited help. And here, I roll the same way: I give it without hesitation or reservation. I impose my value system and do my “thing” because I think I know exactly what my friends need. Not!!

I know it isn’t just me who finds it hard not to swoop in and try to save the day. There are whole sections in the bookstore on codependency, and I’ve benefitted from them greatly. In fact, much of my own improved interpersonal effectiveness is attributable to books like Codependent No More, Boundaries, and The Language of Letting Go—a daily devotional that I’ve looked to for over 10 years.

I recommend you reading these—or books like them. And I also recommend you consider the following thoughts that my own life lessons—both the academic and the school of hard knocks—have given me.

#1. Don’t take their behavior personally

I’m willing to bet you that your friend does not abuse drugs and alcohol because of you. I bet, too, that he didn’t start binging or wallowing in a depressive funk because of you. She isn’t being lame and sabotaging her marriage or career because of you.

Here’s the lesson: You can’t help anybody when you take her stuff and make it yo’ stuff. Classic example: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t drink.”

When we take another’s behavior personally it is like superimposing a layer of artificial suffering on top of the real suffering. It also puts you at risk for becoming resentful, which often leads to feelings of bitterness and hostility. Nobody is getting help at that point.

As long as we’re talking about taking it personally, I want to encourage you to separate your friend’s destructive behavior from the person: e.g., my friend’s behavior is destructive thus my friend is destructive. Trust me, this is helpful in life in general: behavior does not occur in a vacuum. You must consider the context and circumstances in which the behavior is taking place.

Another thing to remember is that you’ve been a mess yourself at times. Think back to when you yourself were lame and caused pain for someone else. The last thing on your mind was trying to hurt somebody; you just wanted what you wanted. Slow your roll on calling somebody pathetic without looking at your own lameness.

#2. A friend engaging in destructive behavior needs to hear the truth!

But remember: without music, the truth can’t be heard. What I’m saying is that you definitely need to earn your right to tell the truth to someone who is screwing up his life. If he doesn’t think y’all are on the same team, he’ll likely get defensive. I’m not talking sugar coating; I’m just saying you need to point out some good before you point out the bad. This order reassures your friend that you are not out to shame them and that you value them.

Another point about telling the truth: It’s just your truth you’re telling. It might be dead on, but don’t get too full of yourself. I know being right feels good, but being self-righteous is crap. Say what you need to say in your serious voice, but say it just one time. Telling the truth more than once is about you, not about them.

#3. A friend engaging in destructive behavior also needs to be heard!

Secrecy, silence, and judgment are obstacles to your friend’s turnaround, so I can’t over-emphasize the importance of empathic listening. Listen with your body, mind and soul. Listen without interruption. Non-judgmentally. Make statements that show you hear them. Listening—I mean really listening—is a lot easier if you haven’t taken your friends behavior personally. This listening thing is so important because it is a precursor to them seeking professional help for their problem should they need it. If he doesn’t feel shamed, guilted or even more pathetic at this point, then you have might have been a catalyst for resolution.

#4. Be patient

When people don’t take your advice or change as fast as you think they should, pay close attention to your “I’m pissed” meter. Usually someone who is engaging in destructive behavior has a brain that’s hijacked. Just talking to you at all is really huge, and if you want to move on your time not theirs, the world is going to have two sick people on its hands. I’ve found that if you can’t get behind people for who they are and where they are, then you need to step away. I’m not talking about abandoning the friendship; I’m talking about staying out of the mess. He didn’t ask your advice in the beginning, remember. Just because you step up and take over the fanny wiping doesn’t mean a person will get well at your convenience.

This patience helps preserve the friendship down the road when your friend is through working out whatever it is that the universe is trying to do with him (yes, I just had a new age moment).

A question you might want to ask yourself at this point is: Do you like the person you’re becoming in this friendship? If your answer is NO, then right this wrong immediately. If yes, double check and make sure it’s not a self righteous yes.

Frank Pittman said, “The end product of child raising is not the child, but the PARENT.” I believe the same goes for friends. The end product of being a good friend is not just your pal, spouse, partner, sibling but is also the person you become as a function of this sacred, challenging, and fun process.

If you want more insight, I’d love for you to make an appointment.

Be peace, be love,


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Pate June 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Great words of wisdom!!


Robin B June 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Thank you Iam headed to the Bookstore!


Lisa Bell June 19, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Excellent – and the books you reference are all on my shelf. (Dog-eared, highlighted and have been read multiple times. I used to think that Melody Beattie had been following me around! Fundamental reading)

There is another question here I have for you which is perhaps a follow up to your timely post. When friends are giving you good advice, advice you would give yourself, how does one start to make the change? People are always resistant to change by nature. I think there has to be 3 primary factors considered in order for people to make sustainable change in their behavior. Dissatisfaction with the current state + a Vision on how the future will be better + a Process to follow to take the incremental steps necessary for change. Maybe a key is for a friend is to understand which factor is either missing or doesn’t have enough weight. Perhaps this is good dialogue to have with the friend in need. Many times setting the picture for a brighter future creates enough dissatisfaction with the current state to inspire the necessary change.

Thank you J, as always, for your insight and truth.



CPF June 21, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Amazing insight into the dynamic (and sometimes risky) business of being a “real” friend. You can’t emphasize enough the importance of pointing out the good before swimmin’ in the deep. But at the end of the day, change doesn’t happen unless you really want it.


Ro Beard August 15, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Now let’s talk discipline.


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