Wednesday 29 July 2020

The Roles of a Friend

This article is excerpted from chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder. Photo by nonresident on Unsplash.

No matter who we are, we all assume various roles in our relationships with others. At different times, Fran and I have used a variety of labels to clarify our respective roles. These include friend, best friend, listener, confidant, teacher, balancer, haven, gate-keeper, and advocate. The three most fundamental are listener, balancer, and haven.

Being a Good Listener

Being a good listener is a very specific skill; knowing a person well and caring about them does not necessarily make the role easier. Four key points help me focus on what is important.

  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Remember it’s their story, not yours.
  • Save your judgments for later.
  • Don’t try to fix everything.

Don’t Interrupt

It is hard to listen to someone in distress—especially a friend or loved one—without offering comments, questions, suggestions, or potential fixes. Nevertheless, your friend needs to feel able to share without being interrupted or pressured to find a solution. This doesn’t mean you must listen in complete silence, but resist the temptation to interject or influence the story. Small supportive comments will help things along, and occasionally echoing back what your friend has been saying will reassure both of you that the message is getting across. Ask for clarification if you do not understand, but do not pester for details. Allow your friend to share what they are ready to share.

Fran’s thoughts sometimes flow so rapidly that she struggles to express them coherently. She hates me interrupting because it breaks her concentration; she finds it almost impossible to pick up the thread afterwards. This was hard for me in our early days. I found the frequent admonitions to “Just let me finish!” frustrating. I was interested in what she had to say, but often felt I was missing the opportunity to contribute ideas of my own or explore hers. If I pushed her, she would lose track and become irritated. Our tempers sometimes got the better of us, but gradually we learned to work together. These days, Fran lets me know if she is having trouble marshalling her thoughts, and I allow her to finish what she is saying before taking my turn. I still catch myself talking when I should be listening, but I am better at it than I used to be.

It’s Their Story, Not Yours

If we have had similar experiences it is tempting to share. (“Oh, I know just how you feel. That happened to me.”) We want to show we understand what our friend is going through, but the ways in which we were affected, how we responded, and the lessons we learned––or failed to learn––are part of our life story not theirs. No matter how well-meant, our recollections and advice are likely to be neither relevant nor helpful. We are also shifting the focus away from our friend, who might imagine we value their story less than we do our own.

On the other hand, you may feel at a disadvantage if you have no similar experiences to draw on. I am fortunate to have known no major traumas in my life, and used to imagine this prevented me from connecting with people whose life stories were complex or traumatic. My friendship with Fran has taught me that whilst shared experiences can be useful, they are less important than a willingness to hold oneself open and honest. I no longer feel the need to apologise for the lack of trauma in my life.

Save Your Judgments for Later

Most of us like to believe we can listen to our friends without judging them, but there is a difference between forming an opinion (judgment) and imposing it on someone else. The former is healthy and necessary; the latter is, generally, unhelpful. Our opinions are based on our personal scales of goodness, rightness, or usefulness; if your friend trusts you then these scales are part of the person they trust. What counts is how you handle your opinions.

You have a responsibility to voice your concerns if you believe your friend’s situation or behaviour places them in danger. If the risk is serious or imminent it may be necessary to tell others; perhaps your friend’s doctor, psychiatrist, hospital, or the police. We describe just such a situation in chapter 9. Otherwise, save your opinions for later, rather than interrupting what your friend is telling you. Note the beliefs that underlie your judgments. They tend to say more about you than they do your friend.

Don’t Try to Fix Everything

This is the one I find hardest to put into practice! I have a tendency to suggest fixes for whatever seems to be wrong or broken. Fran will often ask for assistance, and I am happy to help if I can, but I need to remind myself that it is not my responsibility to resolve everything for her. To think otherwise would be unhealthy and disempowering for Fran. To focus only on what seems broken also robs her of the opportunity to simply talk through what is on her mind. Unless your friend specifically asks for assistance, assume that what they need right now is someone to listen. Better still, ask what your friend needs.

Being a Balancer

When Fran is in mania everything appears black or white to her. People are either angels or devils. Everyone loves her or everyone hates her. If things are going well, the universe is on her side and she is heedless of normal checks, precautions, and concerns. If something goes wrong, the whole world is against her. Depression skews her thinking heavily towards the dark. She loses track of even small successes and forgets that someone said something kind or was helpful. Things have always been as bleak and hopeless as they seem to be in that moment, and always will be.

It is part of my balancing role to notice such unhealthy patterns, bring them to Fran’s attention, and gently counter them. I first acknowledge that her thoughts and feelings are real to her. If I am unsure how factually accurate they are (did so–and–so really say or do what Fran is telling me they did?) I might try and draw out further details, or check Fran’s story against other evidence. I then offer Fran my own interpretation—not necessarily as the truth, but as an alternative which might not have occurred to her. I am not always successful, but over time, this approach has helped shift Fran towards a more balanced way of thinking.

Being a Haven

The most important role you can fill is that of someone your friend can rely on, feel safe with, and trust to be always there. Fran has friends “who are designated to be the string of my balloon.” We keep her grounded in times of mania, and prevent her from sinking too deeply when she is in depression. It is a cornerstone of our friendship that I am available for Fran no matter what is happening. We have spent many hours together when she has felt depressed, manic, anxious, afraid, or suicidal. There is little I can do to help on a practical level, but I can listen and talk with her. Above all, I can simply be there so that she knows she is not alone. Fran has written of this aspect of our friendship.

[Marty] didn’t try to change me. He didn’t try to fix me. He was simply there, listening, being a friend. He believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself. One thing he said was that he wouldn’t go away no matter what I said or did. That enabled me to share freely with him. Without that safe container it’s much harder to share with people because boundaries are unclear.


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