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How to help another person?

What can you do when a friend is screwing up?


Cary Tennis
June 11, 2012 4:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Is it even possible to truly help another person?

I have a friend that I have known for nearly 10 years. In that time, I have desperately been trying to help her gain control over herself and her struggles. I have watched other friends come and go. Some return, but many become frustrated and feel as though she is someone who is unable or unwilling to be helped.

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In many senses, my friend is very fortunate. She is a healthy, attractive, smart, capable woman who has a good job, healthy children, and a supportive family. Yet, she suffers from many ills. She has had bad relationships with men who are unable or unwilling to be good fathers -- one of the fathers is serving a life sentence for attempted murder of a locally famous figure, and one is physically present but not emotionally or financially present. While she is completely competent at work, she is unmotivated to perform up to her full capabilities and is distracted by social media. Of course, these problems cause low job performance. Adding to this, her consistent tardiness causes ongoing attempts by our employer to seek her termination. At home, she struggles to raise children alone amid teenage angst and hostility, middle-school bullying, and the start of the toddler years. In addition, she struggles financially -- trying to provide for herself and the children without assistance from the children's fathers. She has sought counseling and therapy, which appeared to increase her depression and ADD rather than improve it. And, I am beginning to fear that she is growing more and more dependent upon alcohol to soothe her anxiety.

I will admit that she has had her share of misfortune, but some of the responsibility for this madness rests upon her shoulders. I would like so much for her to stand strong, recognize the errors of the past, break the pattern, and achieve happiness for herself and the children; but my hopes and my efforts appear to be in vain. She does not see her bounties. Yet, I continue to try to support her emotionally. I try to remind her of her worthiness and applaud her successes. I try to participate in her life and that of her children, so that she knows that people care about her and her family. When I invite her to adult-only and/or family-friendly outings, she does not attend consistently. When I call to check on her, she may or may not answer the phone. If I leave a message or send a text, she does not respond. She rarely has a reason why she did not answer, respond, or attend. When she does, the answer is insufficient. I chastise her rarely, as I worry about the emotional effect of making her feel as though someone else is not there for her.

However, I must admit that there are times that I am anxious and frustrated. I feel as though she and I are sitting on the ocean's edge watching a hurricane out in the water. I know it is coming, and I know that I can not save her.

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Cary, do I save myself and walk away -- as others suggest? Or, do I keep her alive as best I can and help her to stand after it passes?

There's a Hurricane A-Coming

Dear Hurricane A-Coming,

It is hard to stand by and watch friends struggle with life. It is hard to watch friends make mistakes.

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You don't have to abandon her. But neither do you have to watch over her every second and try to take responsibility for her actions.

Just be there if and when she needs you.

She won't always be the most dependable person. Chances are she will keep scuffling along for a while, getting into scrapes, getting out of scrapes, slipping and sliding in and out of slippery situations, making resolutions and breaking resolutions, having lots of ups and lots of downs.

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She may eventually reach a crisis. When that crisis comes, it would be a shame if you had abandoned her. She may truly reach a point where she asks for help. It would be good if you were there for her at that time.

Until then, she'll probably just go on behaving as she is despite your attempts to persuade her to change.

You can plant seeds. If you have observed that her drinking is interfering with her relationships and her work, you can mention Alcoholics Anonymous to her; perhaps give her a free pamphlet to read and mention that she need not be a falling-down, in-the-gutter drunk to have a drinking problem that can be helped.

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You can leave other hints around, as well. If she seems to choose inappropriate men or have difficulties at work, you might get her a book on that topic, or suggest that you and she attend a seminar together on relationships. Useful information and helpful groups abound. Solutions are everywhere.

There is probably a solution for most every behavioral problem you could think of. The catch is that behavioral solutions cannot be imposed from the outside.

We're talking about human beings here. We don't just get changed because a friend or someone in power decrees that we have to change. We don't work like that. Would you be able to fundamentally change your behavior and your outlook if someone told you it was necessary? I doubt it. You were lucky enough to develop in a balanced way. Perhaps you were well parented; perhaps you had a naturally balanced and disciplined nature as a child. But this is not something you could necessarily will into being. Nor could it be imposed from without.

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So until she reaches a point where she wants to change, you must balance your urge to intervene with your respect for her autonomy -- or, as it might be called in certain communities, "the process she has to go through."

It is admirable that you want to help her. Just be careful about involving yourself in ways that might have unintended consequences.

Keep watch over your friend. Be available. Have patience.


Cary Tennis

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