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Are You a Supportive Friend or a ‘Fixer’?

Originally posted in collaboration with StyleBlueprint.

We’ve all been there. Feelings of frustration, anger, or hurt rise to the surface, and we feel we need to let it all out. Our insides feel warm and tight as if we’re about to burst. (So, you’ve got big feelings — congrats on being human!)

Big feelings aren’t bad, and venting feels good in the moment, giving us a rush of “relief.” But what’s the difference between venting and the more complex work of processing emotions? When a loved one has a problem, how can we be supportive without trying to fix their problems for them? Similarly, how can we engage our own emotions in a way that helps us move through them, rather than simply dumping them on a friend?

We consulted the mental wellness experts at Onsite for suggestions on the best approach. They’re sharing five essential ways to show up as a supportive presence, without attempting to fix problems that don’t belong to you. They’re also sharing tips for setting boundaries around venting and getting in touch with your own emotions, so you can share responsibly and seek the kind of support you need.

How to support a friend who needs to vent

Onsite Chairman and Proprietor Miles Adcox often says, “The people in our lives are not problems to be solved, but rather people to be engaged.” When people vent to us, we think they’re looking for a solution to their problems. But in reality, they want to be seen, heard, valued, empathized with, and validated. That’s the best gift we can give — it’s a permission slip that tells them they’re safe with us.

Here are five essential ways to show up as a supportive presence for loved ones in need:

See them: We feel most seen when someone gives us their undivided attention.

  • Eliminate distractions and actively engage in the conversation.
  • Ask what their anger or frustration might be covering up: sadness, grief, loss, anxiety, etc.

Hear them: There’s a difference between listening to someone and truly hearing them.

  • Repeat back what you’re hearing.
  • Ask questions rather than offer solutions.
  • Help them make connections between the things they’re saying.

Value them: Valuing someone reminds them that who they are is inherently enough. When someone is venting, they often feel slighted, devalued, or not seen.

  • Remind them what they contribute to the world.
  • Speak about the importance of your relationship with them.

Empathize with them: We often confuse sympathy for empathy. Empathy is feeling with someone instead of feeling bad for someone. Sympathy talks, but empathy listens.

  • Just be present with them.
  • Resist the urge to fix or provide a silver lining. Statements like “it could always be worse” simply serve to minimize their situation.
  • Share a time in your own life when you felt similar feelings.

Validate them: Validation can come in many forms. Many of us just need assurance that we are seen and understood. You can validate how someone feels without validating the situation or their actions.

  • Validate their feelings.
  • Validate what is impacting them.

What are the “dangers” of offering advice or fixing a problem?

As humans, we love to fix things, so offering advice or a solution rather than simply being supportive is a trap we can easily fall into. Often, we are quick to offer advice because we want to minimize our loved one’s pain. Their pain is uncomfortable for us — and it may even illuminate something we’re uncomfortable with in ourselves.

If you feel your advice would be relevant, or you might be able to help fix a problem, what is the best way to offer it?

While we tend to fix or advise, listening and empathizing are better. However, if the space, context, and relationship invite you to share relevant advice or experience, try asking your friend this question: “Are you looking for advice or space to process?”

This question allows the person to share exactly how they would like to be supported.

Another great question before sharing advice is: “Are you open to feedback?”

It’s important to remember that you are not responsible for someone else’s emotions, a lesson that’s difficult to grasp, particularly for women. When we permit ourselves to be present without attempting to fix the issue, we open ourselves up to deeply connect to the people around us.

Here are a few statements that support the person who is sharing without taking on their problem:

  • Thank you for sharing. I can understand that this has been very hard for you.
  • Tell me more about that.
  • I can imagine that feels _____.

How can you maintain healthy boundaries when you feel emotionally invested in a person’s venting and want to help them feel better?

When we care deeply about those around us, it can be hard to maintain emotional boundaries. But boundaries are the most loving thing we can offer those in our lives. Boundaries let us know where we end, and another person begins.

  • Be honest about your emotional capacity.
  • Catch yourself when you’re trying to “fix.”
  • Set limits and communicate limits on your time.
  • Ask for another supportive friend to keep you accountable.

Boundaries may hurt, but they don’t harm. Ultimately, they will allow you to protect your own energy, so that when you show up to support someone, you can do so with your full heart and attention.

Kind boundaries sound like: 

  • I would love to talk more about this with you. Can you speak at ____ time tonight?
  • I believe in your ability to find a solution.
  • What would make you feel supported?
  • I care about you and am here for you, but I think this problem might be out of my depth.

How can you tell when someone is just venting and when they might need more help?

When our friends are walking through a hard season, it is normal to want to take on more responsibility than is ours to own. But it is essential to be honest about your capacity, expertise, and ability to help.

You can empathize, show up for people, and be present, but if you are not a mental health professional, sometimes it’s best — even crucial — to encourage that next step.

Signs someone needs additional help: 

  • They are a danger to themselves or others.
  • Their physical, mental, or emotional health is deteriorating.
  • They are asking you to step into a role that is outside the scope of your expertise, capacity, or comfort.
  • They are finding themselves in cyclical patterns.

Sometimes we need to tell the people around us that we love them enough to encourage them to seek help from someone else who is better equipped.

Kind statements:

  • This sounds particularly challenging. In my life, it has been beneficial to talk to someone with experience with these situations.
  • I love you and am here for you, but I don’t have the expertise to help you navigate this. Would you consider talking to a professional?
  • Are you open to a suggestion? Have you considered getting outside support from a counselor, coach, or therapist?
  • I’d love for you to get the support you need. Can I make some calls with you?

Get in touch with your emotions.

On the flipside, before venting your own emotions, the Onsite experts say it’s wise to get in touch with precisely what you’re feeling. From a young age, many of us were taught that our feelings are a liability (especially feelings such as anger or frustration). We learned to turn down the volume on our emotions or tune them out entirely. But the truth is, paying attention to our feelings is one of the most helpful things we can do. By noticing how we’re feeling, we can begin to not only understand our emotions but thoughtfully manage them.

Here are three quick steps to recognize how you’re feeling:

  1. Close your eyes and take a quick scan of your body. What emotion are you feeling the strongest at this moment?
  2. Identify where in your body you feel that emotion. Is it in your chest, in your belly, or somewhere else?
  3. On a scale of 1-10, identify how strongly you feel that emotion.

Responsibly share your feelings.

Once you’ve identified how you’re feeling and are in touch with what your body is trying to tell you, you can begin to manage your feelings healthily.

Here are five tips to help you share your feelings effectively:

  1. Ask if your friend has the capacity to listen. Try: “Are you in a place where I can share what I’m feeling?”
  2. Own your feelings. Try: ‘“I am responsible for my feelings. You are not responsible for them.”
  3. Name your feelings. Try: “I am feeling (anxious, mad, depressed, overwhelmed, stressed).”
  4. Normalize your feelings. Try: “Sometimes my feelings get big, and I don’t always know what to do with them, or they come out sideways. I’m learning to identify them instead of reacting to them.”
  5. Name what you need. Try: “I’d like to share what I’m feeling to get your (advice, empathy, wisdom, support, etc.).”

What should you do when you don’t have someone around with whom to process?

We won’t always have a person around with whom to safely and comfortably process our feelings. Thankfully, there are many ways to engage with our emotions and offload some frustration on our own. Here are four of the best, according to Onsite:

  1. Spend 10 minutes in stream-of-thought journaling (no self-editing, just keep writing).
  2. Go for a brisk walk around the block (engaging in bilateral stimulation helps emotions move through your body).
  3. Dance it out! (There’s tons of science behind the healing power of dance.)
  4. Do a few quick breathing exercises or try “tapping.”