When people share mental health struggles online, well-meaning friends and followers often rush in to give them unsolicited advice. That’s something many of us find irritating and push back on. One of the responses we get often goes something like this: “But I give advice because I need to say something. How am I supposed to know exactly what they need?”
These days my response is usually the same: “Have you tried asking them?”
It’s both surprising and unsurprising how often the response is: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”
It’s surprising because, rationally, that seems like the obvious thing to do when someone is struggling and you have no idea how to help them. It doesn’t make sense to waste your time and energy and risk upsetting or pissing them off by guessing what they might want and offering that. When you need information to make a good decision, and the information is readily available by asking someone who is as close as it gets to being an authority on the subject, it makes sense to just ask them.
At the same time, it’s also utterly unsurprising that people so rarely do this.
For one thing, we have all these cultural scripts about how this stuff is supposed to go, and one of them is that if you’re really a good friend/partner/family member to the person who’s struggling, you will “just know” what they need and be able to offer it without needing to be told. On the flip side, you might believe that if someone is really a good friend/partner/family member to you, they shouldn’t have to ask you what you need; they should just know. If they do ask, and you tell them, and they do that thing, then that might be nice and all, but it’s not as special as it would’ve been if they’d just known.
You’re probably familiar with these dynamics from discussions of sexual communication and the importance of asking/telling partners what they’re/you’re into, but this applies to so many other interpersonal situations.
That second part is talked about a little less often than the first, because the first seems on the surface to do more immediate harm. But they’re two sides of a coin. We need to get rid of that sort of thinking in order to be able to intentionally create strong, communicative relationships of all kinds.
In fact, I suspect that a small part* of the reason many people are vague about what they need when they let close ones know about their struggles is because they hope that those close ones will be able to help them without being explicitly told how. When you’re neck-deep in some sort of life shit, that sort of effortlessness can be so incredibly affirming. It satisfies a need many people have to feel taken care of.
(*Note I specifically said “small part”; there are many other, probably more significant reasons people do this, such as not knowing what they want, not having the emotional energy to communicate extensively/clearly, fearing criticism or pushback for stating what they really want, etc)
Besides cultural scripts about Just Knowing what someone wants, another reason people might not ask “How can I help?” is that they worry about annoying the person or putting an additional burden on them (that is, making them explain what it is they need). While that’s definitely a risk, especially with someone who expects you to Just Know, it’s significantly less annoying than shoving useless (or even harmful) advice or assistance at someone.
In her article about unsolicited advice online, Katie Klabusich lays all this out in a great way:
“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer—likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)
*Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.
Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.
Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.
As Katie notes, the fact that many people won’t have an answer right away doesn’t mean that the question was wrong. It could mean that they’re surprised at actually being asked, and it could also mean that they’re not used to thinking of some of their needs as needs. For instance, we might ask someone for advice or for practical assistance, but it feels a little weirder for most people to ask someone to just listen or to tell them something affirming. Being asked “How can I support you?” can help shift them into that way of thinking about it: “Hm, what would feel supportive for me right now?”
Feeling supported is not always the same as Making The Right Decision or Growing As A Person or whatever, which is another reason people are sometimes hesitant to ask others what they need to feel supported. “But what if they’re making the wrong decision!” they might protest. “I need to tell them they’re Doing It Wrong!”
Yes, there are some cases in which it’s probably a good idea to speak up and rain on someone’s parade because you’re seriously concerned about their safety or wellbeing. But most cases are not that and most people are not the kinds of people you have that relationship with (i.e. children, little siblings, partners with whom you have that sort of understanding, etc). I have watched friends and partners make decisions that I personally thought were bad decisions, but because they were clear with me that they wanted support/affirmation and not constructive criticism, I kept my concerns to myself. For the most part, those people turned out okay, because they are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions.
I’ve written before that self-awareness is really important when you’re trying to help people, because you need to make sure you’re not just doing it to try to relieve your own feelings of helplessness. Even if you are doing it to relieve your own feelings of helplessness, you can still go ahead and try to help, as long as you acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are your responsibility and not that of the person you’re trying to help. Only then can you focus on helping them in the way they need rather than in the way you need.
Asking what they need is a big part of that. Don’t try to show off how amazing you are at magically intuiting what they need. You’re likely to mess up and cause more trouble than you solve. Just ask.
“How can I support you?” is not a magic question. It will not necessarily get you the answers you need or them the help they need. Maybe that phrasing sounds weird and stilted to you; try not to get too caught up in that and find other ways to ask the same essential thing. The point isn’t the exact words, but rather the idea that you should figure out how best to help someone before trying to help them. They might not always know, but they certainly know better than you do, even if it takes them some time to be able to access that knowledge. They are the expert on what they need, or as close to an expert as anyone is going to get.
Be prepared, too, for the answer, “Nothing.” Sometimes people share their struggles not to get help or support but to be heard and witnessed. Sometimes they don’t know why they’re sharing at all. Sometimes they will tell you that the best way you can support them is to hear what they have to say; sometimes they will tell you, “Nothing.” Thank them for their honesty and move along. “Nothing” is a difficult thing to hear, but it is also a difficult thing to say.
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