Updated: Oct 6
The below text is reposted from The Atlantic 's Dear Therapist column and written by Lori Gottlieb, read the full article here.
My best friend and I both just graduated from college. I am very lucky to still have my current job and be able to attend graduate school next year, but she’s out on the job market and having quite a tough time ever since the COVID-19 crisis began.
She already had a lot of anxiety about getting a good job before the economic crash, but things have just compounded now that jobs are few and far between. I’ve tried to help in every way that I can. I’ve proofread cover letters and offered mock job interviews or assistance with her résumé, but every time I do, she just kind of shuts down and either doesn’t respond to me or ignores what I have to say.
It hurts me to see her so tense about something so far out of her control, but I don’t know what else to do to try to help. Is the best solution to offer nothing at all? Sometimes that seems like what she really wants, but that feels more destructive than supportive to me.
Nick Berkeley, Calif.
You seem to care a lot about your friend, and when the people we care about are struggling, our natural instinct is to want to jump in and help. The problem is that often this good intention backfires because we assume that we know how to help (usually based on what we’d want) without asking what the other person actually finds helpful.
Instead of offering something that your friend might not want (or offering something she wants but not in the way she wants it)—or, alternatively, withdrawing your support entirely—you can try listening to her differently, which will help her engage more openly with you, and that, in turn, will help her hear herself better. Listening well creates a positive feedback loop: People first need to feel seen and understood before they’re able to express themselves honestly, which helps them process their feelings and work through them. I have a sense that while your friend knows you care about her, she may not feel that you understand her. To remedy this, you may want to start by acknowledging just how hard things are right now. So far, you’ve been approaching her problem as if it can be tackled with a clear solution: Hey, don’t worry! Improve your job-hunting skills and you’ll get a job. And while creating a stronger résumé and cover letter and presenting well in interviews can improve a person’s chance of getting a job, a person can do all of this and still be unemployed for quite some time. That’s why I want to encourage you to listen to the music under the lyrics. Often when we listen, we hear only the words a person is using. Here, those lyrics might be: I need to get a job. But it’s the music underneath that’s worth listening to: You already have a job and graduate school lined up, so you don’t truly understand my emotional experience. What you might not get is that along with her anxiety, your friend is steeped in a daily sense of loss—the loss of something she desperately wants but doesn’t have yet. Every day that she wakes up without a job, she experiences ambiguous grief, much like the grief of a person who wants to find a partner and is on all the dating apps but has no idea if or when she’ll find the right person. At this moment, even if your friend does everything “right,” she doesn’t know when she’ll find a job, much less one she truly loves. Like the married person who helps a single friend edit a dating profile and says, “With this great profile, you’ll meet the right person soon,” but has no idea if that’s true, you’re the employed person who helps your friend edit her résumé and says, “With this great résumé, you’ll find something soon,” when you, too, have no idea if that’s true. This is why listening to her experience, instead of simply trying to quell her anxiety, is so important. When I was training to become a therapist, one of my mentors said to a group of us interns: “You have two ears and one mouth. There’s a reason for that ratio.” We wanted to say something that would help our clients without realizing that what would help them most was truly hearing them. Take some time to ask about your friend’s experience, then instead of inadvertently shutting her down by trying to minimize her worries (or by trying to fix things), imagine for a moment what it’s like to be her. Remember that how you might feel if you were in this situation isn’t relevant—what matters is how she feels. Even if her take on things seems distorted (I’m worthless and nobody will ever want to hire me), let her know that you understand how worried she is, which is different from agreeing with her perspective. You can help a person open up by saying just three words: “Tell me more.”
These listening skills will come in handy for the next step: asking your friend how you can support her during this time. Maybe she wants you to help her stay motivated to send out résumés—or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she wants to talk about other things to get her mind off the job search—books, movies, TV shows—and would prefer that you let her bring up her worries on her own. If she says she does want to talk about them, ask her at the outset what she wants out of the conversation: to vent? To brainstorm? To hear your opinion or a possible solution? For you to be a sounding board for her ideas or possible solutions? At the end of the conversation, you can also ask if following up or checking in would feel supportive or intrusive. Remember, too, that at different moments and in different conversations, she may have different needs. Sometimes she may just want to tell you how hard things are; other times she might want to connect about something else entirely. If she does want to hear your ideas, she’ll feel less shame (and pressure) if you remain in friend mode rather than expert mode by prefacing any advice with, “Take whatever’s useful here, if anything, and feel free to disregard anything that’s not right for you.” When you acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers but are there to work together to come up with some, it will feel more like a collaboration than a lecture. Establishing this collaboration is helpful because we may think we know what someone should do, but ultimately only she knows what’s right for her. Taped up in my office is the word ultracrepidarianism, which means “the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge or competence.” It’s a reminder that I can guide people to a place of clarity, but I can’t make their choices for them. In your friend’s case, she might benefit less from your advice and more from your empathy or company, while separately she consults with a headhunter or career counselor at the college from which she just graduated. Of course, there are times when friends say they want advice but then reject every suggestion you give them with, “That won’t work because …” or “I can’t do that because …” Or they thank you for the advice but always do the complete opposite, exacerbating their situation. These people are known as help-rejecting complainers. For reasons that aren’t always immediately apparent, remaining the victim or feeling helpless somehow serves a psychological need. In this case, what the friend wants is to tell her story endlessly, but what she needs is for you to say, “You know, I care about you and really want to help you, but I’ve given you all of my suggestions and I’m not sure I have more to offer that you’d find helpful. If there’s some specific way you think I can help that I haven’t already tried, please let me know. Otherwise, let’s talk about something else.”
This is such a hard time for many recent graduates, yet often they feel isolated in their struggle. Asking your friend what she wants and truly listening to her answer will reassure her that, at the very least, she’s not alone.