'The Art Of Showing Up' For Your Friends, With Rachel Wilkerson Miller : Life Kit When we see a friend going through a rough patch, it can be hard to know how to help. What do you say? What if you say the wrong thing? In the second part of our conversation with author Rachel Wilkerson Miller, we talk about how to support your friends when things get tough.

How to be a supportive friend

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AGYANG: Hi. I'm a big fan of NPR LIFE KIT. My name is Agyang (ph). I'm a Korean who lives in Korea. I suggest that you make a list you'd like to do after corona. On my list, there are so many things - going to a healthy restaurant, borrowing books from the library, meeting my friends, having a coffee at a coffee shop. I write down all of these things and picture them. I think, definitely, it make you happy. (Speaking Korean). Bye, bye.

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

LIFE KIT wants to hear from you. If you've got a random tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

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MERAJI: This is LIFE KIT. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And on this episode, we're going to help you show up for your friends and loved ones who are going through a really hard time. Rachel Wilkerson Miller shares tips from her new book "The Art Of Showing Up: How To Be There For Yourself And Your People." And this is Part 2 of our conversation. Rachel's very big on checking in with yourself first before you make yourself available for others.

RACHEL WILKERSON MILLER: The fact of the matter is if you are tired, if you're burned out, if you, you know, aren't getting your basic needs met, you're not going to be able to show up for other people. And when you do, you're going to sort of be doing it from this place of resentment and exhaustion that doesn't feel good for you or for them.

MERAJI: Rachel talked about some good ways to show up for yourself in a previous episode. So assuming you're feeling strong and you're ready to be there for someone to lean on, she says the first thing to remember is to keep your focus on them.

MILLER: We spend so much of our time talking in conversations about either ourselves or about other people who aren't even present, like, a third party and very little...

MERAJI: Oh, so true.

MILLER: ...Talking about the person we're with. Yeah. And, like, it makes sense. But when I read that in a book called "We Need To Talk," I was, like, blown away because I had never thought of it before. And that really inspired me to be conscious of where my focus is during a conversation. So your focus needs to be on your friend. You should be listening. And it's really hard to listen without jumping in to share your own experiences.

And usually, doing that is coming from a good place. Like, you're trying to communicate, I empathize with you. I understand. And, like, sometimes that can be welcome. A friend is like, oh, gosh, I'm so glad to hear you say this, too. Now I feel less alone. But other times, it can kind of just silence them. They feel like, OK, well, I was trying to talk to you about my breakup. And you just talked about your dating problems the whole time. Like, that didn't feel good. So just being really conscious of...

MERAJI: Yeah.

MILLER: ...Am I actually just sitting there listening and maybe not responding right away? - or if I do respond, not responding with a story about myself, which is hard to do. It sort of takes a mental shift. I think it's important that we start to think of listening to hear people versus listening to respond, and thinking while they're talking, OK, what am I going to say? Like, just listen to what they're saying. And I think just that little shift makes a really big difference.

MERAJI: Another one of your tips is, when in doubt, ask.

MILLER: Yep.

MERAJI: Tell us about that one.

MILLER: Well, I think people are afraid to ask. They think they need to have all of the answers, and you don't. Like, I think most of us can admit that if a friend asks us what we need, we don't take it as a, oh, gosh, you don't care about me. We take it quite the opposite, as a, wow, you really care about me. You want to know what I need. So I think, just say, like, what's the best way I can support you right now or asking, do you want to just vent? Or do you want my advice? Like, just getting a sense of where people are coming from.

MERAJI: Yes. That's a good one.

MILLER: Even just saying - how are you feeling about it? - because I know that a lot of people - and I do this a lot, too. And I'm, like, conscious of it now. I'm trying to fix it. But I'll tell people a thing that happened to me. If they say, how are you? I'll say, well, X, Y and Z just happened. But I don't say how I feel about it.

So just ask, how are you feeling about it? What's your thought process right now? What do you think you're going to do? - but really getting to their feelings if they sort of are circling it and you get the sense that it would be helpful for them to just say what it is or you need to know what they're feeling because you're not sure what to say next.

MERAJI: A huge takeaway for me is the reassurance that it's OK to say, I'm sorry. I always feel like...

MILLER: Yes.

MERAJI: ...I'm sorry is not enough. It feels - I don't know. It just never feels like enough. But you say, no, a genuine, heartfelt I'm sorry goes a very long way.

MILLER: It goes so far. (Laughter) I'm here to defend the humble I'm sorry because I'm just like, this is a great response if you say it with meaning. I've been on the receiving end of so many genuine I'm-so-sorries (ph). And, like, they felt great because I could tell my friend was genuinely sorry for me.

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MILLER: None of us can come up with, like, the perfect response every single time, nor do we need to. Like, sometimes there isn't a perfect response that is going to actually make people feel better. What you want to do is communicate, you're not alone. I'm with you. This sucks. And I'm so sorry it's happening to you. Like, you don't deserve this. You deserve better. This is a bummer. And, like, hearing somebody say, like, I'm sorry, I wish this hadn't happened to you, feels so validating.

MERAJI: Yet, so often, we are, like, searching for that perfect response. And we go straight to the cliche, which is something that you're like, please, don't do. Don't do the cliche.

MILLER: Please, please, don't. Please, don't say, everything happens for a reason. Please, don't say, well, you know, 50% of marriages end in divorce. Like, neither of those things are going to be helpful for somebody who just found out that their spouse is cheating on them. Like, lean away from cliches. Just say what's in your heart and, like, really mean it. And you can just say, I'm sorry.

MERAJI: There's the one for - if someone has a miscarriage, then you cite the statistic of how common miscarriages are.

MILLER: Yeah. I think if you've just had a terrible thing happen to you that is fairly common, it doesn't mean it's any less terrible. If you are getting divorced or if you're having a miscarriage or you're experiencing some kind of tragedy, like maybe an illness diagnosis, it's not going to feel helpful to know that, like, thousands of other people have experienced this, too.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

MILLER: I mean, for some people it is helpful because they feel really ashamed, and they feel really alone. But I think just citing this statistic kind of communicates, like, well, why are you sad? Like, this happened to so many people. You're not special. And, like, everyone just, when they're feeling overwhelmed, when they're experiencing grief or trauma, it feels so all-consuming that to sort of hear, like, this isn't a big deal - and you're like, this is the biggest deal in the world, how can you not see that? - it just feels really isolating and, like, sort of dismissive and condescending. So I think, like, feeling with your friend the bigness of what they're going through and, like, remembering that just because it happens to a lot of people, doesn't mean it's any less devastating for the person who it's happening to.

MERAJI: Another way that people try to comfort their friend, their loved one when they're in need is by saying, oh, you know, I've gone through something similar. And then riffing on an anecdote from their own life. And is this a - I don't know. Is this a good way to connect?

MILLER: To me, this is a proceed with caution. I think sometimes it can be really helpful. And if the person is feeling really alone or really ashamed, hearing that somebody they care about has gone through something similar can be really validating and really affirming. I think the problem comes when, suddenly, the conversation is now about you and what happened to you.

So my advice is to sort of hint at it if you want to bring it up. And you can say, like, you know, I went through something really similar a few years ago. It was really tough for me. If you ever want to talk about it - or if you ever want to hear about that experience, like, I'm more than happy to talk to you about it. So putting the control in their hands...

MERAJI: Yeah.

MILLER: ...So they can say, like, yeah, I'd love to hear more about that later. Or they can say, oh, my God, tell me everything. Because I think it's when you just give it to them without sort of waiting for that permission that it can feel bad. But they'll take you up on it if they want to hear about it. And so often, they will. But I think there's something really empowering about somebody saying to you, like, we don't have to talk about this now. I'm just giving you this for later. You're in charge. You bring it up whenever you want.

That - like, so many hard things are about, like, you losing control. And so to have your friend just give you that tiny bit of control of, like, we'll talk about this when you want to talk about it, feels really good. And it's also, like, you get the best of both worlds. You get to tell them you're not alone. But you're not going to bore them with the story about how, you know, your pet died after their sibling died. Like, you can let them decide if these things are related or not.

MERAJI: Yeah. That's great advice. When you're showing up for a friend in need, you say, try not to foist or fret. So what is foisting? And what is fretting?

MILLER: So this is a really great concept that, actually, I can't take credit for. This comes from the book "There Is No Good Card For This," which I highly recommend. It's really lovely. And the idea is that, when somebody is going through a difficult time, a lot of us tend to fall into one of two behavioral patterns. So a foister (ph) is the one who's just sort of like, I need to help you. I'm going to, like, push my advice. I'm going to push my solution. I'm going to fix this for you. I'm going to foist this on you. And I'm going to be upset with you if you don't do it. So that's one type.

And then, the fretter is the person who's sort of taking care of somebody else kind of to serve their own needs. So they're really worried. They want to be the friend who's good. They want to do things right. And so they kind of are the one who's constantly saying, like, is this enough? Is this good? Do you want me to do something else? I can get something else for you - and just sort of letting their own anxiety - they're fretting in a way that forces the person in need to kind of soothe them.

Both of these are rooted in trying to do the right thing. They're behaviors that people who care do, so there's no shame in doing it. I've certainly done it. But I think it's kind of keeping those things in check. And having those labels for your behavior, I think, is really helpful to remember, oh, no, am I, like - am I making this about me? - because no one should have to manage you when they're going through a tragedy.

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MERAJI: And finally, you make the point that this isn't one-and-done, that you should set reminders to check in with your loved one, with your friend regularly.

MILLER: Yeah, definitely. I think we all know that grief is a process. And people can be doing really well and then sort of, you know, really have things kind of fall apart. Anniversaries can be really difficult. Like, if somebody got divorced, like, their - what would've been their next wedding anniversary can be a tough date. If somebody had a miscarriage, what was their due date can be really hard. So it's reminding yourself to check in regularly. Maybe it's just setting a weekly reminder to text a friend and just say, like, hey, what's up? How have you been?

You don't have to, like, do a serious check-in once a week. But just, are you staying in touch? Are you keeping that line open regularly? And then also remembering, oh, my friend tends to feel really bad as Christmas approaches because, like, you know, their mom got sick at Christmas last year. And I know that that's a really hard time for them. So I'm going to, you know, reach out to them early on and say, hey, do you have plans for Christmas this year? Can I treat you to dinner in December? - or things like that. Like, get ahead of it. And just sort of remember, these big, powerful anniversaries can be really hard for people. And it means a lot to know that your friend is aware of that and is thinking about you on those days.

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MERAJI: All right, Rachel, to wrap this up, what's the one thing to keep top of mind when you're showing up for a loved one who's dealing with something really difficult?

MILLER: I think the No. 1 thing to keep in mind is that this time is not normal. And it is really helpful to treat things as such. It can be really hard if you're going through a difficult thing to feel like the world is moving on as normal, and that your friends and loved ones don't understand that you are not normal anymore. So following your friend's lead, first and foremost - if they want you to help things feel more normal, you should totally do that. But if you're getting the sense that they are really overwhelmed and they're not doing well and they need you to be there with them, go there with them.

Like, go where they need you to go. And if that means sort of metaphorically laying down next to them and saying, like, this sucks. I'm here with you, sad with you. I understand that you're sad and you're going to be sad for a while. Do that. And it's really powerful to know that you don't have to, like, put on a face for a friend, that you can just say that - if a friend says - how are you? - and you can say, like, still bad, like, that is a true friend. That feels really good to know - so...

MERAJI: Yeah.

MILLER: ...Just kind of following your friend's cues and following them where they need you to be.

MERAJI: This is so useful.

MILLER: (Laughter).

MERAJI: This is great.

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MERAJI: That was Rachel Wilkerson Miller sharing tips from her new book "The Art Of Showing Up." For more LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. And like I said earlier, we have another episode featuring Rachel talking about the best ways to show up for ourselves. And we have episodes on all sorts of topics, like how to online date during a pandemic.

If you love LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. What are you doing to cope right now? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. That's 202-216-9823. Or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Thanks for listening.

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