Words by Rae Witte. Photography by Javier Díez.
A guide on showing up for them and managing their absence.
Most of us have that trusted source in a friendship–the one who offers sound advice, has a great perspective, really knows and understands us, and seemingly has their shit together. They’re our strong friends. “Some positive attributes [of them] would be being a good listener, being one that often makes time for a person to be heard, and one that shows empathy for what a person is going through,” Dr. Akua K. Boateng highlighted. We go to them for everything and would probably send our other friends to them for guidance, too.
Seeing reminders to “check on your strong friend” online over and over are nice, but what does that really look like and how can you do it?
We’ve established their great characteristics, but the other side of the coin of being the strong friend could look like neglecting themselves. “Someone that might internalize their own process and experience and not seek their own or support themselves can also be seen as strong, but really, its absence of communicating a need,” Dr. Boateng said. They may not want to burden others with their struggles. The minimizing of their own issues or diminishing of the dialogue around them can offer others the idea that they, in fact, have it all together.
Provided the circumstances of the ongoing (and seemingly unending) pandemic, some of those people that always show up for us may have had to take a step back and even allow others to be there for them in ways they’ve never indicated, allowed, or are even been aware of.
This has the potential to change the dynamic or the role you and your strong friend each play in the friendship, particularly if the dynamic is objectively one-sided. “One person is receiving care, compassion, their needs are met, they’re being heard and the other person is just not,” Dr. Boateng says. “Not only can it be one sided, but potentially, it can be shallow or a lopsided experience where your relationship doesn’t have depth because it’s not reciprocal.”
While this dynamic may work or exist just fine when the strong friend can play their part, in moments when their “strength” or neglect of self compromises their ability to show up as they normally do, typically they need support, don’t have practice in asking for it, and the more dependent friend is navigating a new role in the relationship.
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Dr. Boateng says this can result in the friends having two very different perspectives of the friendship. She says, “One person may feel like, ‘Oh, this is my best friend and confidant and we have a really close relationship,’ and the other person doesn’t feel that.” Whether that action feels good, serves their ego or is accepted as their role, the strong friend is ultimately just providing service.
Prioritize what’s happening for them and their feelings. Even if they don’t offer that information, ask for it.Dr. Boateng
When showing up for someone that doesn’t know how to identify or share their needs, providing them space and centering them is key. “Prioritize what’s happening for them and their feelings. Even if they don’t offer that information, ask for it,” Dr. Boateng recommends. “Try to draw out some of the experiences that they might be going through and show interest in compassion around those things.”
Showing support for them can look like offering space for them to cry, talk in circles, or affirm that their feelings make sense, it’s normal for them to feel that way and you understand them or are putting in the effort to. “Reassuring your commitment as their friend and willingness to show up in this way can also be helpful,” she says. Providing this safety will make it likely for them to return to you for it and practice addressing their needs and emotions.
Offering support can feel very uncomfortable too, especially if you go to this person for their distinctly different perspective than yours. You may even look up to them for their strength and have to reconcile your attachment to them or perspective of them without it at this moment.
“Take the focus and lens off of how you feel and make sure that all of the space is about how they feel by allowing them to have the space to emote in the way that feels comfortable to them,” Dr. Boateng says.
When a person is going through it, they really do need a gentle, firm base. They don’t need a flexible base.Dr. Boateng
Focus on empathy rather than sympathy by creating space for their needs, that they don’t typically bring to you, and their perspective of their own experience, not yours. “I think it’s helpful to recognize that when a person is going through it, they really do need a gentle, firm base. They don’t need a flexible base,” she says. “Gently make space for them to show up as they need to, but also to stand firm in not making the situation about you and how you feel about them.” This can be a challenge when the dynamic usually skews about your needs and navigating your struggles without either of you acknowledging theirs.
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Meeting them with observations about them like how you’ve never seen them in this position or how you yourself might handle it (or not be able to) does not offer them anything but your perspective and pity. Not affording them this break from being “strong” can have an adverse effect on them and subsequently the friendship.
“This can reconfirm their idea that I can’t be broken. I can’t be human, right? I need to be strong, and strong being the absence of emotion,” she says. “You have an emotion? Ew, no. Put that away. That’s not what we’re used to.” This can lead them to continue to minimize or suppress their emotions or simply not come to you for that, shining a light on the one-sidedness of the relationship.
While this definitely can be an adjustment to the existing dynamic, they may need a break from being your go-to. “I think it’s important to provide that support to yourself.” Dr. Boateng says to remember what they’ve offered in the past and consider if that insight can apply to what you’re going through in the moment during their absence.
Where you’re able and if it’s possible, have more than one person to go to in these moments so it’s not heavy on this one person.Dr. Boateng
You can also take this opportunity to diversify your support. “Where you’re able and if it’s possible, have more than one person to go to in these moments so it’s not heavy on this one person.”
It’s important to do your best with your own coping mechanisms, but offer yourself some grace. “It will just be really hard, and it’s OK for it to just feel hard,” Dr. Boateng points out. Just try not to pile it on your strong friend. Let them be soft for once.