Are You Sabotaging Your Friends Without Realizing It?

How to recognize when being supportive isn’t a good thing.

Posted Dec 30, 2017

Dreamtime w/permission
Source: Dreamtime w/permission

Almost nothing feels better than having a family member or close friend give you support and validation. When you are having a bad day it very well may be the one thing that pulls you out of it. As a result, we believe it is a big part of our job to provide support and validation back to those who love us. But have you ever stopped to think about whether or not the support you are providing is in the best interest of the person you are giving it to?

People communicate their life events to one another in the form of stories about things that happen. All the events that happen to us in life that cause any kind of significant emotion can be divided into one of two categories: Things you want and things you don’t want. Breakups, job loss, betrayal, the death of a loved one—all things you don’t want. Pets, best friends, birthday parties, getting a raise—all things you do want. Things you don’t want cause negative emotions, while things you do want cause positive emotions.

People will generally seek the most support around the events that generate negative emotions, and as a result, the stories they share often come from the perspective of what they don’t like. Validating someone else’s perspective feels like the kind and socially appropriate thing to do, however, sometimes when you validate someone’s perspective of what they don’t like, the well-intentioned support you give can end up reinforcing their negative view of themselves or a life they don’t really want, which will only serve to make the other person unhappier in the long run.


Old way:

You: How are you today?

Friend: Lousy! My boyfriend is such a jerk. We had a huge fight last night because I had to ask him five times to take out the trash.

You: That’s too bad. You’re right, he sounds like a total jerk.

Friend: Isn’t he though? I’m glad you agree. Do you think I should leave him?

You: Maybe, a guy that acts like a jerk doesn’t deserve you.

Instead of providing support for the unwanted perspective someone is taking, a more helpful approach is to re-focus your friend or loved one on what it is they want from the situation, and then center your support around what generates the positive emotion.

New more helpful way:

You: How are you today?

Friend: Lousy! My boyfriend is such a jerk. We had a huge fight last night because I had to ask him five times to take out the trash.

You: That’s too bad. It would be nice if you didn’t feel like you had to nag him to get him to do things. (Focus them on what they want).

Friend: Right! Exactly! I just want him to listen so I know he cares about my feelings.

You: Have you tried telling him that?

Sometime it won't be obvious to either you or them what they are really wanting in the situation, so simply asking "What do you really want?" before you offer your support can provide them with a necessary space to think it over and start to define the situation better. 

The support you give to your friends and loved ones is very powerful. When you add your own thoughts on a subject to someone else’s, the power of what is being discussed grows stronger because it continues to define and shape their perspective. Their perspective will eventually lead to their actions and the situations they end up creating for themselves. When you have the awareness to know that not all support is equal and you not only choose to support the things someone really wants, but you know how to use your support to guide them there, you become an invaluable friend that everyone will want to have around.