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How to be a good friend in the time of Covid-19

Jaymi Butler

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Friendship
The stress of life during a pandemic can put a strain on friendships. It's important to make people feel validated and acknowledged.

Let’s be honest. 2020 is a year most of us would like to forget. As the threat of Covid-19 continues to linger, we’ve seen some of our friends lose their jobs while others are working harder than ever to keep their businesses afloat. Seemingly solid couples are getting divorced. Parents are agonizing about sending their kids back to school or worrying how they’ll juggle online learning while handling their own responsibilities. Racial tension is in the air. And there’s a presidential election on the horizon.

These ongoing stresses are having an impact on our emotional well-being. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that for the first time, more than half of American adults believe the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health. And that’s not all. Last year at this time, roughly one in 12 American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Now it’s more than one in three, according to the National Center for Health Statistics

Anita SahgalWith so much coming at us every day, The St. Pete Catalyst sat down virtually with Anita Sahgal, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of the Wellness Center & Student Accessibility Services at USF St. Pete to talk about how we can navigate these difficult times and support our friends without burning ourselves out in the process.

The Catalyst: What’s our responsibility to our friends and family during this time?

AS: I like to think about this in terms of what is our broader responsibility to our community. The nature of what’s happening right now cannot be addressed in isolation so if we have the mentality of thinking about how we can help our community, it might set us up to be more receptive to thinking more locally. As far as our responsibility to our friends, there’s an innate sense of wanting to support them and be there for them. How do we do that? For one thing, just giving validation if they’re struggling, helping them understand that what they’re dealing with is normal and giving them permission to experience what they’re experiencing. You’ll also want to give them a bigger context to view what’s going on right now – there are things happening no one could control, so remind them not to blame themselves if they’re experiencing negative situations. Also, really good listening and being present in the moment is critical. Sometimes our friends just want us to be in the room with them and to hear and acknowledge what they’re going through.

The Catalyst: How can we support our friends without taking on their problems as our own?

AS: As a friend, our default reaction might be to think about what the other person needs, but we also need to think about what we need and that’s not selfish. We can’t give to others if we have nothing to give and if you can’t replenish yourself, you won’t have much left for other people. Self-care is important, and setting boundaries is especially critical right now. Yes, you can still be a good friend while setting reasonable boundaries, and you should have that conversation with yourself about how you’ll do that. If you aren’t prepared to set boundaries, you’re more vulnerable to getting sucked in. Maybe your boundaries are related to time – you can listen to someone for 20 minutes, but perhaps you can’t do two hours. Maybe it’s a boundary around negative emotions, where someone is dragging you into their negative emotional space without really meaning to. Here, you can say to them “I really want to support and help and be here for you, but going into this negative space isn’t healthy for me. Maybe we can come back to this conversation in a different way?”

Perhaps it means stepping back and telling your friend that you’re not going to stop supporting them, but that you need time to think of the healthiest way you can do that. It’s all about being transparent. 

The Catalyst: How can we safely vent to our friends about what we’re dealing with without overwhelming them?

AS: When we’re in the midst of a difficult situation, we may not even be aware we’re doing it. What can be helpful is to share with your friend what you’re looking to get out of the conversation and be very clear about your needs. Maybe you just need someone to listen, or possibly you’re looking for solutions and want to do some problem-solving. If you are able to think through what will be most helpful to you and you share that with your friend, it can guide the conversation in a way that meets your needs and can also help your friend in understanding what your expectations are. Otherwise, your friend might make assumptions about what you want and they could start trying to fix your problems when all you’re really looking to do is talk. Communication is key.

The Catalyst: Is it OK to complain about being swamped at work to someone who was laid off? Or to talk about parenting stresses to a friend who’s struggling with infertility? 

AS: A lot of this will be based on the context of your friendship. What type of support do you usually give each other? Is this person a best friend or just an  acquaintance? Being mindful is important. Ask your friend if they’re in a place to talk about what you’re feeling to show that you respect what their limitations might be in this moment, and be sensitive to what they might need in return. Tell them you appreciate them talking with you if they’re willing to do so, but make sure they know that if any point the conversation gets too difficult, they can let you know and you’ll be willing to step back. 

The Catalyst: Racial issues and the upcoming election are coming right in the middle of pandemic stress. How do you deal with friends and family who don’t share your opinions, especially those who are active on social media? Is it OK to step back?

AS: If looking at social media accounts is hurting you, don’t do it. I get they can be a source of connection, but this may be the time to think of other ways to connect socially without putting yourself at risk. Maybe you could have handled those types of interactions a year ago, but now it might be too much for you to manage, and that’s OK. It may not feel like it right now, but we know this too shall pass and eventually we will probably go back to doing what we did before. Maybe that means engaging with these friends again. But if this is not what we need right now, we need to acknowledge it. This experience is bringing to light what our priorities are and what our expectations are and those things can change, which is not always a bad thing. Sometimes change can bring about opportunities and lead us to find acceptance.

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