two women, one using a walker, under an umbrella together

There are times when your friends may call on you for help or support. This may be a time of crisis for them, or during a time of extra stress.

Usually, when asked, people on some level want to say yes, it’s part of how humans are socialized.

Now that you are living with a disabling condition though, you have additional considerations to make concerning your energy and ability. Also, most disabilities reduce our social ties, so having and keeping friends becomes a larger-than-average concern.

There is a practical aspect: can you actually do what they ask? If you can’t, you need to tell them.

Do you actually want to do what they ask? If you are in a low-energy position, it really doesn’t do you any good to force yourself to help somebody with something that you don’t enjoy doing or don’t do well – there’s just too many negatives associated.

Are they one of those people who always ask? Some people tend to ask and take a lot, and aren’t as good at repaying the favor, while other people tend to give of themselves and rarely ask for things in return. Often, when managing a disability, we feel that we are, or have become takers, and sometimes guilt or fear of being seen as a burden will push us to want to help any time anybody asks for a hand.

Think about the friend who is asking – and consider if that friend is usually a giver or a taker, or if your friendship tends to balance out much of the time. If you feel like that friend is more of a taker or more draining, you may want to give this task a pass, to conserve your energy so you can care for yourself or help a friend who tends to be more generous.

Often, when living with some limitations, we are less able to help ourselves or help others, and have additional considerations when we are asked to help others – today, I want to talk about your considerations when you are deciding if and how to help a friend in need of help without causing yourself harm, and how to frame your answers so that the friendship is less likely to be harmed or damaged if you do need to say ‘no’.

Proritization: are your needs being met?

The first thing to ask yourself is: are my needs taken care of and how hard have I been needing to fight for them?

I am a big believer in radical self-care, which involves taking care of your needs before others so that you will consistently be able to participate in society to the best of your ability.

hand pouring water from a thermos into a cup held by another hand.
You can’t pour from an empty flask!

If you are currently not getting the help you need, you probably are not going to be able to help your friend without taking away from your own health and state of mind.

If you are in a position where your needs are being met and you have energy to spare, it may be worth considering if and how you could help your friend without having too much extra strain on yourself. That, of course, is assuming that you want and are capabable of helping your friend in the way they asked.

It is a truly great feeling to successfully help somebody. It can make you feel incredibly good and it can expand your sense of hope and your recognition of your own abilities, especially if they can and do express some form of appreciation of your help.

I love helping others, and it tends to put me in a better headspace, and feel better overall. So don’t get me wrong – if you truly are in the position to help a friend, I hope you are able to do so.

However, if trying to help your friend is going to rob you of the ability to care for yourself, or will leave you overall feeling much worse, it simply isn’t worth doing.

As your friend, they should respect what your limits are and accept such a statement without it damaging the friendship. What’s important for you is deciding how you feel and if you want to help your friend out.

Will providing help set me back?

An important piece of this consideration is the nature of the help in relation to the problems you are working with.

woman standing on solid ground, looking at broken patches of ice
Helping somebody through something you’ve experienced can help your healing – unless you are likely to fall back into the problem again

There are always emotionally triggering ideas or events that may be harder for you than they would be for others – this could be a physical limitation(it may hurt to bend over or you may not be able to safely carry something heavy across a distance), or it may be a mental(if you are trying to manage an addiction, helping another person with theirs could be profoundly healing for you both, or my trigger a relapse for you) or emotional one(if you are just starting to heal from a loss, there is a risk that helping somebody dealing with a similar problem could again pull you back into that dark emotional space).

Often, helping another person with a similar limitation has the potential to be quite healing if you are prepared and willing to help – and you have the mental/emotional reserves to help them process their situation while you process yours.

However, if you are in a different state of mind, trying to help another person with a shared or similar type of damage may set you back and leave you more apt to fall back into old, unhelpful habits. It requires good judgment on your part, and a willingness and ability to step back if you end up misjudging how much you can healthily handle.

This means having a frank conversation with your friend about what you can and can’t handle right now, and that you will do your best, but if you feel you are relapsing you may need to back away at least for a while. It’s a delicate dance, but the gains can be high if you and your friend can balance well.

What do they need, and what will it cost you to provide it

Sometimes people don’t realize what they are truly asking for. They may make a request that is beyond your ability to fill or a request that’s very easy for you, even if it may be hard for them.

If the request they make is one you can easily meet, you can feel comfortable fulfilling it.

When the request is harder, then you need to weigh your options more carefully and think about not only your ability to do the thing, but also what doing the thing will cost you and how much it will help the other person.

Sometimes requests for help are more requests to be seen or acknowledged. If so, acknowledge their need and suggest possible solutions that may be less demanding on you but still get them to the end result they want.

The more of your energy you will spend helping them, the more carefully you need to consider your options.

person hiking on broken ice with ice stalactites in front of them
you need to know what the terrain is and really understand the risks involved

If you get a sense of desperation, or they share that they have a huge ask and nobody to provide for them, be careful and remember to protect yourself first.

If you are their only support provider, that can be a lot of pressure on yourself and you will likely find them asking for more as they recognize their needs.

This kind of situation can end up feeling somewhat parasitic, with the friend living off of your energy and effort – and that is almost always an unhealthy situation.

If, on the other hand, your friend has a big but temporary ask and a plan for moving themselves forward, it’s often much safer to consider granting their request.

This could be a friend who is moving asking you for a favor during that transition or a friend between jobs who needs additional help to start at the next position(such as a ride to an interview). It is often easier to help somebody when the help has a guaranteed endpoint.

Can you and your friend support one another?

two surfers in wetsuits walking towards the water
Some sports are only safe with a buddy – and having somebody you’d let down if you didn’t go can be motivating

Sometimes, you don’t have extra energy and are using most of it on taking care of yourself. The energy you spend on your friend will burden you to lessen their burden, which is neither healthy nor sustainable.

However, If your friend is asking for help in something you also are working on, there is another option. You and your friend could make the commitment to one another to work together on a project or learning a new skill.

It needs to be something you and your friend prioritize similarly, that you can help and encourage one another with, and potentially do together. Having an accountability partner is often one of the best ways to succeed in a project or task you need to do.

Having a friend be an exercise buddy, or getting together with a friend to make meals or keep each other company are examples of mutual benefit. If your friend’s request could be met this way, it may be worth doing even if it is a bit of a push for you.

Personality: how are they going to behave?

Another important consideration is the friend themselves.

Some people are naturally considerate of others and their needs, and may even be hesitant to ask for help, even when they need it.

Other people can feel more like energy vampires and suck up your energy to meet their needs.

Most people, of course, are in between, with some degree of consideration, or certain depths they won’t stoop to.

chikadee perched on a person's hand.  The hand is holding some nuts
You need to have a sense of what their likely response is, and protect yourself – helping is great as long as you aren’t hurt in the process!

You will want to think carefully about their personality and consideration and if you are willing and able to safely put your energy into helping them at this point.

I have had times where I have helped friends, sometimes in small ways, sometimes larger.

What I have found is that there has been a strong relationship, for me, between how my friend shows appreciation and how happy I am to help.

I’ve also felt much better when I can tell that I really have helped them, in the sense that after I did the favor, I could tell they were in a better place.

I have had friends need emotional support, and listened to their fears and concerns, then shared my insights. If they feel helped, or better, I’m so glad I could help.

I’ve had other friends in difficult life situations where I’ve offered a place to stay briefly or to be an overnight or weekend escape from their life stresses.

I’ve listened to friends trying to make major decisions and tried to help them make the best decisions they could for themselves.

There have been times I’ve felt so good about how I helped them, or how happy they are with a decision – and times where I have had to make sure I didn’t say ‘I told you so’.

There have also been times where I just felt used or unappreciated.

Sometimes I did try to help, but they didn’t want me to help them that way, or they asked for help, but wouldn’t consider my suggestions.

Those times, I would often end up feeling worse about myself or much lower on energy than I had expected.

I have learned, over the years that sadly, not only can I not help everyone, there are also people who would refuse to accept my form of help.

While it’s a bit painful to contemplate, it is true, and I hope that you can learn from my mistakes and not fall prey to too many of those experiences

Saying ‘no’ gracefully

If you really want to help them, go for it!

If, when thinking about helping them, you primarily are feeling a sense of dread, or a fear of being overwhelmed, it may be time to bow out.

You can refuse in whatever way feels best for you, including potentially using your condition as a part or all of the reason.

Be sure that you’re consistent about what limits you set if you’re going to frame it as due to your condition, though, as people sometimes look for holes in that sort of story(even when it’s completely true).

Honestly, it’s important that any boundary you set be consistent, or they may constantly test the limits and see if they can push you further.

If your friend requests help, they do deserve a timely answer from you, but they don’t necessarily deserve the help they request.

image painted on a wall: silluette of a girl reaching towards a heart-shaped balloon out of her reach
Sometimes, trying to help can cost the friendship, and sometimes not helping will be the beginning of the end.

If you are uncomfortable, your best bet is to explain why, and possibly offer an alternative solution.

This could be suggesting a different mutual friend, offering to do a portion of their request, or explaining to them why their request feels overwhelming or inappropriate.

Also, those of us managing disabling conditions often end up being less reliable than we’d like to be as a result of our conditions – so it makes sense to let your friend know if you are hesitating on a commitment because you don’t know if you will be able to do it(for example, if you can only drive on a low-symptom day, you don’t want to commit to giving your friend a ride to the airport).

I’ve learned that if you’re going to say no, sooner is almost always better than later.

This reduces the cost to them(it’s easier to find a ride a week in advance than a day), and it reduces the likelihood that they have assumed that you will do it.

For some people, no answer means yes, and to others, no answer means no.

Communicating your response clearly and in a reasonable time frame should help reduce the risk of misunderstandings or hurt feelings, and increases the likelihood that they can find an alternative solution.

The risk of losing a friendship or damaging the relationship

There is always a degree of risk that either your refusal to help your friend, or your attempt to help them, may end up destroying the friendship. It is a risk, and the degree of risk is something only you can judge.

The biggest risk is the feeling of broken promises on either side.

For some people, their expectation or belief about what friends do may be very different from another’s. It gets into the depths of the friendship and the generosity(and ability to be generous) of the people involved.

Successes in helping

I have had innumerable times that friends have talked with me about life challenges or relationship issues, and I was able to help them take a step back and think through what could actually work or be helpful.

I’ve happily helped friends think through decisions, suggested resources to them, or offered to help them in some project they were doing.

two women high-fiving one another while exercising together
It feels great when you and a friend have helped one another!

I’ve spotted a friend a few dollars towards dinner or covered a meal or snack with the understanding that they’d return the favor the next time we were together. And many of my friends have done the same for me.

I have lent countless books, seen performances, helped select clothes(not my forte, but happy to give feedback), and listened through tales of woe.

I have offered my home as a safe place to stay for an evening, a day, or a week with no regrets, and have seriously meant it the times I said ‘call anytime’.

I have read papers, given constructive criticism, and accompanied people to appointments.

All of these are acts of helping, and most of them have been things that have improved my relationships with others. Some were lower risk or energy than others, and I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list.

I just want you to be aware that helping isn’t usually about sacrifice, but more frequently is about active listening, mutual support, and good communication

Conclusion: on friendships and helping

After experiencing trauma, you are often in a position to share more insight and empathy than most, and that can definitely help you engage with others empathetically and prove your friends and family with loving care and help in life.

Just think before you act, and make sure that you help in ways that build friendship, rather than damage it, and that you protect yourself and reinforce your own boundaries, rather than falling into the trap of people-pleasing.

You are likely to have more limited energy than you used to, please make sure that you are spending it well, and in ways that help make you life and the lives of those you love better.

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