DEAR CAROLYN: What do I do when my friends are hurting and I can't do anything to help them? I don't have a lot of friends, but right now all of them are in various degrees of pain and depression, and I feel useless and helpless and depressed myself over it. I'm not married and don't have children so I can't even relate to some of their problems or give them any useful perspective. I can listen and be sympathetic, but other than that I've got nothing.
MR. USELESS: You care, you're sympathetic, and you listen. That is everything.
If you have a dinner you can prepare for them and mobility to get out on a socially distanced walk with them and a stupid Zoom-able game to distract them with, then you have everything made tangible.
In other words, please don't conflate an inability to fix their problems with an inability to help.
And please don't be so tough on yourself.
And also make sure you have ways to keep yourself afloat when you're not with these friends. Other people's sadness can weigh on you, certainly, but it's important to be able to recognize when you're carrying around other people's problems, which isn't healthy. Sometimes all it takes to stay upright is to build some restorative things into your schedule — ones you know to be a reliable source of perspective, energy, joy.
You can also say to them out loud, simply: "I can listen and be sympathetic, but other than that I feel like I've got no useful way to help you." That has the potential to open a few doors: for them to recognize how much you care, which has its own power; for them to suggest concrete things you can do to help them; and for them.
HI, CAROLYN: You so often recommend resources when people are at a loss for next steps. That's me now. I need to repair a relationship with my father-in-law, who I lost my temper with due to his mean, sarcastic, dismissive approach to me. This was in response to his behavior around my 1-year-old. A week later, I am still angry and uninterested in actually fixing the situation, but I need to for my husband and child. Do I start with a book? A therapist? Friend therapy? Time? Thank you!!
STILL ANGRY: You start with your husband. How does he interpret what happened, how does he feel about it, what kind of relationship does he have with his dad, does he see anything wrong with it or him, what would he like you to do, ideally, and how close to that ideal is he pushing for you to get?
You don't even say whether he thinks you or your dad did anything wrong.
The steps are: You and your husband figure out where you both are in this. Then you reconcile any differences into a plan, which makes it sound easy but is everything and can take weeks, months, years. Then you both follow the plan, with flexibility and forgiveness toward each other as you navigate challenging people.
If you're together, then you can manage your father-in-law. If you're not, then fixing that first is where your energy belongs.