How to Help a Friend Who Isn’t Feeling ThemselvesNo self-deprecating comments here.
Once upon a time—before I built a whole platform advocating for mental health, body positivity, and feminism—I worked in retail for a women’s fashion brand. It wasn’t the most thrilling job, but I enjoyed most of it. The clothes were beautiful, my colleagues were great, and the employee discount didn’t hurt either. Still, there was one task I always dreaded: changing room duty.
That small back room with its curtained-off sections became a cacophony of self-deprecation and body shame. It seemed like every customer had something negative to say about themselves—their arms were too big, their stomach wasn’t flat, they were too old for that dress, or they weren’t pretty enough to wear that color. The whole area pulsed with insecurities, and I was like an overworked tennis player trying to swat away each insult and replace it with a compliment or piece of reassurance.
It was hard enough trying to help strangers shake off their self-doubt, but when it comes to having a friend who’s constantly battling their body image or feeling like they’re not good enough in any aspect of their lives, it can feel impossible to get it right.
Do we laugh it off when they make themselves the butt of the joke? Should we bombard them with seemingly empty compliments whenever we see them? Should we respond by pointing out our own struggles and enter into the classic back-and-forth of putting ourselves down as a kind of bonding ritual (think: Mean Girls “I have really bad breath in the morning” vibes)?
As someone who’s been the insecure pal more times than I can count, I don’t think any of these are helpful options. And I know the friends who have helped me move through my negative self-talk the most are the ones who have listened without judgment, taught me new ways of seeing things, and reminded me exactly who I am beyond the insecurities (an unstoppable bad bitch!).
So, the next time you’re with a friend who’s in the habit of putting themselves down, here’s how to lift them up:
1. Don’t dismiss their not-so-subtle drags.
It’s easy to shake off someone’s self-critical comment and move the conversation to lighter things. But if you never dig deeper, you won’t get to the root of those comments or help your bud feel understood, says Miriam Kirmayer, PhD, clinical psychologist, friendship expert, and speaker on social connection and support.
Let’s take the super common example of someone talking about how fat they look. A knee-jerk reaction might be: “No you don’t! You’re beautiful!” But instead of trying to separate them from fatness (and reinforcing the myth that they can’t be fat and beautiful), there’s a more valuable conversation to be had. “It’s important to acknowledge their feelings and offer comfort while still questioning where their opinion is coming from,” says licensed counselor and body image specialist Joeley Bishop, founder of U Ok Hun? Therapy Services. “Open up the conversation. Is there something deeper going on?”
To do that, talk about where those feelings might’ve come from and if there’s a different way of seeing things. Like, you might be living in a larger body and have big thighs, but that doesn’t make you a bad person or undesirable. (Love, Actually, this one’s on you).
You could also chat about how they can move toward treating all bodies (including their own) with more kindness and respect. You don’t have to relate to everything they’re feeling, but showing that you understand where they’re coming from and offering a safe space to listen is golden, Dr. Kirmayer adds.
Now, if they don’t open up to you, remember that every relationship has its own unique dynamic. Maybe they don’t feel comfy revealing their innermost thoughts to you. While that can be frustrating, it doesn’t make you a bad friend, Dr. Kirmayer adds.
2. Learn together.
You don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, a friend who’s willing to learn how to keep a friend’s insecurities in check can be even more helpful than someone who already feels confident as hell all the time.
Whatever your pal is battling—whether it’s body image, career satisfaction, or dating woes—there may be opportunities to delve into your own experiences or learn from people who’ve been through it and grow together, Dr. Kirmayer affirms.
That could be as simple as sending them your fave podcast where a therapist shares tips on self-compassion. Or maybe it’s dropping a link to an article about knowing your worth regardless of your checking account balance.
When I first learned about body positivity, I found an online community of people who supported each other in unlearning diet culture. We’d share book recommendations and videos to watch, and we even set self-love challenges to keep each other going. Feeling like I had people learning with me was major motivation to keep healing.
If these convos make you uncomfortable or trigger your own insecurities, you can also gently ask your friend if they’d ever consider talking to an expert who can offer the support they deserve, Dr. Kirmayer says.
3. Step up as a role model.
No one is 100% confident all the time, but maybe you’ve gotten comfortable showing up for yourself despite your self-doubt. In that case, you can lead the way. Having a positive impact on your insecure friend can be as simple as “going out and living life to the fullest” to show they can still enjoy themselves too, says Bishop.
You can also be transparent about the negative self-talk you might face when you’re living it up so they don’t mistakenly assume everything is easy for you, Dr. Kirmayer adds. You could tell your bud, “I was a little nervous leading up to that day, but I kind of said, ‘Screw it. I'm just going to live my life and enjoy the day,’ and I'm so glad I did. It really paid off.”
Back when I was really struggling with disordered eating and my relationship with food was all kinds of messed up, having friends who could be OK with their bodies and what they ate was the biggest blessing. They didn’t count calories or beat themselves up for wanting that snack, so I didn’t either. When my friends showed up for themselves, it represented possibilities that I couldn’t see for myself at the time and gave me courage to start living.
4. Swerve the negative self-talk.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever bonded with someone over the things you don't like about yourselves. Unfortunately, this is a super common way to seek validation and build community (especially among women and girls), Bishop says. Side note: This probs has deep ties to the patriarchy and how “hyper-focusing on our bodies and learning how to change them is one of the few acceptable ‘hobbies’ offered to women and girls,” Bishop adds.
The thing is, when we try to relate to whatever seemingly shameful tidbits our friends also have, we're not challenging the truth of those statements, which isn’t very healthy, Dr. Kirmayer explains.
Because we all deserve better, try to reframe the conversation with something like: “Sometimes I have tough self-esteem days too. I'm really working on being kinder to myself, and I am here to support you in doing the same,” Dr. Kirmayer suggests. And when your bestie starts to dunk on themselves again, you could give them a casual reality check by saying, “Don’t talk about my friend that way.”
5. Remind them who the heck they are.
Sometimes when someone is deep in the fog of insecurity, they forget they are so much more than whatever they’re spiraling about. So reminding them of all their awesomeness can help, Dr. Kirmayer says.
Real friends don’t love you because of how you look, how fancy your job title is, or where you live. Real friends love you because they see your heart, because of the fun you’ve had, the kindness you’ve shared, the support you’ve given. Reminding an insecure friend why you hang with them can help them see things clearly again.
So do your favorite activity together! Reminisce on your wildest memories! Send them a list of all the things that make them special! You can also re-up all the evidence that shows how capable they are of getting through anything, Dr. Kirmayer adds.
If your pal keeps struggling with the same things and you’re starting to sound like a broken record, investigate if there’s a better way you could support them. You could say, “I feel like we've had this conversation several times before, and I'm wondering if I'm not doing what you need to feel supported or to help you process this in the way that you deserve to,” Dr. Kirmayer suggests.
You could also ask, “What do you think you really need to hear right now from me? What are we not talking about that we need to be working through? What other ways can we look at this or tackle this together?” When you approach the convo that way, it basically kickstarts a brainstorming session and encourages your friend to look inward and practice some self-validation, Dr. Kirmayer adds.
The bottom line: None of us can force our friends to see themselves as the amazing people we know they are. But if we can show up with empathy, curiosity, and a commitment to loving ourselves and each other, we can help them shift their inner monologue in meaningful ways.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.