How to reach out to a friend with social anxiety

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How to reach out to someone with social anxiety
Soc-Anx by Twistedry
I have a friend with severe social anxiety and depression. He lives with his mom now, doesn't leave the house, and I (and all of our shared friends) haven't seen him in about two years. All of our attempts to email/call/visit haven't worked and he won't reply. I know he's in therapy, but I'd love to help him if I can. I have been in touch with his mom but she too is at a loss as to what to do other than assist him in getting professional help. She's just been looking back to me for advice in the same way.

Is there any way I can reach out in a way that would feel safe for him?

I have been on both sides of this coin in my life and know the frustration on either side. It seems like you really care and that you are not the only person to whom they aren't responding. The immediate questions in this situation are: is he alone and is he safe? If he was alone and/or you suspected he was unsafe, a call to the local non-emergency number for a welfare check might be in order. But in this case, we know he's living with someone who is attempting to help and is watching over him. That's a relief.

As far as next steps for you, Omid Safi wrote this great analogy here in On Being:

There is a story told and retold in the Middle East about how to help someone who’s drowning. The story goes that a man had fallen into a river. He was not much of a swimmer and was in real danger of drowning. A crowd of concerned people wanted to rescue him. They were standing at the edge of the water, each of them urgently shouting out to him:

"Give me your hand, give me your hand!"

The man was battling the waves and ignored their urgent plea. He kept going under and was clearly struggling to take another breath. A saintly man walked up to the scene. He too cared about the drowning man. But his approach was different. Calmly he walked up to the water, waded in up to his knees, glanced lovingly at the drowning man, and said:

“Take my hand.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, the drowning man reached out and grabbed the saint’s hand. The two came out of the dangerous water. The drowning man sat up at the edge of the water, breathing heavily, looking relieved, exhausted, and grateful. The crowd turned towards the saint and asked in complete puzzlement: “How were you able to reach him when he didn’t heed our plea?” The saint calmly said:

“You all asked him for something, his hand. I offered him something, my hand. A drowning man is in no position to give you anything.”

Let us remember not to ask anything of someone who is drowning.

Read the rest of the article here. If you know that your friend is safe from harm and isn't in danger, then offering your hand and hoping he takes it may be all you can do. In this case, reaching out via email or text (the least threatening way since most of us wouldn't answer our phones on the best of days), and saying explicitly that you don't need any reply.

When I was struggling with depression, I lost a fair few friendships that I wasn't able to recover after the veil had lifted. I'm glad he has an understanding friend like you who isn't blaming him for his struggle, but rather just waiting for him to come back from it. Keep on doing that and periodically check in about something other than his struggles, with no expectation of a reply. If he is in therapy, there will very likely be a time where he will be ready to talk, and your gentle emails will hopefully remind him that you're still there when he's ready.

We reached out to the Offbeat Home Facebook community for some more advice:

My experience was as the person who was in you friend's position. If you have been in touch a couple of times, your friend knows you care about him, but doesn't have the energy to reply. The more you insist, the worst he might feel about you because even though he knows you care, he doesn't want/cannot reply at the moment, and it's highly possible he doesn't even feel worthy of your friendship. He'll come back to you eventually. He has to come out of his anxiety — you cannot crush the door to let him out. Thank you for being a considerate soul to your friend, I'm sure he appreciates. – Dora

I would suggest reaching out in a way that requires no response from him. Often the burden of feeling the need to reply when we aren’t able can make it even harder to respond to people. But if you email or send letters that are purely supportive and require no response from him, you are providing support but removing the guilt of being incapable of replying. He can then respond when he’s ready and able, and in the meantime he is being encouraged by your messages of support. – Lou

Keep sending messages and say it's okay if they don't respond you, just want them to know your thinking about them. Maybe an actual paper card or stuff animal or a favorite treat. I know in my own experience I appreciate the outreach, but don't have the energy to respond or just can't and then want too but it's been so long I assume they hate me now. So the follow up outreach is so important in my case. – Kristen

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  1. I like the idea of a small care package. If you have contact with the person's mom, you could give it to her to give to your friend. Or mail it to their house. I know when I was in therapy, even small gifts meant a lot to me. A picture drawn by a friends' kid with a note, a coloring book and pencils, or a nice 'thinking of you' card and small gift would be appreciated more than you might think.

    4 agree
  2. I love the notion of the Care package! Would it be preferable to select items that the recipient might enjoy, but are of little/no intrinsic value? A news clipping about a favorite celebrity. A sticker of a beloved character. Something printed from the computer. A doodad from the vending machines outside the supermarket. A K-Cup or sealed tea bag of a preferred beverage. A funny postcard. A kid's doodle. Stocking stuffer trinkets.

    I wouldn't want an already depressed, anxious recipient to think, "They sent me a boxed DVD set of every episode of Doctor Who since 1963! How could I EVER reciprocate?!? I'm a sucky friend."

    Unless I'm over thinking it?

    7 agree
  3. Write to him once a month, a letter or an email. Tell him about what's going on in the "outside world", in your circle of friends, the good and the bad. Say you love him but don't dwell on his situation. Shame makes people recoil and retreat.
    Be consistent, maybe send an email on the same day each month. Don't ask questions and don't expect a response. Your loyalty and lack of demands will demonstrate unconditional love, and that's what your friend needs most right now. He's in no position to give back.
    Tell him about the things you see that remind you of him. Recall positive memories that involve him. Talk about the hardships you and your mutual friends are facing. Life is not a party that everyone is attending except for him.
    Tell specific stories, funny things your pets did. Recipes you baked. TV shows you watched. Anecdotes and coincidences. Life is made mostly of small things and not great successes. And that's OK.

    Thank you for being that person who cares. It could save his life.

    7 agree

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