I have a few friends, very good ones amonst them, that suffer from low self-esteem that leads them to lack drive and evergy in both everyday and professional lives. Over the years, I tried to help and encourage them in various ways, like helping with job applications or university matters.

Until here, this issue has been discussed here on ips several times. However, by now I unfortunately feel that it is not just a lack of trust in their abilities. It is also an objective lack of abilities, and hence, they have a reason to not feel up to tasks. Several are stuck in jobs or even areas of work that are just plainly a bad fit for them. I feel that this is a self-amplifying pattern: Since they lacked trust in themselves and their abilities, they had problems studying or at work, which led to less fun with those activities, which in turn led to less routine in doing them and so on.

The problem areas range from work across studying into managing their private lifes.

So, me and some colleagues tried in various ways to coach and encourage them. It did not work out, we mostly felt like all our suggestions were just politely nodded away and never tried. Even during very concrete "let's get this done together" scenarios, the friends in question would not really participate but only do the barest minimum, retreating from the job at hand as soon as possible, all the while complaining how they aren't happy with their situations.

This is getting to a point where it is affecting myself. I have a young family and enough on hand as it is, and I feel like I am surrounded only with people that I am helping, while I feel that I myself still have a lot to learn and would like to be surrounded by more mentor-like personalities. I can only do so much with time-management before completely losing contact with said friends. And I feel I am too young to stop, intellectually, just because my family, friends and neighbours need me as a parent, counselor and helper.

So, my question is, how could I (and my colleagues who have not yet given up) encourage people in their 30s and 40s, suffering from low self-esteem and lack of happiness, that do not seem to react to attempts at helping them with concrete measures? At the same time, how can I manage to help them, keep in contact with them, but also put myself in a position of learning and intellectual advancement again?

Background and contextual info: First of all, sorry for the throwaway account (I think the reason for using one is pretty obvious). This is happening in a central European cultural context, but some friends come from Eastern Europe and some from Latin America. Many have a religious background, I am agnostic. Our professional background is technical / knowledge work, and we've all attended universities. We're at the initial / intermediate stages of our careers.

1 Answer 1


Frame challenge: stop trying to help them fix their problems. They have clearly demonstrated they aren't willing to put in the effort to actually change their situation, and there's nothing you can do to force them to change. Of course everyone would like to be in a better situation than they are now, but that's not the same thing as wanting to do the things required to make it happen. Don't mistake the two sentiments.

I run into this a lot with managing money. I've always been good at keeping my expenses down enough that I have some extra money left each paycheck, and I'm careful to build up savings so I always have a reserve. This isn't due to having a large income: I was able to do it while working part time for near minimum wage. As a result, friends will see me able to deal with an expensive emergency (car repairs, medical bills) or make a large purchase (like a TV) without a struggle.

When people see this, they often say things like "I wish I had a buffer like that to deal with emergencies" or "I wish I could buy a TV/video game/whatever". I took this the same way you do, as a statement that they actually wanted to change things. I'd respond by listing some easy things to cut out to save a few bucks, or advise them to not make fun purchases until they pay off their credit cards because they'll have more money in the long run, or to trade in that car they're making huge monthly payments on for something cheap, or other things of that nature. Surprisingly enough, nobody has ever appreciated the advice, much less taken it.

The reality is people aren't saying they wish they'd make all the same sacrifices and decisions you did to be in your position. They're saying they wish things were magically better. Have you ever said or thought something like "I wish I could go lounge on a tropical beach right now" or "I wish I had that cool car that just drove past" or "I wish I were president so I could do things differently than the current bozo"? Would you expect a response of the steps needed to obtain those things? To the people saying they wish they had a great job, it's just the same. It's an unrealistic dream that, although perhaps technically possible, is not worth what it'd take to actually achieve it. Although it might seem crazy for them to want something and not be willing to actually go for it, that's where they're at. You're not going to convince them otherwise any more than they're going to convince you to run for president.

So what can you do? If they ever approach you with a serious desire to achieve something specific and want your assistance, absolutely help them as much as you feel comfortable. If they're just moaning about their lives, politely express empathy and move on. Most everyone wishes they were independently wealthy so they could do what they truly want, so that shouldn't be a difficult sentiment to express sincerely. If they won't drop it or keep saying they wish they had a job like yours specifically, you can respond back with something like "and I wish I had the six years back from my twenties when I went to college and worked two jobs at once! Every path has its pros and cons, doesn't it?" Otherwise try to keep your interactions to topics you both enjoy and which brought you together as friends in the first place. You can be friends without being their mentor. If you can't, then maybe you need new friends.

  • 1
    Thanks for that thought-provoking perspective change, I hadn't thought about it that way! Commented May 12, 2020 at 7:37
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    One way to potentially implement this advice would be to start by asking if they want help when they complain about a certain situation. You can start by sympathizing "I'm sorry to hear you're having <problem x>", and then ask "Is there anything I can do to help you?" If they say yes then you can offer some advice, and if they say no then they just want someone to commiserate with, so just do that for them
    – Kevin
    Commented May 18, 2020 at 22:03
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    @KevinWells agreed, that's a good approach if you're unsure what reaction to give. I think there's another question on here that asks about how to figure out if someone is just venting or if they want help.
    – Kat
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 1:11

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