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As an advice columnist, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is some version of this: "How do I help my hard-luck friend?" Whether their problems are financial, romantic, or generic hassles-of-adulthood, many of us have a friend who can't quite seem to get it together and often leans on us for practical or emotional support.
And it's tricky. How do you say "no" to a big ask but keep the friendship intact? How can you tell if a hard-luck friend is a true friend or merely taking advantage of your good nature? Where's the line between "supportive" and "enabling"?
Don't ask an advice columnist. Call Saul.
Better Call Saul, AMC's prequel to Breaking Bad, follows the adventures of impecunious attorney Jimmy McGill as he struggles to achieve success despite his subpar academic credentials, family problems, and innate criminal tendencies. Jimmy's best friend is fellow attorney Kim Wexler, an associate at a white-shoe law firm. Like many of my letter writers, she's better off than her friend, but she's hardly in a position to rescue him like Daddy Warbucks.
And she's a master class in how to be a friend in need. In the Talmud, Hillel the Elder posits three questions every person should be able to answer: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" Kim is a savant at balancing her own interests with other people's needs, and deciding what problems need to be tackled immediately and which should be sat on for a while. "Oy, such a clever shiksa!" Hillel would say about Kim Wexler.
Without further ado, Kim Wexler's Seven (Mostly Spoiler-Free) Tips for Being a Friend to a Needy Person:
1. Don't risk your butt to save your friend's. Kim helps Jimmy as much as she practically can. There are much bigger risks he wants her to take—leaving her job and working with him, for starters. But you can't improve another person's life by tanking your own.
Kim won't endanger her financial or professional status for Jimmy—which ensures that she'll be in a position to help him the next time he needs it. In the event of an unexpected landing, secure your own mask before attempting to help others.
2. If the answer is no, say it clear and fast. Hope is cruel. "Can't you just--?" Jimmy asks. "No, I can't," Kim replies. And this is all they say to each other in the first episode.
Saying "no" is hard. Don't try to avoid the awkwardness with weaseling "maybe's" and "we'll see's." That leaves your needy friend unsure of how to handle their problem—and how to handle you, for that matter. If you can't help, say so upfront and clearly so that they can make new plans.
3. Don't apologize for not doing what you can't do. When she can't do what Jimmy wants, Kim may express regret that circumstances are what they are, but she doesn't apologize for her own actions. This is more than a pop-feminist, "Yeah! Don't you be sorry!" cheer: Kim's refusal to apologize is a kindness to Jimmy.
Fall all over yourself because you can't help your friend, and that puts your friend in the position of having to comfort and validate you, instead of coming up with alternative solutions for their own problem.
4. Don't make them feel bad for asking. In their first scene, Kim mercilessly cuts off Jimmy's ask before he even finishes his sentence. She also, wordlessly, reassembles the trashcan that an angry Jimmy has kicked across the hall, and lets him take the cigarette out of her mouth and smoke it. She never, ever tries to talk him out of his frustration and sadness, or lays guilt on him for asking for favors.
5. Offer unsolicited help and favors when you can. Kim won't tank her career for Jimmy, but she's quick to keep an eye out for ways she can make his life brighter or easier. The Thing is playing downtown? Her treat! Everyone else leaves Jimmy to struggle with heavy file boxes on his own? She grabs one and helps him schlep even though she's in heels.
6. Be a grateful taker as well as a generous giver. Halfway through the season, Jimmy is in a position to do a career-saving favor for Kim—and she accepts with gratitude. She's also happy to hang out after hours at the nail salon where Jimmy lives in the back, taking advantage of the free chair massages, foot baths, and her friend's mediocre pedicure skills.
Friendships may go through periods of inequality, but there should always be a sense of give-and-take. If a hard-luck friend can never even see their way to having you over for board game night, listening to your problems for a change, or helping you move—maybe they're not such a friend. (Or maybe you have a thing about being in the provider role all the time. That happens too.)
7. Have fun! Chances are, it wasn't the hard luck that brought you and your hard-luck friend together in the first place. You liked each other's sense of humor, creativity, work ethic, talents, shared interests. You laughed and gossiped. Kim may be Jimmy's first call when he needs help—but also when he's got a wacky client story to share and a bottle of vodka that isn't going to drink itself. Their shared sense of fun keeps the friendship from becoming an obligation.