The benefits of social support are undeniable. We all need support during difficult times in our lives. Research has shown that social support is related to positive emotional and physical health. However, sometimes beneficial support can be difficult to find. Sometimes people’s attempts at being supportive can make us feel worse. What gets in the way of support that is actually, you know, supportive?
- We are afraid of seeking support. We may be fearful that others will judge us or not understand our struggles. We may be fearful of rejection. This fear can lead to missed opportunities for support. There is a blood work lab here in London, Ontario that opens early every morning for women who are undergoing fertility treatments. Every morning the lab’s waiting room is full of women who are waiting to get their blood drawn to determine their hormone levels, to learn how their treatment cycle is going, or to learn whether their treatment cycle was successful. Most of these women likely have had many similar experiences and could probably relate to one another. However, on most mornings, this waiting room is silent and most women even avoid making eye contact with one another. We don’t want to intrude, invade anyone’s privacy, or may be too anxious ourselves to even start a conversation. However, this fear can stand in the way of connecting with others who may truly understand what we are going through.
- We fall into the role of supporter, rather than supportee. Sometimes it is more comfortable to simply listen and be there for other people. If a friend begins to talk about her own struggles, it may feel wrong to turn the conversation to yourself. You may have become known among your circle as an amazing listener, a calming force, someone who can help with anything. These are wonderful qualities to have, but they can get in the way of receiving your own support. Don’t shy away from voicing your own needs. Those who have been on the receiving end of your support will likely be more than happy to be there for you.
- We try to downplay our own feelings and our own needs for support. Sometimes, as a way of coping, we may minimize our own struggles and deny that we even need support. The idea of seeking support may feel like we are admitting that we are having difficulties. People may be stunned to know that you are struggling because you hide it so well. However, your feelings are valid. Acknowledge and validate the feelings that you are having. It’s okay to be having them and it’s okay to need some help.
- We are getting the wrong type of support, but don’t speak up. When I work with couples, there tends to be a familiar pattern of support gone wrong. One member of the couple is the “fixer” and the other is the "venter." The venter finds talking about their difficulties to be very beneficial. However, when the fixers hears of a problem or struggle, they immediately go into problem solving mode. The fixer hears the venting as a call to action. However, the venter doesn’t want a fix, they just want to talk about it and feel supported. This can create a feeling of disconnect. The fixer is confused about why the venter is getting frustrated when all they want to do is help. The venter is feeling unheard and misunderstood. Both parties leave the interaction feeling like they were just speaking to each other in a foreign language. It is critical to be clear about what we need from our support system, especially since our needs may change depending on the situation.
- We need more support or help than our support system is able to give. There are situations which there is a very clear need for outside support. Professional support, which can be found through therapy, is not a replacement for your own support system. It is a complement to it. Seeking professional support provides you with a time and a place that it all about you and your needs. This can be very different than accessing your friends and family as supports, as they are often personally impacted by your struggles. Having an unbiased perspective can be incredibly helpful in coping with difficulties.
Having support can make us feel less isolated, less distressed and more connected to those in our lives. The feeling that someone has listened, understood and cared about us can make even the most bleak situations feel that much more tolerable.