This essay is based on Cheryl Richardson’s book, Life Makeovers, and various other resources, specifically The Center for Rural Studies at the University of Michigan. I encourage you to check out their Communications web pages for more helpful information on improving the quality of your life.
We all need support. We all need to be recognized for ourselves, what we do, how we do it, why we do it, and especially who we are and who we become as a result of all we do in our lives. This "support" is often referred to in modern jargon as a "support network". It is more than that. It is the foundation upon which you live and build your life. It is the mattress you rest upon. It is the face you turn to, the voice you trust, the shoulder you lean on, and the foot that kicks you in the butt. Support is not a stagnant, fixed thing. It is an ever growing, changing, evolving aspect of your life, fluctuating as you move through your life.
Using our Social Connections Form, we discussed support and sharing, and what it looks like in your life. Some of the definitions of support included:
- being there
- positive reinforcement
- shoulder to lean on
- good feedback
- fun to be with
- makes you laugh
- open mind
We then used the form from to create our social relationship chart. Participants listed, in connecting circles, the people they depend upon for support. The circles closest to the middle of the chart, "ME", are the people most depended upon for support. They are the ones you know you can trust with your life. They will be there when you need them, no matter what. The connecting circles further out from the center are the people who you go to for specific problems or issues, the people you know will be there but maybe they live far away or you don’t see them very often. These are the distant relationships, but still people you can count on.
After completing their charts, I asked how many people they had on their list. A lot or a few? What did this mean to them? Did they realize a lot more people gave them support than they thought? Or a lot less? What were the revelations and surprises? Then I asked how many of the names on the list were male? Female? Many found more females on their list, but some women found more men. Was anyone in the room on their chart? How many family members? Non-family members?
Our support comes from a variety of sources. Many realized they listed people they hadn’t seen in years, who lived far away, yet they knew that they could count on them at a moment’s notice. Geography wasn’t an issue. One woman said that her friend would fly into Israel immediately if she just asked. Another person realized that she listed the clerk she sees frequently at the bank. "She always greets me with a smile, says my name, and asks me how I am. She is so nice to me and I just now realized how much I’ve come to depend upon her to be there, smiling." Others were surprised to see that although they thought they had many people in their life, but when it came time to write down the names, they couldn’t think of many. Others with "few friends" found they filled up their list quickly.
When asked if the quantity was important, most people disagreed. Quality won out over quantity. But some people admitted that they felt safer being surrounded with more or less people in their life, dependent upon their upbringing and social cultural.
PART II – Social Interactions
and Connections Rewards and Demands
Using Part II of the Social Connections Form, we examined the rewards and demands upon our support system. I asked people to list the top three to six people on their relationship chart, people they can really count on in their life. Then I asked them to pick one or two of these people and to evaluate the rewards and demands upon these relationships.
What demands are put upon the relationship? Break it down into two categories: Their demands and your demands. What are their demands upon you? Do they require your time, your enthusiasm? Do they take up a lot of your time or a little? Do they ask you to do things you wish you could say no to? Do they challenge you? Do they make you be honest with them and yourself? What about them gets in the way of your relationship? What do they really ask you to do in the relationship?
What are the demands you place on them? Do you ask them to do things they wish they could refuse? What pressures do you place on the relationship with time, energy, and more? Do you challenge them? Do you demand they improve themselves, move forward, and be honest with you? What about you gets in the way of your relationship? What do you ask of this relationship?
What other demands are put upon your relationship? These demands often come from outside of the relationship. They might come from family members who demand time away from your other relationships, your job, your hobbies, and social life. It could be pressure of illness or health, or even the pressures involved with time, such as with those here in the country a short time. Examine and list all the demands that come from these different sources and put pressure on the relationship.
I examined my relationship with my co-leader, Ruth. One demand she puts upon me is to be "real". She really demands that I am real to the situation all the time. I respect that about her. A demand I put upon her is that she be honest. Both to me and herself. This is different but related to being "real". We all lie to ourselves all the time, little lies that this is okay, or not okay, or that it will change…little lies that seem to keep us going. I challenge her to get past the little lies to the truth, to herself and me. For example, she told me about wanting to buy technologically advanced piece of equipment for her clinic. She explained that it was new, exciting, everyone would want to come try it, how she could make back the money for this within 6 months, it would be so popular, and on and on. After she explained it, I asked her for the truth. The truth is that it would take a lot of time to learn how to use it. She has a some competition in the country. It is very expensive, both in cost and for the client, and times are tough and expected to get worse in Israel. People won’t want to spend a lot of money. Her enthusiasm got in they way of the truth, and the demand I put on her was to look at the truth of the situation.
What are the rewards that come from your support relationship? What are the rewards that come from them to you? Do you laugh, have a good time, learn a lot, or feel challenged? Do you really feel supportive, encouraged, and pushed forward in your life? Examine the relationship and find out what rewards you get out of it.
What rewards do you give the other person? Do they have a good time, learn from you, and feel supported and encouraged? What benefits do they get from you out of your relationship?
What rewards do you get from the relationship that benefit others? Does your relationship with that person help you with your other relationships? By talking and being with them do you learn more about other people and they way you interact with them? Write them down.
The rewards we get from relationships are many. For some, they say it is as simple as the knowledge that someone is "there for me", but there is more to it. Knowing a person is "there" means trusting, believing, and having faith in them and the relationship. How equal are the rewards you get from the relationship compared to those you give? Does this relationship really benefit you and others in your life? Examine what you have written and write down in your journal your discoveries. Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your relationships and how they are working. If they are seriously one-sided, some steps might need to be taken. Are you the one doing all the giving and no receiving? Or the opposite? Set a date with yourself in 3 to 6 months to review what you’ve written. Have you made any changes? Do you need to make some?
Social Interactions and
Connections Needs – PART III
For Part III of the form, set aside 20 minutes to examine how your personal needs are being met by your social interactions and support group. As you examine these personal needs, write down the name (possibly from your first circle chart) of the person that best meets that need, then evaluate what percentage does that person really does meet that need (10%, 50%, 90%, etc.). In the last column, write down the name of another person you could also turn to in order to get these needs met.
- Listening: Being heard is so important. Some people feel like their whole life is spent being ignored or not heard. We all need to be listened to, to be understood and paid attention to. Examine your circle chart and write down the name of the person who listens to you the most, or who you can count on the most to listen to you.
- Emotional Support: When times are tough, we not only need to be listened to, we need a shoulder to cry on. We need someone who tells us that we are okay, no matter what, and that they accept us. That we are loved and cared about. Who do you turn to for emotional support?
- Emotional Challenge: We all need a good kick in the butt sometimes. Who kicks your mental backside and keeps you on track in your life? Who challenges you to "get real"? These are the "mirrors" in our life. When we are with them, we get feedback that reflects who we are and what we are doing. These people listen to us and tell us the truth, no matter how hard it is. And they love us in spite of it. Who is your mirror? Who gives you the emotional challenge you need.
- Technical Support: When you need someone to tell you that you have done a good job, do you just take the word of anyone? No, you usually turn to someone you trust for their level of expertise to hand out such praise? If you are working, maybe it is someone at work who gives you the "atta boys" and pats on the back you need. If you aren’t working, who is it you trust to praise you when you’ve done a good job? This is your technical support person.
- Play: Support is not always about shoulders to cry on, it is also about having fun. Who do you have fun with? You need to have a playmate in life. It doesn’t have to be someone you compete against, but someone you have a good time with, be it going out for movies, walking on the beach, or just playing cards. Who makes you laugh?
Remember to mark down what percentage they fulfill this need and then who else you could turn to.
Here are some questions to ask yourself and to write about in your journal:
1. Do you rely upon one person all the time or several people?
2. Do you find yourself looking for all your needs to be fulfilled by only one person?
3. Do you ever find yourself wanting one need fulfilled but turning to someone you know can’t fulfill that need? What does that feel like?
4. What needs do you have that are not being met? Do you have any blank spots in this list?
A Healthy Support System
No one person can do everything for you. The fairy tale story is just that – a myth. A healthy support system, like a healthy body, are based upon dependence – depending upon all the parts to work together in harmony. When one part of the machine is out of order, others move in to make up for the loss, but only for a while. If the damaged or missing part isn’t fixed, the whole system can collapse. A healthy support system is critical to a healthy person and an act of extreme self-care.
There is a great lie out there that I’d like to demystify: "I’ve been alone but I’ve never felt lonely." We have all felt lonely at one time or another. I believe that in order to make such a claim, you have to have something to compare it to. If you don’t know what loneliness is, how do you know you’ve never had it?
Loneliness is a state of mind, where alone is a physical state. I know many people, including myself, who spend a lot of time alone, but rarely "feel" lonely. We all have felt the absence of someone in our life, be it through time, distance, or existence. "Lonely" is a state of loss. People use words to cover it up like "empty", "unloved", "lack of friends", "bored", "missing you", and other synonyms. It is all "lonely". Loneliness is a temporary condition, often considered permanent. People perpetuate this myth of permanency by saying, "Even in a crowd I feel lonely." This implies they always feel lonely. Not true. Unless there is something mentally off-balance, loneliness is not chronic. It can be fixed.
Loneliness, like all learned behaviors, is a habit. It is also a self-imposed restriction. If you really believe you are "lonely in a crowd", the odds are that you will attract people into your life you keep you feeling "lonely". They don’t spend much time with you, tend not to listen, and aren’t supportive. Breaking the loneliness habit involves courage and risk, and taking a chance on you.
To overcome the lonelies habit, treat it like you would getting a job, losing weight or getting in shape. Make a plan, write down all the steps, set a deadline, and start moving. Only you can make the changes you need in your life to invite support in. Look at the lonelies as a clue that a part of the machine in your healthy support system is giving out. It is time to find a replacement part or to repair a broken one.
Where are there holes in your forms? Are you missing the technical support or someone to play with? How do you go about filling in those blanks? What skills does it take? I asked people to define what it takes to get support and how to ask for it. Some examples included:
- Get Out: It is a bit challenging to find support locked up in your home. Get out in order to meet people. How you plan your "getting out" is up to you.
- Do it: All agreed that talk is cheap. Go out and do it. Get out and do whatever it takes.
- Giving: When you give of your self, do you give without expectation of return. Learn how to give freely, especially with your support. It makes you feel good and it will reward you later.
- Sharing: Sharing means giving, but it also means finding commonality which helps to build relationships. Maybe you can plan your "getting out" by getting involved in activities you enjoy, which finds you people you can share something in common with.
- Caring: When you care for others, others will care for you. Caring is a form of giving, but it is also showing concern, listening, holding a hand, and being there for others. It is a good place to start.
- An Open Mind: Many admitted that they developed friends from places and situations they never would have expected by keeping an open mind. I shared about meeting a fanatical Christian woman in North Carolina when I put up a sign inviting people to walk early in the morning. I was sure from the first moment she introduced herself – with her fanatic religious convictions coming up immediately – that this was someone I wanted to get away from. She ended up not as fanatical as I thought and she became a best buddy and still is! An open mind creates a wonderful room into which all kinds of magic can enter.
- Clear Communication: We often get bogged down with words, too many words, hiding the truth. Support comes from communicating your needs and the needs of others clearly and specifically.
- Listening: To be a good listener gives support, it also gets support. People want to listen to those who listen to them. ( For more on Active Listening )
- Follow Your Instincts: By trusting ourselves and listening to the little voice inside, we often can move into directions or towards people to find new relationships and support we might have missed. We can also trust that instinct to lead us away from damaging relationships, too.
- To Get a Friend, Be a Friend: Friends do make friends, so check out the people who you call "friends" and see if you are a friend to them in return.
- Be Brave: Sometimes courage comes from the doing, sometimes from the asking, but it takes courage to open yourself up to others.
- Risk: Like courage, risk is often involved in seeking support. With it comes a thrill or fear, which you can use to push yourself forward.
- Extreme Self-Care: As Cheryl Richardson endorses, by taking care of yourself, you can take care of others, and seeking support and building your support team, you are just taking better care of yourself.
- Want It: Before you can get it, you have to want it. Giving is easy for many, but the getting is very hard. You have to want to receive. It takes practice for many, but if you really want support, you have to allow it into your life.
- Trust: This is a big one. You have to learn to trust yourself and others when it comes to support.
- Faith: Whether it comes from God or within, seeking support means believing that it is out there for you. Not everyone will be a good match for your needs, but everyone has a lesson to teach you. You have to believe in the "University of Life" and have faith that you will find support and it is out there for you.
- Ask: How hard is it to really ask for support? For some very hard, for others, not at all. You have to decide the level of risk you are will to take, but if you don’t ask, you will never get.
What have you learned?
Creating a healthy support system is critical to a successful and powerful life. It is an ongoing project, so make appointments with yourself to get a "support system checkup" on a regular basis. As we age, our interests change, as does our enthusiasm, therefore our needs change. Other people grow and change along with us, sometimes growing closer, others farther. Check all the parts in your system and see what needs attention, and pay attention.
The Life Makeovers year long project has completed in Tel Aviv with Lorelle VanFossen and Ruth Alfi, but you can get involved or start your own group through the author of the book, Life Makeovers, Cheryl Richardson.