A first consideration is how they are supportive. There are those we hang out with, chit-chat with and never go much further with. These are important and valuable relationships. We do things we enjoy with these people; they help us take our minds off our troubles when our tendency might be to ruminate incessantly.
This group also often supplies us with those with whom we develop our deeper relationships. Time changes relationships and people will move from our “hanging out” to our “heart-to-heart” group and vice versa. In any case, there is much value in being able to trust others enough to be able to open up to them and seek their support.
Yet, relations with the supportive people in our lives do not always go smoothly. Trust can be difficult and may be compromised or broken. Support may not come in the way we want or need it. We can become isolated from our support systems – sometimes by choice (ours or theirs), sometimes by circumstances.
When we are overwhelmed with life, we can have a tendency to overwhelm our support system. They may start pulling back, stop listening or giving valuable feedback. When we realize this, we may decide to stop confiding or asking for help. An alternative option is to attempt to reciprocate, to make sure we are listening to them and their needs. This can be difficult when we are already overwhelmed with our own issues, but it has advantages: We continue to share and get support for our problems; listening/being supportive to others keeps us from thinking too much about our own troubles; and it will strengthen rather than weaken our relationship.
We also tend to share less of our issues when we know the other person is not doing well, whether emotionally or physically. We will not want to lay out all our problems to another when they are going through their own difficulties. But, I would suggest that we not pull back completely. A close friend may find strength in still being able to assist; and conversely, they may feel useless if we stop confiding in them. Start by sharing a little and see how they respond. In some ways, this is similar to deciding to trust someone new. What do they do with the information? Am I comfortable with their response? Am I overwhelming them? Pay attention and go from there.
Distance and death separate us from our support system. With those who have died, I like to create/imagine conversations with the person I knew (having a pretty good idea how the talk would go). Technology can help with communication over geographical distances. These methods will not replace what we had, but they can help.
Being cheated on in a relationship can be extremely isolating. We may feel embarrassed, we may worry that if the relationship works out, our support system will not be as forgiving as we have been. So, we don’t reach out for help. It is one of the most unfair aspects of going through such broken trust.
Finally, it is worthwhile to pay attention to how people support us. Is the relationship healthy? Or, is the support helping to keep us locked into negative patterns of thinking and behavior? A clear example of a negative support is the “friend” of someone with a drinking or drug problem. Minimizing the problem, saying “have another” may support their unhealthy relationship, but not the wellbeing of the user. This manner of support is often difficult to see clearly, although we often sense it. This “support” can keep us tied to such things as our anxieties, our depression, and traumas that we have experienced. It can be difficult to break away from these people, because, well, they are supportive in some ways, and we may not have adequate replacements.
For the most part, our support systems are wonderful things in our lives. Yet, if it has been awhile since we have looked closely at ours – how we treat them, how they treat us – it may be a valuable thing to do.
Reggie E., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields, including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.