How To Be Supportive

Let's face it - change is both inevitable and one of the hardest things each of us will ever do. As we journey through life, we will encounter others grappling with the same reality and may attempt to assist them. For this to work, there must first be some kind of agreement between both parties and a desire - on the part of the helper - to be an ally rather than a dictator. This is sometimes not the case, however, with friends, colleagues and loved ones. In this article I will highlight the manner in which support is often given, the unintended consequences of trying to elicit change in this way and what to do instead.

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Attempting to influence change (of behaviour or choices) in another usually plays out in one of the following ways: 

  • You discover a new way of eating, managing your stress or moving. You feel better than you have in years and you want to tell everyone you know - or meet - about this exciting new revelation. Naturally, you begin with your partner/spouse then parents, friends and work colleagues. You not only regale them with tales of your transformation, but you become a zealot who now wants everyone else to act (and, therefore, feel) as you do.

OR

  • You read/hear about something that could help someone overcome a new or long-standing health condition. You decide to make it your mission to share this information and help them apply it to their particular situation. 

On the face of it, these seem to be thoroughly justifiable and laudable pursuits but they inadvertently create an unhealthy attachment to an outcome that is very clearly defined and unwavering in the mind of the person who offers advice or support in this manner. It is entirely possible to accept the choices others make even when one does not agree with them. Despite appearances to the contrary, this conveys the fact that you care about - and respect  - the person enough to allow them to exercise the right to make choices governing the course of their lives.

You might feel that these choices will also affect your life and that the end, therefore, justifies the means.  While the former is strictly true, this train of thought - or perception - is not the best tool for the job at hand. Below are a few reasons why:

  • It may create the need (in your mind) for robust involvement, inciting resistance and defensiveness in the person you are trying to help.

  • It could - perhaps unintentionally - give you an air of superiority, thus creating distance between you and the recipient of your advice.

     

  • It may discount the innate imperfection of human beings, a trait that makes us all worthy of compassion.

     

  • Finally, it may breed resentment, frustration and - one of the most common causes (and drivers) of disease today - stress in everyone concerned. 

What to do instead:

  • Practice empathy: put yourself in the shoes of the person in question. This is a great way to awaken to the realisation that had you encountered all the experiences they have had thus far, you would behave exactly as they do. Consider using this as your default starting point.

     

  • Care: the best way to show someone that you care is to be caring. At best, scolding may temporarily mask underlying fears and the pain of perceived powerlessness over the situation in question. Can you recall a time when a scolding evoked feelings of being loved and cared for? What did you feel instead? Choosing to calmly express you fears or concerns using "I" statements (and without any expectations) can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable but it is a much more effective way to show that you care. For example, "I'm worried about your health and I'm here for you if you ever need my help." Note that there is, of course, a difference between being genuinely caring and manipulation - or the notion of attempting to "save someone from themselves".

     

  • Ask permission or wait for an invitation: this may seem overly formal and completely unnecessary but nothing could be further from the truth. You could say, "What can I do to help?" or "I just came across an article that I think might interest you - would you like me to email it to you?" Prepare yourself for the possibility that the answers may well be, "Nothing." or "No." respectively. When this happens, take this as your cue to resist the urge to coerce or shame them into giving your preferred response. Invitations are also best navigated with the same level of courtesy. Should a friend ask you to support them in their efforts to use less social media, for example, he/she may later decide that they no longer want/need your help whether they have "legitimate" reasons or not. Again, when this happens, believe it and accept it. You can make it clear that you will be there for them if they change their minds in the future - but only if you mean it.

     

  • Change yourself: you are - and always will be - the only person you can change. By the same token, changing your response to (or perception of) the behaviour and choices of others is the only behaviour you can control. It is often said that changing oneself could inspire others to improve themselves but I would add that it would be unwise to make this one's primary goal. Remember that every minute spent looking for opportunities to change others, corresponds directly with missed opportunities for self-improvement/mastery. Cultivate the habit of turning the spotlight inward on any unaddressed issues you may have been too distracted to notice. When you bring a version of yourself that is non-judgemental, caring and healthy to any relationship, you will be best placed to take on the role of an ally or carer, should the need arise. 

There will be moments when any - or all - of the above will appear counterproductive, ridiculous or downright impossible. Perhaps you feel that way even as you read this. In those moments, it may take every ounce of your strength to act as I have suggested.

You might, on the other hand, find that you neither have the strength nor the desire to do so. If this is the case, don't be hard on yourself. We are all wonderfully, imperfectly human, remember?

Try to treat yourself with the compassion you will, no doubt, someday be able to extend to others.