Previously, I have talked about the connections we develop with each other and how that can enhance and support our mental health (Strengthening Connections). From strengthening these connections, we can develop a strong support network.
A support network can simply be defined as people in your life that can help you. These are people that you have developed a trusting relationship with. Those that you are able to go to for advice, or even just have a simple conversation with to make your day better. When it comes to our mental health and overall wellbeing, having a network of people you can count on is vital.
Support networks can improve our ability to cope with stressful situations and help increase our self-esteem.
Everyone has different people that they would classify as a part of their support network. There are no hard and fast rules around who you should have in your network and you also don’t have to make it formal (no membership cards required). The key is that you are comfortable and have an overarching feeling of safety and trust within your support system.
Your support network can consist of anyone including:
- Friends, family, peers, colleagues – probably the most common places where we find our support.
- Groups within the community – some of us feel a strong connection within these types of groups and when you are a part of these groups (can be anything from fitness/sporting groups through to volunteering), you join with people who have shared interests and hobbies, increasing that connection.
- Online communities – these communities have become more prevalent in today’s society with the improvement in technology (and dare I say the pandemic). A lot of people are now finding fantastic support within a variety of online groups where you can feel like you can be your authentic self and safe.
It is important to have a variety of different people that make up your support network so that you can look at things from different points of view and not just rely on one person as this may become overwhelming and exhausting for them (and you).
As we grow and our lives start to change, our support networks can as well. Just because you had people in your life 10 years ago, it doesn’t mean that they can be the only people that are there for you. There may be situations that occur across your life where your current support network doesn’t meet your needs, and this is okay. We need to do what is best for ourselves and find people that can be there when we need it most.
Support goes both ways!
It is important to remember that being a part of a strong support network requires active participation. Making sure you are available when needed and you are not just “taking”.
- Be a good listener – actually listen. A lot of times people don’t need you to advise them all the time, they just want you to be there while they talk through things.
- Make time for people – answer phone calls, respond to messages, reach out to each other to let them know you are there.
- Show your gratitude – take the time to thank others and let them know how much you appreciate them.
- Talk about positive things – make sure you’re not always talking about the negatives or the really deep conversations that can be draining. Have fun with each other.
The importance of boundaries.
One thing that can occur (especially if you’re someone’s only support), is that it can become overwhelming. It can get to a point where you are no longer able to provide the support that is needed and it can start to impact negatively on your own mental health.
It is why it is so important to know what your boundaries are, and to be able to communicate these to people. This is definitely not an easy thing to do. There can be an onset of guilt if you have to remove yourself from situations. You may feel that you are letting people down. The key thing to remember though, is if your stress is starting to increase and your energy is starting to drain, then this will have an adverse effect on you and your wellbeing.
At times, you need to put yourself first and know when to say no.
If this is something that is occurring (or it has in the past), think of ways that you can communicate your boundaries.
- Being respectful is important – even though you might not be able to provide the support at that time, you may be able to in the future and you may also need to go to them for support. This is why it is important to be respectful in your communication around your boundaries. You don’t want to damage the relationship or connection you have.
- Acknowledge their feelings – this can go hand in hand with being respectful. Try not to be dismissive of what they are saying but let them know that you are unable to help at this time.
- Write down/practice what you want to say – as communicating these boundaries can be extremely difficult, have something written that you could say if the need arises. Even bring it up in conversation at times when you are not providing the support so everyone understands that there may be times you can’t help.
When to seek professional help.
Again, just like everything else, there is not one clear answer as to when this should occur. When we are a part of a support network, we also need to remember that we are not professionals. We can not solve everyone’s problems and nor should we. There may come a time when we need to encourage someone to seek out professional help. When this occurs, make it clear that seeking out this help is normal and healthy. The same way that we would seek out help from a doctor for a physical ailment, we should seek out help from a professional when we are struggling mentally. The more we talk about it, the more we can reduce the stigma around therapy.
In the end, relationships and connections that we form with people are a basic need for us all. There is an immense power in being able to share thoughts and feelings with people who care.
So ask yourself, who are my people?