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Twelve ways to build a great support system

Our experts tell Lounge why we need support systems, the challenges of building them and how to nurture our own 

Human beings thrive in the company of people  they trust
Human beings thrive in the company of people  they trust (ISTOCKPHOTO)

If the last two years have taught us anything new, it is this—support systems are essential to our physical and mental well-being. Human beings generally tend to thrive in the company of people we can trust, who understand and support us, are sensitive to our needs, whose presence in our lives is a significant source of strength and security, and feel reciprocated similarly by us. For some, this assurance could come from their family-- parents, partners, siblings and children) or close friends. For others, it could be a community of like-minded people working towards a shared goal or participating in a shared experience together.

Ideally, support systems should offer anyone seeking refuge a non-judgemental acceptance of the person. The individual need not pretend to be someone else and is free to drop their guard, as it were. There is no pressure to behave in a particular fashion, thereby fostering self-esteem and confidence while reducing feelings of guilt and shame. Time spent here is always cherished and has a therapeutic impact on us.

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Dr Pallav Bonerjee, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, explains. “Dipping into this sanctuary of our unique support system allows us the opportunity to disengage from the myriad demands that we are trying to balance at a given point in time while simultaneously strengthening our coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors in a functional manner,” says Dr Bonerjee. But, more importantly, it reminds us that we are not alone in our journey through life, that even if we are insignificant to many around us, we are valued and worthy, he adds. “It strikes a delicate yet crucial balance between two distinct internal forces - the constant need to prove ourselves to the never-ending demands of the world and the feeling of being defeated and hopeless, ready to surrender,” he says.

Samriti Makkar Midha, a Mumbai- based clinical psychologist, points out that support isn’t just about received support but perceived support as well. She further elucidates, “One may receive support from people around them (like in the form of advice, being available, financial assistance) but what is important is for it to be perceived as support too.” According to her, perceived support is when one feels they can depend on this support system, and it’s coming from a place of care, love, and intention of being there for the person. Perceived social support has been associated with better psychological well being, better mental health, better adjustment, greater resilience, and the ability to cope with stressful situations, adds Midha. “In my experience as a therapist, I have observed that people with strong support systems (perceived & received) cope better with physical ailments, the better prognosis on treatments including for cancer, clinical disorders and bouncing back from stressful events of their life – loss of job, loss of relationships, the demise of a significant person,” she says.

Additionally, support systems build accountability. They enable people to break away from unhealthy behaviours and dependence on substances, change habits, and achieve desired goals. Research has also shown that people who are happiest, healthier and have long life expectancy have great support systems, she adds.

Unfortunately, it is harder to find and retain a support system today than ever before. Multiple factors, especially our highly mediated world, are responsible for this. Bonerjee, for instance, blames the “unholy trinity of the internet, social media and smartphones”, which, in his opinion, “have ironically not helped bring people any closer to one another. If anything, they have primarily accentuated our differences and triggered within us feelings of intense jealousy, envy and greed for more material wealth.”

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Midha adds that since the primary mode of communication is through different virtual platforms/applications like Zoom, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Slack, “we are more disconnected than ever,” she remarks. She adds that one can now go for days and weeks without talking to people. “We have lost the skill of having an authentic conversation, sharing our thoughts and emotions and being vulnerable in relationships for fear of not having a grip on our lives in an otherwise ‘insta-perfect world’,” she muses.

This means that we need to work harder at building our support systems, especially those in the offline space. Our experts offer some tips.

Dr Pallav Bonerjee, Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist

Acknowledge the need: Building a support system requires one first to acknowledge the importance of a social support network in their lives and consider it a genuine resource. Only then will one put in the required effort in that direction.

Evaluate people: It entails evaluating the set of people around you and identifying the ones that really matter. It forces us to ask tough questions about the people we associate with and the motivations behind our interest in them.

Invest time and energy: Having identified the significant people in our lives, we need to carefully tend to those relationships, enabling them to grow into an effective ‘safe space’ where one can bring out their vulnerabilities without any fear.

Be honest and genuine: It encourages one to be genuine and honest about themselves. It helps us get through the difficult periods in our lives. It allows us the opportunity to unwind and decompress, making us ready for the next day, recharging our batteries. It is not an easy process, but it always pays off.

Samriti Makkar Midha ]Clinical Psychologist & Psychotherapist, Co-founder & Partner, POSH at Work

Choose the right people:Identify people who make you feel seen, heard, understood; then invest in those relationships.

Support others:It starts with becoming a supporter for other people in your life. They are likely to take your call, respond to your message instantly, prioritise your needs over their schedule if you have done it for them.

Reach out:People are usually willing to help and make themselves available if we ask directly and explicitly. Don’t expect people to know you need help

Shared interests:Register for groups with shared interests like dancing, music. One can also sign up for support groups.

Dr Minnu Bhonsle PhD,  Consulting Psychotherapist, Counselling Educator & Relationship Counsellor

Identify your specific needs: Identify what kind of support do you project you might need-- physical, psychological, financial, companionship etc.

Strengthen existing bonds:Make a list of who is already in your corner, and actively strengthen these existing bonds by communicating regularly and having a mutual relationship of sharing each other’s joys and sorrows.

Be willing to risk vulnerability:Reach out and ask for help without hesitation. Be clear in your communication about the specific help you need.

Be open to feedback: Permit your support system to give you constructive feedback, share their opinions freely, and keep you accountable.

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