That’s great you have a support system, Amy, but how did you get here?
I’m going to write about how I built up my support system in the last three or so years, but I need to begin with a caveat: Your mileage will vary. A lot of factors can affect building a support system: personality traits, geographic location, age, whether or not you have kids, financial/work situation, etc. What I’m going to talk about is what worked for me.
Begin with what you’ve got. I didn’t begin completely from scratch. When I realized things were really bad, and I’d need a support system to weather the storm, I sat down and took stock of what I had. The answer was: Nala, a loose sprinkling of local acquaintances from the last ten or so years, the writing community, game night, one non-local friend I had opened up with, two local friends I thought I could bear to open up with, a couple of professionals. This is what I had to build from. It wasn’t great, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
Find your professional supports, if possible. These are the people who form part of support systems professionally. Often you will pay them, Sometimes you will not. These are your therapists, body workers, teachers, coaches, ministers/priests, trainers, sponsors if you’re doing AA-related stuff, doctors, hospice workers, etc.
The great thing about these people is that providing a certain type of support is their job (be it paid or volunteer). This simplifies the relationship in some ways. The downside is that not all professionals are created equal, and it can be a fair amount of work to find the ones that work the best for you.
Up your self care and communication skills. This way you’ll have a much better idea of what you need. And then you can ask clearly for what you need, which gives you a lot better chance of receiving it.
Okay, now we’re going to move to the life mountain metaphor, which I love and first talked about here. Summary: Each of us stands on the peak of our own mountain. Our closest friends are on the top of the mountain with us, then our friends, then our kind of friends, with our acquaintances at the bottom. Got it?
More is better on the mountain. Why is this true? Well, when you’re building a support system, you ideally want a lot of layers and fail-safes built in. After all, you want your support system to hold some load. You want more people because: 1. you can spread the load out over more people, 2. if life happens to some of your key support people, you have other options, and 3. when change happens (as it inevitably will), you can potentially move some of the people who are lower down the mountain up.
But it should be a good more, not a desperate more. If people are repeatedly treating you badly or if you just don’t get along well with them, they probably shouldn’t be on your mountain at all, or else be at the very bottom.
It takes time. And when I say time, I mean both time to spend with these people who populate your mountain, and a longer timeframe to develop these relationships with strong foundations of mutual respect and trust. You can’t build a support system overnight.
(Exception: If you participate in an intense experience that is specifically organized to bond people, then you can become very close very fast. I tend to be slightly suspicious of this though because you’re away from your regular life and often a lot of possibly important information and context is omitted. Not that I don’t think this can’t work, but I’d use caution.)
Learn to be okay with rejection. Learn to walk away. Not all people you invite to various tiers of your mountain will want to be there. Usually these people won’t reject you outright; they’re more likely to be vague and/or very busy and/or noncommittal. Let them go. Some people will want to be there, and it will turn out they’re really not good for you. Let them go too. Sometimes you will want certain people to be higher up on your mountain, but no matter what you try, they never rise above a certain tier. Let them stay where they are. Find different people to bring higher. (Which, yes, takes even more time.) Do whatever you need to do to learn to be okay with all of this.
Find hubs and communities. This does speed up the meeting process a bit. Hubs are people who seem to know “everyone” and enjoy connecting people. They are often hard to get close to themselves, but they are gold to know. Communities tend to have regularly recurring events, which makes forming friendships easier. And communities often provide a form of support in and of themselves.
“Friend” everyone you meet. Especially local people. I’m a big believer in weak ties. You never know which ones might turn into actual friends. You can use Facebook to communicate with them and potentially develop the friendship. And you will receive a lot more invitations this way, and you can meet more potential friends at these events. (Yes, this is all also great for dating.)
Say yes. The more you participate, the more friends you’ll meet, the more populated your mountain will become. Say yes when you can. Say yes even if it’s a little outside your comfort zone. (Say no too, of course, for self care.)
Learn to stay in touch. A little can go a long way. The random text message. A short IM chat. A tweet, Facebook comment, or even a like. An invitation to a party or event. A bit of extra effort made for friends you like who are visiting from out-of-town, if possible. Or even (cough) a blog, so people feel they have some idea what’s going on with you.
You have to be the one to reach out first. Yeah, I know, this is totally unfair, but also the most effective. People are busy and used to their own routines. You have to be the one to show interest, to extend that first invitation, to check in. Once the friendship is more established, this will balance out to a more equal distribution of effort (not always, but often). When it doesn’t balance out, what tends to happen is that as you fill your mountain with other people who do balance the effort, the friends who don’t will naturally move further down the mountain.
When I started, it was really hard for me to issue that first invitation. Now it seems like a completely normal thing to do. Practice pays off. It also gets easier to…
Find the “excuse” to hang out. Yes, it should be something you’d like to do, but you have to have something you’re inviting a potential new friend to do. Usually this will revolve around either participating in a common interest or talking about that interest. If it’s going to be primarily talking, it also commonly revolves around food and/or drink. I have friends that started as writing friends, theater friends, dancing friends, board game friends, movie friends, foodie friends (which can simply mean that you both love pie), etc. Over time, this might expand to encompass all kinds of subjects and activities (and might even eventually not have anything to do with how you first bonded), but at the beginning, you just need that first excuse.
For example, one of my closest friends and I met at game night. So we had board games in common. One game night he mentioned Japanese curry was one of his favorite foods. I had never had Japanese curry. He mentioned it one or two more times, and then I asked him if he’d like to go to curry with me so I could try it. And that was that: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Open up trial and error. At some point in the friendship, in order to move a friend up the mountain, you have to open up to them. This can be terrifying, and it’s not all in your head. It is an actual risk, and you must take it. And sometimes it will end badly. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss a certain subject with a certain person. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss anything sensitive with a certain person. Sometimes people will judge you harshly. Sometimes people will give you really obviously bad advice, very sincerely. Sometimes people will be unkind. Some of these people should not be allowed to progress to the top of the mountain.
With practice, much of this can be weeded out ahead of time. But you can never know for sure until you’ve done it. It gets a bit easier when you have other friends you trust. But when you’re starting out, well, it’s like jumping from a plane.
Recently when I did this, here is what I said: “So…we’re about to either become better friends or have an awkward moment. You game?”
He was game. We are now much better friends.
Learn what kind of support you can successfully ask for from different friends. Friends have different strengths and weaknesses. Ideally when asking for support you can play to their strengths. Some friends are great for when you’re in tears. Some friends give great romantic advice, others give great career advice. Some friends are perfect for giving you a distraction. Some friends excel at connecting you to other people. Some friends are great listeners. Some friends get you out of the house. Some friends are great for logistical issues. Some friends make great soup when you’re sick. Asking people for what they’re good at giving makes both of you happy and brings you closer together.
For example, I am horrible at being asked for rides. There are a few exceptions, but really, I’m often just no good at this. And I’m not great at non-emergency last-minute practical favors either. But I’m good in an emergency, and I’m good at listening, and I’m okay at distracting.
Finally, know this is not easy. It takes lots of time and effort. There may be setbacks, sometimes major ones. There may be discouraging days. There may be times when you need large chunks of alone time. There is nothing wrong with you if it feels like an uphill climb.
It certainly felt like an uphill climb to me. And I’m sure there will continue to be bumps and obstacles. All I can tell you is what I told myself: Yeah, maybe you’ve failed. Maybe you’ll fail again. But keep trying anyway. Take a break if you need to, but never completely give up.
This is how I got to where I am right now.