Self-support and self-care go hand in hand as important wellness practices. Like other practices in the A,B,C’s for Living Well this is a reminder to “put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others in need.” Support literally means to bear all or part of the weight of something; to hold up. When faced with any life challenge, practicing self-support, or opening to the support of others can be palliative and help to reduce stress, thus freeing up energy for life-affirming activities. It may, however, be hard to find the time for self-care or to request support from others. For caregivers, meeting care recipients’ expectations while practicing self-care requires a balancing act that may be easier said than done. This post will explore various aspects of support for self and others.
Developing an awareness that support is needed is the first step. Here is a simple Social Support Self-Assessment tool that presents a snapshot of support needs. An assessment activity I have found useful is Mind Mapping. I begin my map on a piece of drawing paper and write “ME NOW” in the center. I write words that come to mind about my current life. Once the map is complete, I can see threads and branches that reflect health, happiness, and progress. I can also see threads that represent challenges, unfinished business, or a need for attention, action, or support. An assessment helps point the way to the optimal next steps.
Once needs become clear, it is time to engage support. Marshall Rosenberg reminds us that it is uplifting to make meaningful contributions to others. Therefore, inviting and allowing support is actually a gift to those who are able to offer! That said, asking for and receiving support gracefully will take practice. While it might be awkward to make a request, in many cases support is there for asking. Psychology Today offers seven ways to ask for emotional support. The second item is especially important: “Move past barriers that are in between you and the support you deserve. These may include fear, pride, guilt, shame, low self-esteem, learned helplessness, hopelessness, or irrational beliefs such as seeking help is a sign of weakness. Care enough about yourself to ask for what you need.” Do you have an unmet need for support? If so, consider reaching out for support.
During many years of service to people with various medical and mental health challenges, I learned that when requested, support is generally received with appreciation, humility, and gratitude. There have, however, been cases when even an offer of support is met with fierce resistance. Those with a strong need for independence and/or privacy may not welcome offers of support. If that happens, do respect the need for autonomy and let it go. If you are concerned that someone you care for is in a dangerous situation or at risk for self-harm or harming others, you may want to seek information from legal counsel, law enforcement, medical or mental health professionals before attempting to offer further support. In a true emergency it may be necessary to call for support by dialing 911 or 988 Suicide & Crisis Hotline.
When offering support to others, remember that in the middle of a crisis, the care recipient may not be able to identify what is needed. In those moments it can be helpful to practice simple presence, holding space, or to encourage a few deep breaths. It is remarkable how a simple breathing exercise can reduce feelings of anxiety and encourage calm focus. Try breathing in through the nose slowly; hold briefly; exhale through the mouth slowly. Repeat several times.
When it is possible to offer some form of support, remember to support yourself first by offering only what you are capable to give without taking on the full weight of the care recipient’s challenge. As well, remember to offer without attachment or expectation that your suggestions will be accepted. If asked for referrals, advice, recommendations, or ideas for coping with or improving a challenge, offer what you know from a place of love and respect. Sometimes engaging the assistance of a social worker, counselor, home health agency, or other community service will be the best advice. The following categories describe some ways to offer support when asked to do so.
Emotional – When the chips are down, this kind of support can be so useful to uplift and encourage. A good place to start is with a quick check-in to determine if support is welcome. If it is, set a time to talk further. Ask open-ended questions: Would you like to talk about it? Have you found a way to get through this? Is there something I can do to support you? The process can continue with deep or active listening, thoughtfully reflecting back needs and feelings, gestures or words of caring, validation, and kindness. Try to be fully present and authentic while listening. In situations of extreme anxiety, grief, or other distress, find a way to point out that it is not an act of weakness, but of courage to receive emotional support from a coach, counselor, clergy, support group, or social service agency.
Practical – This kind of support may include providing tangible resources (i.e., a loan, a place to stay, clothing, a ride, meal, etc.) If ability to perform basic or instrumental Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) is limited due to injury, illness, and/or decline in physical mobility or mental competency, the need for practical support can include some or all of the following: housekeeping, shopping or running errands, meal preparation, grooming, bathing, feeding, dressing, companion animal care, assisting with transportation needs, or executive tasks such as medication management, banking, asset management, legal matters, etc. This kind of care can become overwhelming for family caregivers living with a loved one in decline. Professional caregivers can provide useful support services and respite care for primary caregivers.
Social – Science tells us that a strong social support network helps to reduce harmful physical and mental effects of stress. Social support describes the community of family, friends, colleagues, and others who show up when the going gets rough. A clear benefit to developing a social network is the opportunity to support others. Making a meaningful contribution to others helps to decrease feelings of loneliness and boredom while boosting self-esteem and a feeling of connection. It doesn’t matter how we build and nurture social support; it just matters that we do! Then, when the going gets rough, we can be there for each other.
Very often social connections occur in the workplace or at school, and via social media platforms. Social connections can be fostered in various activities such as volunteering; book club; art or cooking classes; exercise groups (walk, run, climb, work-out, etc.); nature clubs (bird-watching, gardening, hiking, etc.); neighborhood watch; social justice groups; and more. Connections may also be found through spiritual or faith-based activities in a church, gurudwara, mosque, synagogue, temple, or monastery.
Care Team – Care teams can offer emotional, practical, and social support without placing the full weight of a challenge on just one person. This kind of support is essential for someone with chronic medical challenges or terminal illness. When Wayne was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2003, I was fortunate to be connected to an alliance of healthcare professionals who were also good friends. We came together seamlessly to offer support in many forms during Wayne’s cancer journey, enabling him to remain at home with his dog, Sonny; to visit the Grand Canyon; to laugh often and to share precious moments with family and friends. Further Shore was born because of that experience. Helping others build care teams is still part of our mission.
Sheila Warnock brought us Share the Care (STC) ™, another amazing resource for building a care team. Sheila and co-author, Cappy Caposella wrote a book by the same name that was the foundation for this nonprofit organization. To date, STC has provided thousands of people with a proven model for sharing supportive care. Their website includes free downloadable files with instructions for building and maintaining a care team.
Medicine and Healing – Building a team to gather information and garner a supportive wellness plan requires research and asking good questions. Some resources for this kind of support include:
- Conventional medicine can offer excellent diagnostics, life-saving surgeries, medications, and other treatment for acute and chronic illness, broken bones, and life-threatening disease.
- Physical therapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors can help to build strength and improve dexterity and function.
- Naturopathic and functional medicine offers support for the whole person through diet and life-style support, supplements, and other remedies while addressing the root causes for dis-ease.
- Bodyworkers, acupuncturists, homeopaths, hypnotherapists, music or art therapists, Reiki practitioners, yoga instructors, and energy healers support deep healing (wholeness) for body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
- Hospice and palliative professionals provide comfort measures to address pain, anxiety, and other symptoms for those with life limiting illness.
To recap and conclude this post, support is a powerful practice for self and others. It can take shape in many forms. Support can be given and received with grace when awareness of a need arises. Asking for support takes practice and is a sign of courage, not weakness. Receiving support provides comfort and relieves bearing the entire weight of a burden for the recipient. Giving support or making a meaningful contribution to others can be very uplifting when those who are giving “put on their own oxygen masks first.”
May you find ways to give and receive support that will leave you smiling today!