As the song goes, “I’ll be there for you…” All types of relationships are often built on mutual support, but it’s sometimes hard to know how to be supportive besides quoting the Friends theme song.
There are as many ways to be supportive as there are people in the world, as everyone and every situation calls for a different kind of support or help. Still, there are a few universal truths to remember. Start by listening with an open mind and no judgment and avoid making promises you can’t keep. And while kind thoughts and words are great, it’s actions that matter.
In this article, I’ll take a look at how to be supportive in different situations and share my favorite actionable tips.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
Different people need different kind of support
Supportiveness is something we tend to value highly in both others and ourselves. We expect support from our friends and generally strive to support our friends in return.
Yet as you probably know, different people and different situations call for different kinds of support, which can lead to misunderstandings and hurt. For example, a previous partner of mine was extremely rational where I lean more emotionally. His way of supporting me was to problem-solve, which irritated me to no end when I needed someone to listen to me vent.
And sometimes, even if it doesn’t lead to hurt, we just can’t provide the support people need. My mom is currently renovating her kitchen and I was keen to help. However, I’m not of much use at installing new ceiling tiles (I’m afraid of heights) or lifting up heavy wallboards (my strength is internal), and any attempt to provide financial support was rebuffed.
You probably have your own examples of well-meaning attempts to help that didn’t come out as planned. Support is always very personal and individual and there is no one way to be supportive.
Support during trying times
There are plenty of times in our lives when we might need some kind of support and many of them are not pleasant. Illnesses and losing a loved one spring to mind, although they aren’t definitely the only instances our friends might need help.
Still, research is mainly – and perhaps understandably – occupied with the expectations we have for support during tough times. And even in the toughest of times, people can have very different expectations for different people in their support network.
For example, a 2020 study on Indian cancer patients showed that while patients expected the immediate family to be emotionally available and help with navigating the hospital system, the role of relatives and friends was to give advice and provide tangible aid and services. Oncologists and other cancer patients also have distinct roles in the support network, namely to be the primary medical decision-maker and help to cope with the illness, respectively.
In their 2008 book Effective Grief and Bereavement Support, Norwegian psychologists Atle and Kari Dyregrov, whose work and research focuses on grief and crises, write that the bereaved mostly expect actions, not words, of support. Well-meant words of support are appreciated, but only to an extent. “It does not help the bereaved that others are thinking a great deal about them when one doesn’t know about it,” one bereaved person states.
Instead, friends and family should pay a visit to the bereaved, and spend a night if possible. Help with everyday things like cooking and cleaning or running errands is also appreciated.
Dyregrovs’ book also includes the story of a mother who lost her son to suicide, whose greatest wish was that the support of family and friends would last longer than the first few weeks after the loss. She says:
Friends were very much there for me, immediately, then. But then, gradually, there is nobody around who can be bothered to hear how it’s going.Kari Dyregrov
Everyday support is just as important
All of that being said, things don’t have to go south for your friend, partner, family member, or yourself to need help. From helping a friend move to hyping up your partner while they apply for a promotion, there are all sorts of situations where people might need a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on.
Generally, it’s a good idea to ask how you can help. Sometimes you can offer very practical things like driving your friend to the airport before dawn or helping them carry a washing machine up 5 flights of stairs.
Other times, the best thing you can do is just listen without having to say anything. Whether your friend wants to vent after a stressful day or just needs a sounding board to figure out a difficult life decision, all you need to do is be ready to listen.
How to be more supportive
As I’ve said, there’s no one way to be supportive, but there are a few basics to keep in mind when you’re seeking to support your loved ones. Here are 5 tips on how to be supportive in different situations.
1. Leave your opinions at the door
We all have our thoughts about other people’s lives. It’s completely normal and okay to have an opinion on your best friend’s new boyfriend or your parents’ choices in interior decorating.
But when your loved one comes to you for support, it’s best not to voice these opinions, unless they are specifically asked for. Just take time to listen and help them discuss their worries.
It should be noted that if your loved ones are in danger or actively harming themselves, you should talk about it. But even then, avoid making judgments or giving ultimatums. In such situations, people need patience and understanding more than anything. Harsh words, even if they come from love, are anything but supportive.
2. Set boundaries
This might sound counterintuitive, but clear boundaries are an essential part of any relationship. Setting boundaries will avoid hurt and misunderstandings later on.
For example, if you know that you don’t have the capacity to answer 4 AM distress calls or that you aren’t the person to turn to in an emergency, be clear about that. If you’re struggling with your own mental health, it’s best if you don’t take responsibility for another’s.
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
This goes along with setting boundaries. The best way to be supportive is to be supportive within your means. Don’t promise to help your friend financially when you’re struggling yourself, or to always be there for them when you’re short on time.
Likewise, it’s tempting to say comforting words like “it will get better”, but it’s not something you can actually promise. Instead, try something that validates the hardships without making impossible promises: ”I know it’s hard to believe that things will get better, but I believe in you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you through this.”
Here’s an interesting article about how to show compassion that may be of more help.
4. Offer practical help
When a loved one is dealing with grief or illness, a simple question of “how can I help?” may be too much for them. Instead, offer specific and practical things, like walking the dog, getting groceries, or simply staying with them for a while.
Don’t be discouraged if your initial offers are met with shrugs and mutterings of “I don’t know”. It can sometimes take a little time for people to warm up to the idea of being helped.
5. Be proactive
If you find yourself thinking of a friend, drop them a message. If something reminds you of your mom, give her a call. Like the quote above says, it doesn’t people do any good that you’re thinking about them a lot. Thoughts and prayers matter little unless they are expressed.
Being proactive about your relationships makes them stronger and it’s easier for both you and the other party to seek help when you need it. For example, I avoided telling one of my best friends about a breakup for several weeks, because we hadn’t talked in a while and I didn’t want her to think that I only talk to her when I need support.
It’s not always easy to be supportive, but good relationships are built on support. This does not mean unconditional support: it’s okay to call out your friends when necessary and setting clear boundaries is especially important. But it’s also important to approach supporting your loved ones with an open mind and no judgment and avoid simply sending “thoughts and prayers” – it’s actions that matter, both in good and tough times.
What do you think? Are you finding it difficult to be supportive to others? Do you want to share your own experience in being supported by your friends? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!