Social Support: How to Build and Maintain Your Relationships
Updated: Jan 31
Research shows that healthy relationships can reduce stress and improve your overall health and sense of wellbeing. Building a network of support, or even just one healthy, supportive relationship, can be vital to your mental health.
For those with histories of family dysfunction or abandonment/inundation wounds, relationships can be especially challenging. In this article we will talk about the importance of social support, challenges to building and maintaining relationships, ways to boost connectedness and the concept of a “chosen family.”
What is social support and why is it important?
Social support refers to helping behaviors, feelings of comfort, and gratitude shared within a network of individuals. More specifically, social support is defined as the perception that we are loved, cared for, and valued by others, and are part of a network of other individuals we exchange mutual support with.
Social support is an important protective factor for dealing with life’s difficulties and has been linked to better physical and mental health. You don’t need much to gain the benefits though. Our support network can consist of anyone and anything we surround ourselves with - family, friends, romantic partners, coworkers, neighbors, classmates, caring professionals, pets, community events and/or organizations. Even just a couple pleasant social interactions at the grocery store, at our spiritual/religious institution or on a walk around the neighborhood can fill up our tank and help us feel connected to the world around us.
Why is it so hard to build a strong social support system?
Many of us are dissatisfied with our support system at some point in life. What are some factors that make it so challenging?
One potential explanation for lower levels of social support following childhood trauma comes from what has been called the “deterioration model” of social support. Researchers have theorized that due to the nature of certain childhood traumas, like being abused, as private and socially stigmatizing stressors, many survivors may feel isolated, as though there is no social support available to them. Self-blame, shame, fear and anticipatory stigma can act as barriers to disclosure and seeking help. We may also carry deep seated negative beliefs about ourselves and fears of rejection due to messages we received as children about who we are. These beliefs block us from attempting to engage in relationships or get in the way of maintaining them.
Social skills don’t always come naturally, especially if they were not modeled by our caregivers or we connect with being a neurodivergent individual. Social skills include things like active listening, assertive communication, and conflict resolution. The good news is they are called skills for a reason - they can be learned!
Know that fear can be a good sign you are entering new territory and will grow through the discomfort. When fear arises around relationships, it is an opportunity to find an old wound within ourselves that needs tending to. For example, if you find yourself feeling clingy and anxious at the start of a new friendship, there may be some abandonment wounds to work on. Find that courageous part of you that is willing and ready to let go and work through old narratives and anxieties. Remember that rejection is protection. Not only do we need to get comfortable with rejecting others when they are not a good fit for us but, we also need to accept that we may not always be someone’s cup of tea and that is okay. Finding your tribe takes time and effort. Don’t give up!
Changes with Phases of Life
We can lose established connections due to life changes such as retirement, relocation, a break up or divorce, graduation or the death of a loved one. We can also lose connections as we become better versions of ourselves. We may not want to tolerate certain behaviors anymore and our boundaries have shifted leading us to disengage with certain people or groups.
Depression and/or Motivation
Depression can lead to lack of motivation and low energy levels. However, those of us dealing with these issues often need social support the most. Engaging in a positive activity can be the catalyst we need for a mood boost. You may not feel like doing it but, you’ll feel better after you do. Sometimes it can help to internalize a voice in our minds representing a good coach, “Let’s go! You’ve got this - push yourself!” Motivation is like a fire - sometimes it needs more kindling in order to burn bright and strong.
Lack of Time
If we can think about social interactions being as important as eating, exercising and sleeping then we can put social engagements and efforts closer to the top of our to-do list. We may need to reevaluate our time management skills or say no to other duties to make space for building and maintaining relationships. That said, avoid the temptation to blame or judge yourself. We live in a hustle and bustle culture that values individualism over all else. Take some time to reflect on ways that you can prioritize relationships while honoring your responsibilities. Even scheduling a once a month dinner or virtual hang with a friend can be enough. What can you shift to make space for you and your relationships?
Ways to Boost Social Support
1. Get a furry (or furless) friend.
Social support isn’t limited to human interaction. Studies have shown that our pets can offer us the same benefits that human social support does. As an added benefit, this will give you a great topic of conversation when engaging with others - people love to talk about their pets!
2. Follow your interests. Do activities that align with your values.
Take a moment and think about a hobby you’ve thought about or used to enjoy. Do you like to hike, sing, read, make jewelry, play tennis, or get involved in local politics? You’re more likely to connect with people who like the things you like. Honing your skills and developing new passions with a group of people interested in the same thing is a great way to start building your social network of like-minded individuals. Another thing to consider are your values and beliefs. People often find a uniquely supportive environment in the context of a religious or spiritual group, for example. If you don't have one, consider finding a spiritual home or connecting with people who hold similar beliefs to you. If you are already a member of a group, think about how you might get more involved. If you are not spiritual or religious perhaps join a nature-oriented or meditation/mindfulness group or class. Those opposed to this can also consider volunteering as a way to get in alignment with their values and build community.
Additionally, think about joining one of the following:
Community Centers Events
Recreational Department Website for local events
Joining a Spiritual/Religious Group or Center
Research suggests it takes about 50 hours of interaction for someone to move from an acquaintance to a casual friend, and more than 200 hours of quality interaction for someone to become a best friend. Be patient with the process and pick activities that you’ll enjoy regardless of the outcome.
3. Get outside and enjoy your community.
A great way to get to know your neighbors is to take a walk through your neighborhood. Learn your barista and grocery clerk’s name, stop and greet your neighbors as they leave for work, say hello to the mail person or simply take note of upcoming community meetings or events you could attend. For those with furry friends, regularly going to a dog park can also be a great way to have casual interactions with neighbors.
4. Be Proactive. Reach out to friends, family, and coworkers. Reconnect with old friends.
Often people expect others to reach out to them, and then feel rejected when people don’t go out of their way to do so. To get the most out of your social relationships, you have to make an effort. Make time for friends and family. Reach out to lend a hand or just say hello. If you’re there for others, they’ll be more likely to be there for you.
We’ve all been guilty of not responding to a text or procrastinating our response. For many of us, life can be so draining and stressful that it can be hard finding the desire to do the simplest things, staying connected to our loved ones included! Reconnecting with your existing friends and family can be an easy way to increase your social support. Who do you still have positive feelings towards but haven’t spoken to in years? Maybe it’s time to reach out and catch up!
We can also acknowledge that sometimes it can feel draining to repeatedly reach out to others, only to not have our needs reciprocated. If you find yourself regularly having this frustration, make note of the stories you’re telling about why you’re having a hard time building connections. Most of the time our stories aren’t as accurate as we first believe!
5. Join a support group/look for peer support.
Groups are a great way to find support for specific stressors — such as the death of a family member, coping with chronic illness, or managing our mental health. It’s also a nice opportunity to practice giving support to others. Research shows that providing support to those around you may actually be more beneficial than receiving support.
Check out the links below to find a support group that’s best suited for you:
The Group List: 1,224 Outpatient Therapy Groups and Support Groups Offered by 631 Licensed Mental Health Professionals Throughout Los Angeles County
6. Focus on Self Improvement
Ever heard the saying "you are what you attract"? When you are working through narratives of shame, this can be hard to hear. Everyone at every stage of growth is worthy of love and connection. That said, if you struggle with chronic loneliness, the prospect of finding new relationships can seem impossible. Often, there is a pattern of self-sabotage happening, as when we do meet people we can overshare or hide due to how confronting it feels to be seen and cared for. We have to find the courage to recognize and work on these patterns. Ask yourself honestly: if I am looking to find a new friend that is trustworthy, generous, a good listener, fun and energetic - can you offer those same qualities back? If not, you may not be a match for this person– yet. Figure out ways to become a better version of yourself and you may be more likely to get back what you are wanting in your relationships. Plus, you’ll be practicing building trust and intimacy within yourself. This allows us to nurture deeper connections, as we can only meet others as deeply and honestly as we are willing to meet ourselves.
7. Improve Essential Social Skills
Conversation Skills - If you feel awkward in social situations you can try asking simple questions about the other person to get the ball rolling. Even the most skilled conversationalist knows it takes a couple of minutes for the awkwardness to wear off - just breathe and know that the comfort of connection is close if you work through the anxiety and have a couple starter questions in your back pocket.
Assertiveness - People often think of assertiveness as "standing up for yourself" and "not letting people push you around"—basically the alternative to passivity. While this is mostly true, assertiveness is also the alternative to aggressiveness. The difference is that with assertiveness, you don't have to get your needs met at the expense of others’ needs.
Developing the skill of assertiveness can really help you strengthen your relationships, making them mutually supportive, lasting, and opening the lines of communication.
Listening Skills - When you've had a hard day, sometimes being able to vent to a trusted friend is a source of healthy coping. Feeling heard and truly understood can have profound positive effects on us. Don't forget that your friends need that same support. Here are some things to remember when friends are talking about things that stress or upset them:
Ask them about their feelings, and listen.
Reflect back what you hear, so they know you really understand. “So I am hearing you say you were frustrated with your boss when they asked you to take on another project with a short turnaround time - that sounds stressful and it makes sense you feel frustrated!”
Instead of always trying to tie the conversation back to your experiences, focus questions on them and their feelings.
Pay attention without thinking about what you're going to say next. Trust that what is important to say will come back to you when it’s your turn to speak.
Don’t rush to solve or fix their problem or try to change the negative feelings they are experiencing. Ask permission before offering advice and allow them to feel seen and heard emotionally before moving the conversation on to problem solving.
If you’re shy, it can be less intimidating to get to know others over shared activities—such as a bike ride or a knitting class—rather than just hanging out and talking. If you feel particularly anxious in social situations, consider talking to a therapist with experience in social anxiety and social skills training.
8. Trust Your Intuition & Let Go of Relationships that No Longer Serve You
When you're around certain people, pay attention to how you feel. If you feel warm and calm with the person, your intuition is probably giving you the green light that this person is okay. However, if you leave your encounter with someone feeling anxious, drained, or like something is wrong but you can't explain what, your intuition may be telling you that person is someone who may not be the right fit for your social circle. If you pay attention to and act on the signals that your intuition sends you, you’ll have healthier and stronger relationships. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Does the conversation flow easily, or is it forced?
Do you feel they truly understand, accept, and support you?
Do you feel you truly understand, accept, and support them?
Do you feel better or worse about yourself when you’re with them?
Do you leave them feeling energized or down?
Do you include them in your life for positive qualities they have, or just to have more people in your life?
Do you share the same expectations in terms of frequency of contact? (i.e. some people want friends to talk to on a weekly basis but, some only need to talk every couple of months, etc). If not, are they okay with your expectations and needs?
Not everyone is an appropriate match. If there is someone you just don't seem to mesh well with, it's okay to put that relationship on the back burner or let it fade away. Even if you have years of history, sometimes people just grow apart. That doesn’t mean there’s something ‘wrong’ with either of you. But if someone in your life makes you feel bad about yourself or the relationship doesn’t feel mutually supportive, it’s may be time to let them go. If you want to keep them in your life in a peripheral way, that’s okay, too. However, it would be beneficial to remember not to count on them for support.
Of course, for those with a history of complex trauma, it can be challenging to distinguish between intuition and anxieties. Consider keeping a journal or having a regular practice that helps you better understand your fears and anxieties.
Creating a Chosen Family
Not being able to count on others for support brings us to the topic of creating what is called a chosen family. Many individuals find themselves in complex situations trying to resolve difficult relationships with their family of origin while simultaneously creating what’s commonly referred to as a “chosen family.”
According to the SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling, “chosen families are non-biological kinship bonds, whether legally recognized or not, deliberately chosen for the purpose of mutual support and love.” This concept is useful for individuals who have been rejected by their family and those whose families are abusive or unable to provide the type of emotional nurturing they need and want.
Friends who become your family of choice may provide you with a healthier family environment than the one in which you were raised. The concept of a chosen family helps us resist the idea of family as something we are given and must accept. Chosen families are made up of people we share a connection or similar experience with and hold similar values and capacities as we do.
But these groups of loved ones aren’t always a complete solution to the issue of conflict and trauma with our family of origin. Those who find their chosen family while attempting to maintain contact with certain family members often experience a sense of guilt for trying to sustain both. These issues take time to resolve and may require the help and support of a therapist or group to help you navigate your feelings and decisions.
For more information on this subject you may find this video helpful: Queer Kid Stuff: Chosen Family
Simply put, social support matters — not only to get us through tough times but to protect our physical and mental health. No matter your current level of support, there are plenty of ways to grow your connections. In addition, by increasing your own social support, you’re also helping other people increase theirs!
Developing life-long relationships is akin to caring for a garden: You plant the seeds, create the right environment for growth, and see what beautiful things come to fruition. And when you end up growing a community, the investment of time and effort is well worth it. Remember, small steps lead to big changes, so set specific, realistic and achievable goals and be patient and persistent in order to see the results you are seeking!
Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 - Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.
Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist - Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.
Contributor: Kris Alvarado, LMFT #127063 - Kris is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and enjoys helping others find their voice and breathe life into their authentic selves. She has a great enthusiasm for practicing Feminist Theory, LGBTQ+ Affirmative Psychology, Family Systems Theory and Psychodynamic Theory all through a Multicultural lens. For more on Kris you can read her bio.
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