Reality Check: What Does It Mean to Be Supportive?

The need for support seems to surround us. Perhaps you see the struggles of friends, family, or community members. There’s also media and social media telling us difficult stories of people around the world.
The challenges vary. Problems with physical health, mental health, poor relationships, fears, pessimism, grief, accidents, crime; there are so many people who could benefit from support of some kind. Many of us want to respond to those needs by being supportive.
But what does it mean to be supportive? What does support look like? What actions say, “I support you”?
While some types of support can be delivered by institutions such as government, non-profits, churches, volunteer organizations, let’s look at support that individuals can provide.
The Total Behaviour concept of Choice Theory can be a useful framework as we think about effective support. Total Behaviour suggests that our behaviour has four distinct components: our actions, thoughts, feelings, and physiology.
For example, how might we provide support for the feeling (emotional) component of behaviour? When someone is feeling down, frightened, or hopeless, simply showing up can be supportive. Making personal contact—listening, encouraging—can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
However, we know that providing this sort of direct emotional support doesn’t come naturally to everyone. In fact, depending on the relationship, such supportive attempts may seem inappropriate or even intrusive.
Fortunately, emotional support is not all there is! Let’s consider support for thinking behaviour. When we get caught up in swirling thoughts of disasters and uncertainties, or when we’re trapped by an overwhelming task list, support can help us find a way out. A supportive friend who will brainstorm with us to generate ideas could uncover options that we would never find by ourselves.
How about supportive actions? For someone who is overwhelmed, practical support—offers of transportation, to make phone calls, to handle even one task of a difficult situation—can make a difference. Supportive actions could include offers to do things together, take a walk; get out in nature. Those actions not only help the body but could provide a more balanced perspective.
Finally, we can provide support for what Dr. Glasser refers to as “physiology,” which in this context, I’d refer to as “care of the body.” How would we support this aspect for someone having a hard time? If you’ve ever created or received a lovingly-made casserole during a time of hardship or grief, then you know exactly the kind of support I’m referring to.
Support doesn’t necessarily mean providing a solution. For some situations, there is no solution. For others, we don’t have the resources, skills or wherewithal to provide a solution even if did know how to do it. Sometimes support means sitting quietly and listening, rather than leaping up to say, “This is what you should do.”
We are individuals, with different needs and wants. What one person may perceive as helpful, effective support may be quite different from what another would want. How can we know what to offer?
Asking a question and then listening to the answer is a remarkably effective way to gather useful information. One way to find out what support someone might want is simply to ask, “How can I help you?”
When you are providing support, what do you do? What do you find helpful when you are in need of support? What supportive actions do you consider to be effective?

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