Social support is known to be so important physically, emotionally and cognitively throughout the lifespan. In fact, touch alone has significant positive benefits from infancy through senescence. But once we are no longer in school, social support networks can be hard to develop and maintain. After they finish their education, many adults find themselves with limited social support, either because they don’t have many people to turn to, or because their current “friends” are not. So, how do you develop and maintain a social support network as an adult?
Begin by honestly evaluating your current system of social support. Warning-answers to the following questions may be hard for you to acknowledge but, by doing so, you’re creating opportunities for growth. With that in mind, let’s get started. First of all, do you have any friends? If so, are they truly your friends or simply people you used to know? Do they enjoy and seek out your company or do they seem to just tolerate you? Within reason, are they there for you when you need them or do they interact with you only when it is convenient for them? Do they support and encourage or minimize you? Do you keep your current friends because they share the same diagnosis? Is that really healthy for you or does it pull you down further and allow you to avoid addressing your issues?
So, now that you’ve determined the true status of your social support network, what to do about it? You stretch and flex! You look outside of your established comfort zone and begin to develop relationships that are relevant to your current lifestyle. Quite likely you and your old friends have developed different interests over the years and what once connected you to one another no longer exists. If so, it’s time to reach out to others with similar current interests. You don’t have to cut all ties with old friends, but instead accept your relationship for what it is now. That’s the whole point of class reunions. You meet for one evening every five to ten years to catch up and reminisce and then you go back to living your current lives. There’s no anger or animosity, just acknowledgement and acceptance that life has moved on.
Are your friends unhealthy for you? Do they mistreat you or prevent you from reaching your full potential? If so, why do you still interact with them? Many people fear that if they cut ties with these “friends” they will be all alone. But the truth is, they’re already all alone; users and abusers aren’t a true support system. Robin Williams once said, “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone.” Let’s pause and let that sink in.
So, what to do next? In the words of Booker T. Washington, “Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” So, how do you find people of “good quality”? First, leave the comfort of your home or apartment; they usually don’t make house calls. Join a club or organization. Volunteer. Then, try to emulate “good quality” yourself. Put yourself out there. Reach out and give to others. Instead of attending a class, meeting or service and then leaving as quickly as possible, stick around to talk to people. Ask about their kids, pets and so on and then continue to do so each time you see them. If you demonstrate that you care about others, others will begin to care about you. Accept invitations to go to lunch, dinner or a potluck (and for heaven’s sake bring something good, not something you grabbed from the sale bin at the grocery store on the way to the event!) Offer invitations as well. The more invested you are in becoming part of a larger support network, the more others will invest in you.