Social support in your change process: Lessons from weddings, fires, divorce and alcohol
Written: 09-06-2017

The process of making a behavior change is difficult in the best situations. When you put that desire and effort in an unsupportive environment, it can be nearly impossible. That is why seeking and finding the right kind of social support to empower you to make the changes you want can be one of the single biggest steps in your change process.

What does the right amount of social support look like? Here are a few characteristics I’ve pulled together regarding good and bad support. Let’s start with the negative:

Signals of negative support:

Inconsistent:  When you need to be held accountable, they need to follow through in a consistent and predictable manner.

Agenda driven: They have an interest in the outcome of the change. I find this commonly happens when a spouse or parent wants a family member to change, it’s a fine line between helpful and destructive.

Authoritative only: A person trying to make a positive change doesn’t need to have someone acting as the police or a parent, they need encouragement and mentorship.

Signals of positive support:

Empathetic. The person or community trying to provide the support doesn’t need to have gone through the same process, but being empathetic about the challenges is required.

Open and Candid. To provide quality support, it can sometimes require tough conversations. Good social support will always be willing to be candid about the situation, without being mean or hurtful.

Selfless. A  positive support system won’t bring their own interests into the process, they will seek out the best decisions and advice for the individual’s desire to change.

These may all sound like sensible traits of good social support, but they are also a little theoretical. I have been thinking through some of the individuals and types of social support I’ve witnessed over the past several weeks. In sharing these, I feel like it can help create a more concrete image of what these characteristics could look like in practice.

Weddings and Fires:

The past week I have been in Edgemont, South Dakota for my younger brother Matt’s Wedding. In a small town you get to witness the type of support that is not only helpful, but in some cases essential to survive. As we prepared for the wedding, it was impressive to see the number of individuals who would help with decorations, organization and other preparations. In my world, the most valuable asset someone could offer you is their time. When someone willingly gives their time up, in my opinion, it is one of the more selfless acts a person can do. It was evident that people were willing to step forward and share their time in order for the wedding and reception to be a success. My observation throughout the week was that the support was something that was consistent and common place.

The other example of the positive community support that I saw during the week was listening to Matt discuss the volunteer fire department. The one thing I completely forgot about, having not lived in this part of the country for a long time, is just how damaging a wildfire can be. Some of the fires a little further west in Montana and Wyoming have created so much smoke that it made it much darker and difficult to breathe at times. What is impressive is the organization of volunteers that pull together in Edgemont when fires get started in the local area. As I understand, when a fire is reported, a text message goes out to all the volunteers, who then stop their current work, head to the fire station and head out to fight the fire.

These two examples would be positive community support. What would it look like in your process of change? That might depend a little on what you need, but having a group of people surrounding you who you can rely on in a time of need is critical for success. I have spent my career trying to find ways to leverage the internet as a way to get people the support they need and finding that community online.

Divorce:

One would not think that finding good social support examples is easy in the process of divorce. However, I am pretty blessed to have two (actually more, but sharing two here). The first example is Joe, the therapist. It was and is surprising to me how helpful it was to have someone to talk to, that provided an unbiased and supportive voice throughout the process. The ability to lean into someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome was worth more than I could really price.

This brings up a valuable point.  Sometimes we can find the support we need in places that don’t have a price tag. However, there are times where we will need to search out places where we can pay for that support. It may be with a coach, mentor, advisor or therapist, but one thing that doesn’t change based on if the service is free or for a fee, are the characteristic of positive support you should look for. There are clearly bad coaches, mentors, advisors and therapists.

The second social support that I’ve found throughout the process is Nikki. It has been hard for me to explain to people the status of our relationship, because most people seem to expect me to harbor thoughts of hate, anger and bitterness towards her and vise versa. It is confusing to most when I share that we still talk to each other. We still care for each other’s happiness. And we want to see the other person succeed. In some ways it makes me a little sad that this is the expectation, because with the statistics around divorce in our country, this would imply a lot of anger and bitterness in our world.

Her support has been most evident to me, in the support I’ve had in the past year during my career change. It was probably not the ideal timing for a career change, however her ongoing support has been invaluable. There has been more than one occasion over this period that I’ve been incredibly stressed and received a few words of encouragement and support from her. I couldn’t imagine if I had to deal with the stress of a career change, along with anger and bitterness of our past marriage.

The lessons that I take away from all of this is that finding the right people to surround yourself with is essential. It may require that you pay for it, but that cost will almost always be worth it, if you find the right person. I also believe that if it’s the right person, they will be the right person in all situations. They will be consistent, predictable and without a personal agenda.

Alcohol:

In March of 2015, I decided that I wanted to stop drinking. The observation that I had was that I was using beer each night to deal with my stress. In most cases, it was a single beer as I sat down to watch some television. In a few cases, it would be drinking a little too much with friends. However, I recognized the pattern and did not want to trend further down the path. I made the commitment to quit a couple times, with no success between March and May. The challenges I faced were social situations where I would be out to dinner with friends and having a craft beer was a default behavior.

To find success, I enlisted the support of a friend that I knew would be honest, consistent and hold me accountable. I reached out to Jeff Buhr, shared my goal, and that I needed to tap into him for some accountability. After a little more discussion we had a plan on what that accountability looked like. That accountability plan was for six months, in which I didn’t have anything to drink. At the end of the six months, I found that the default behavior was to not drink in any situation.

What I learned from that experiment was that sometimes different people in your life can serve as support for specific changes you would like to make. In my case, I knew that for the specific goal of drinking zero alcohol for six months, Jeff was the right person.

When you want to change your behavior it can be a very challenging process. That is why surrounding yourself with the right people is critical. This can look different depending on your situation. It might require you to enlist someone new to take on a specific role, or it may include making a group of individuals aware of your desire to change. It could also mean finding the people in your life that are providing negative support and either removing them or shielding yourself from them so you have the space necessary to grow.


Here are some other posts in this series on successfully changing behavior to become happier and healthier: