The Care and Feeding of Your Support System: Avoid Collateral Friendship Damage During a Breakup
One piece of advice a lot of people will give you about getting through a breakup is to "take advantage of your support system". Times like this are one of the reasons we call friends and family a "support system" in the first place, but how we act during the breakup can put a strain on relationships with the people who love us and care about us the most. Our family and friends may get impatient and frustrated, while we end up feeling let-down and disappointed. Sometimes we start to wonder if they really care, but the problem may not be whether they're willing to help. The way you"re going about trying to get support from them may be causing the trouble.
So before you stop talking to your sis or give your best friend the cold shoulder just when you could really use HER shoulder to cry on, check out these guidelines for using your support system wisely.
Realize that there are different kinds of support and appreciate what each person can offer. Everyone has their strong and not-so-strong points, and no one person is likely to give you all the support you need. Identify each person in your circle's strong point and concentrate on that for the time being. Here are some common ones:
Fun Distraction: Some friends are best for laughs and good times. They're not so good with the serious stuff but they're almost always ready to go out for a night on the town or join you on a new adventure. You may feel upset that they're not good at listening to you talk about your ex, or comforting you when you're upset, but it's actually good for you to spend some time NOT talking about that stuff. Let your time with them be a time to get away from your troubles for a while, and don't bring a lot of your troubles to them.
Activity Buddies: These relationships are similar to "fun friends" but your main bond is around a specific interest or activity (running partners, poker pals, the other "doggie moms" at the local run). It's super-important to keep busy and stay involved with things you're interested in to reinforce the fact that you have your own life, but you won't really get that benefit if you spend all your time at pilates class talking about your ex's commitment issues.
Advice Givers: They want to help and they've got some ideas about how to handle the situation. They're best to talk to when you're open to another opinion. They can get impatient when you're floundering and not sure about what you want, or when you just want to talk about how you feel, or if you bring up the same thing when they've already given you advice about it. Parents often fall under this category. If you find yourself getting into arguments with them about your breakup, limit the amount that you talk about it.
Good Listeners: Some people are just great at being patient and willing to listen when we need to talk They don't try to fix it and they don't brush it off. Go to these friends when you need a shoulder to cry on. Just make sure you don't overload them (more on this below). And even though they're really good at it, don't only come to them to talk about your problems--share some happy moments with them too.
Trusted mirrors: This is the friend who tells it like it is, and you listen because you trust her judgment and know that she has your best interest at heart. Just like she told you that jacket with shoulder pads really wasn't working for you and then helped you find a more flattering one, she'll tell you that, yes, it would be weird and desperate to "just show up" at your ex"s little brother's baseball game. Not everyone has someone like this in their lives. If you"re one of the lucky ones who does, make sure you check in with a trusted mirror before making any hasty decisions.
These aren't strict categories and many people can fill more than one of the slots; the idea is to focus on where each support person's strengths meet your needs rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Spread it around. This kind of naturally follows from the point above, but try not to load too much on any one person. I once saw a great demonstration about support systems in which the presenter put a dixie cup upside-down on the floor and identified it as a single-person support system. She stepped on it and of course it crumpled. Then she put about 10 cups in a group on the floor, placed a board on them, and stood on the board. The cups held her up! You can try it at home--it's pretty cool. Even your best friend in the whole wide world doesn't need to hear every single thought and feeling you're having about your breakup. People are able to help you more when you don't overload them, and no single person can be there for you all the time.
Avoid broken-record syndrome. Have you ever been listening to someone talk about something and gotten the feeling they'd gone through the same thing a bunch of times before? Either what they"re saying sounds rehearsed, they seem sort of hypnotized as they talk, or even worse, you've actually heard them say exactly the same thing 10 times before! Whether it's happening with one listener over and over, or several different people over time, the speaker and the listeners aren't really connecting when it's a broken-record speech. The speaker is basically talking to themselves with the listener in the room. When you're the speaker you're not really getting support from the listener; you're just telling yourself a story over and over and it's usually not a helpful one. And you're also alienating whoever is stuck listening. If you find yourself doing this, try journaling instead. Writing your thoughts down will give you a place to express your thoughts and you'll be able to see in black and white if you're having the same thoughts over and over. When you notice that happening it's time to start working on moving past them and getting unstuck.
Don't forget to express gratitude. We can get so focused on our own troubles we forget to thank the people who are there for us when we need them. Take the time to express your appreciation in words and actions. A simple note, card or small gift will make them feel good. You can send your friend a free thank you card here. Focusing on someone else's happiness for a bit is actually good for you, too.
Find new support if you need it. Sometimes a crisis highlights the fact that our support network needs building. If you need more people in your corner, look into joining a support group (in-person or online) to have more people to talk to, or start a new class or activity if you just need more connection/distraction. You can also sign up for a free email support program here.
Just remember: the more you care for your support system, the better it can take care of you. And that's the point here--taking good care of you.