It was 1970. I learned at a young adolescent age to appreciate the value of support. I remember well my teacher, Mr. Monson, and his tall lanky frame, his worn black flood pants, his shortsleeved white shirt and black tie. I remember most his gentle kindness to a longhaired, tuned-out, and lost soul – an unlikely recipient. He said clearly, “I’ll be waiting for you after school to help you with your math.” I learned more than basic arithmetic. I learned that there are those who really care. Somehow, I wanted to be like him.
Social support is the support we receive from those around us which uplifts, assists, and gives a sense of connection and belonging. Social support involves the sharing of good times, and the giving and receiving of help through the rough times.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL SUPPORT
Glenn and Nelsen (1989) teach us that our modern cultural trends have placed monumental stress on traditional support systems. These trends include: decreasing family interaction, fewer intergenerational associations, less family work, increasing divorce rates, increasing classroom size, and the replacement of creative family fun with chronic entertainment through television and other technologies.
Despite the external forces that decrease actual and real support and the feelings of being supported, most of us do too little to offset these trends. It will take active building and careful maintaining if we are to have support around ourselves and our loved ones.
The fast pace of our western society and the stressors Network Solutions of an everchanging world of technology, the economy, and the family brings with it stress and a host of stress-related problems. Basic to the ills and problems we face is the waning of family, neighborhood, community, and organizational ties and relationships. Ouchi and Jaeger (1978) refer to an increasing number of behavioral scientists who point to a “weakening of associational ties” as the basis for many of the social ills – mental illness, alcoholism, divorce, and crime. George Homans (1950) argues that without those relationships, people begin to have a variety of problems. He states:
“Now all the evidence of psychiatry… shows that membership in a group sustains a man, enables him to maintain his equilibrium under the ordinary shocks of life, and helps him bring up children who will in turn, be happy and resilient. If his group is shattered around him, if he leaves a group in which he was a valued member, and if, above all, he finds no new group to which he can relate himself, he will, under stress, develop disorders of thought, feelings, and behavior… The cycle is vicious; loss of group membership in one generation may make men less capable of group membership in the next. The civilization that, by its very process of growth, shatters small group life will leave men and women lonely and unhappy.” (pg. 457)
Social Support helps each of us to fulfill basic and critical needs. Everyone has a need to “feel a part of and to belong.” Each one of us has a basic need to feel important, wanted, needed and loved. Each of us needs the affiliation which comes from feelings of being valued and of being accepted.
SOCIAL SUPPORT BUFFERS THE EFFECTS OF STRESS
Social support is important in our lives because it lessens the consequences of physical and psychological stress. Research studies give the following examples:
– Heart attack victims who go home to even a pet are less likely to have another heart attack than those who go home to an empty house.
– Pregnant women with high stress and high support experienced complications in 37 percent of their births, while women with high stress and low support experienced complications 91 percent of the time.
– Men or women who are widowed, but have at least one confidant, are significantly less likely to die during the 24 months after the death of their spouse than those who lack such a confidant.
In the process of recovery from physical or emotional illness, addiction, and specifically eating disorders, social support is the very “cradle” in which recovery takes place. Support is equally necessary to ward against relapse, and it brings recovery into a shared experience in which love is exchanged and progress celebrated. Whatever the source – God, loved ones, friends, or self – support is a healing experience.
KINDS OF SUPPORT
In a model of social support proposed by Berrett and Cox (1983), the following main kinds of support are delineated:
Assistance – giving or receiving aid or material goods
Belonging – feeling that one is “a part of,” and an important member of a common cause
Emotional – encouragement, understanding, personal warmth, empathy, unconditional love
Feedback – giving information of appraisal, comparison, validation, or constructive criticism
Information – imparting specific knowledge, the gift of advice, suggestion, or direction
Relief – providing fun, pleasure, distraction from the tasks of life, a “get away”
DIMENSIONS OF SUPPORT
There are three primary dimensions of support. Each one is important in the process of recovery from eating disorders and related addictive or emotional illnesses. They are as follows:
– The support we receive from others
– The support we give to others
– The support we give to ourselves
While support has three dimensions, it can also be viewed as having “two sides.” It is a process of reciprocity. Billy Graham (1993) said, “God has given us two hands – one to receive with and the other to give with.”
It is important that we all learn to ask for, and receive, help from others. It has been said that there are no people without problems, while there are both healthy and unhealthy people. Healthy people are those who admit their problems, work hard to overcome them, and have learned to ask directly for and accept help in overcoming their weaknesses. Asking for help requires humility and a willingness to learn from others. To receive support and learn requires a decrease in pride, and an increase in facing fear. Eric Hoffer (1963) described well the consequence of an unwillingness to be a true learner: “In times of change learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Learn to seek support, and to learn at the feet of another.