What is the secret to making lasting change? A few minutes browsing books online could yield countless results on how to cultivate motivation, willpower, and enlightenment. We all go running to these resources as we ask ourselves:
Why do I keep taking on more than I can handle?
Why can’t I say “no?”
Why does my kid keep failing their classes even though I have given them every possible resource I can imagine?
Why can’t I stick to a diet?
We arm ourselves with information and all the self-discipline we can muster and jump headlong into yet another “lifestyle change.” However, the fatal flaw in our sustained progress, or that of our loved ones, is that we go at it alone, all by ourselves. Let’s admit it: it’s uncomfortable for others to know how and where we struggle and to what extent. Or perhaps we don’t think anyone is capable of helping. Despite all of this, it is the action of stepping out and recruiting healthy support, that is the first and most powerful step in making anything really happen, and stick.
So, what does healthy support look like? First, let’s talk about what it’s not:
They’re talking with you, but it’s really about them.
Perhaps what you’re sharing sparks something negative in the person you’re talking to—their anxiety, defensiveness, competitiveness, fears, or ego. You let a friend know you’ve decided to abstain from alcohol for a while, and they quickly explain why that’s not necessary for them. You express a desire to confront your boss, and your friend who has never confronted anyone in their life explains the value of keeping the peace. A mother works tirelessly to make sure her child does well in school when, if she took a good look at it, would see that she is trying to protect her child from feeling the intellectual inferiority she has dealt with much of her life.
They like to motivate you by threatening or shaming you.
Sometimes in a well-intentioned way, people try to support others by attempting to manufacture motivation via control or shame. This may look like the parent who is trying to offer support, but they’re actually hovering, critiquing, giving feedback and, ultimately, may step in to take over. By clearing the path too much, these parents are trying to teach and set their child up for success but unintentionally disempower and weaken their child.
Phrases like, “Is that the best you can do?” or “Don’t embarrass me” may motivate someone in the short term but take a long-term toll on a person’s self-esteem—actually working in contrast to a person’s movement towards progress on the whole.
They give a lot of advice but listen very little.
Advice-giving quickly creates a dynamic in which the person doling out the advice seems to be in on something the other person isn’t. This is sometimes the case, but the timing and appropriateness of giving advice involve being in tune with the other person as well as understanding the objective. Those who throw around a great deal of advice without really listening may be in it more for their own sake, stoking their own feelings of importance.
So, what does healthy and effective support look like?
The person knows and cares about you and helps you understand yourself better too.
A truly supportive person is invested in and cares about you, on the whole, regardless of your success or failure. And because they care about you, they are invested in knowing you and really what you’re after. They know what your strengths and weaknesses are and maybe even where they come from.
In the context of this relationship, we find the safety we all need to admit we need to improve and then take risks, struggle and even fail. Truly, aren’t the best people in the world those who we know have our back no matter what? Those are the people we listen to when they call us out for being out of line, thinking crazy or having stinky breath. And they tell us when this is happening because they know it’s important for us to know, even if it is uncomfortable to say. In turn, we listen to them because we see what they are doing, in the spirit, it is intended, because they care.
The person holds you accountable to your goals.
A person who offers you support is in on what you’re trying to do, which can only happen if you let others know about your efforts. Then, either implicitly or explicitly, they call on you to confront and accept responsibility for what you’re doing (or not doing). Supportive accountability feels a lot like a partnership, like having a team member who is there to help you get where you want to be. It’s the friend who, without missing a beat, gently pulls your hand away from your mouth when you go to bite your nails. It’s the friend you know will ask about your progress on your most recent project because they partner with you in getting what you want. Because it is important to you, it is important to them. It can also be the person who companions with you while you face the scary things in life- the doctor’s appointment, your first AA meeting, or the first time you really put yourself out there.
Holding someone accountable is not easy. It also means they won’t let you make excuses or sell yourself short. In the face of your lost momentum, supportive accountability encourages you to reconnect to your motivation and persevere. And, perhaps the best part, the person who is in on your efforts with you, will legitimately celebrate with you in your success, even the little ones.
The person offering you support is healthy.
You can’t give what you don’t have. In seeking helpful support, it is important to look for those who commit to their own wellness—physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. There is a value in cultivating a deeper connection with people who share and live out healthy life values that are consistent with yours. By being in relationships with people who are making strides in their own life, we can be inspired and encouraged. And because no one is perfect, we can learn lessons alongside them as well, namely how to show ourselves grace in this crazy thing called life.
So how do we find people that provide healthy support? The answer may be practicing offering healthy support to others. In so doing, we become better acquainted with what it is to be in a healthy relationship with others. We also teach others, by example, what is helpful for us.
Perhaps you already have these people in your family or social circle. However, it is not unusual for there to be seasons lacking support or surrounded with negative influences. We may have to get creative by seeking out community support like a church, support group or a therapist. Innovation360, an outpatient mental health organization with counselors and therapists, offers relational support through their Life Development Team who joins participants in their everyday life to help them accomplish their goals. To learn more, please visit https://i360austin.com/life-development/.
Elizabeth Devine is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and the Executive Director of Innovation360 in Austin.