One of the most important wellness tools for many people is spending time with people you enjoy. They have found that regular contact with family members and friends who are supportive keeps them well. They have even found that telling another person how they feel when they don’t feel well can help them to feel better. This article will discuss the issue of support and describe things you can do to build yourself a strong circle of friends and supporters.

You may feel that you don’t have any supportive people in your life, or that you have so few of these people that you feel lonely much of the time. You may feel that your lack of support and loneliness makes you feel sad or depressed some or most of the time. This problem may be worse if you live by yourself. Most people agree that they would benefit from having at least five close friends and supporters in their life that they really enjoy.

We All Need Friends

Everyone needs and wants to have friends. They enrich your life. They make you feel good about yourself and about being alive. Friends are especially helpful when you need special attention and care. A good friend is someone who:

  • you like, respect and trust, and who likes, respect and trust you
  • accepts and likes you as you are, even as you grow and change
  • listens to you and shares with you, both the good and the bad
  • you can tell anything to and know they will not betray your confidence
  • lets you express your feelings and emotions, and does not judge, tease or criticize
  • gives you good advice when you ask for it, assists you in taking action that will help you feel better, and works with you to figure out what to do next when you are having a hard time.
  • lets you help them when they need it
  • you want to be with, (but you aren’t obsessed about being with them)
  • doesn’t ever take advantage of you

You can probably think of some other attributes you would like from your friends.

You will find that some friends meet some needs and others meet other needs. Don’t expect one friend to meet all of your needs for friendship and support. Appreciate your friends for the things you like about them and don’t try to change them to better meet your needs.

Make a list of the people in your life that you feel closest to – those people who you would turn to in times of need. Is there something you could do to improve your relationships with these people? You could invite them to your home to visit, share a meal, play a game, watch a video, or share some other activity. You could do something nice for them or visit them when they are having a hard time.

Developing New Friendships

How do you reach out to others to establish friendships? This is not an easy task. You may find that you would feel more comfortable staying at home than going to an activity where you can meet other people. Almost everyone feels this way. Try to ignore those feeling and get out to activities in the community where you can meet other people – people with whom you might develop closer connections.

Meet potential friends and supporters by:

  • Attending a support group. It could be a group for people who have similar health issues or life challenges, or a group for of people of the same age or sex.
  • Going to community events, taking a course, joining a church or civic group.
  • Volunteering. Strong connections are often formed when people are working together on projects of mutual interest and concern.

Some friendships develop casually. You may be hardly aware that your relationship with the other person is getting closer and more comfortable. More often it takes some special effort on someone’s part to help the relationship grow. You could do this by:

  • asking the person whom you like to join you for coffee or lunch, to go for a walk or to do something together you both enjoy;
  • calling the person on the phone to share something you think they might be interested in;
  • sending a short, friendly e-mail and see if they respond;
  • talking with them when you see them about something of interest to both of you;
  • helping the person with a project you are both interested in.

You may be able to think of some other enjoyable activity that the two of you could share. Go slowly. This will give you a chance to decide if this is really a person you want for a friend. And others may be intimidated if you “come on too strong”. As you both enjoy each other more the friendship deepens. Notice how you feel about yourself when you are with the other person. If you feel good about yourself, you may be on the road to a fulfilling friendship.

Keeping Friendships Strong

Keeping your friendships strong needs consistent attention from you. There are many things you can do to help keep your friendships strong.

In addition, if you feel ready, you could become further involved if you choose to by:

  • Like yourself. If you don’t like yourself, don’t feel that you have any value or don’t think others will like you, you will have a hard time reaching out to people who may become friends.
  • Enjoy spending time alone. People who enjoy spending time alone and are not desperate to have people around all the time make better friends. Being desperate can drive others away from you. Fill time alone with activities you enjoy and that enrich your life. Perhaps a pet would help.
  • Have a variety of interests. Develop interests in lots of different things that make you an interesting person for others to be with.
  • Friendships must be mutual. Be there for your friends as much as they are there for you.
  • Listen and share equally. Listen closely to what the other person is saying. Avoid thinking about what your response is going to be while the person is talking. If a person is sharing something intense and personal, give them your full attention. Don’t share an “I can top that” story. Be willing to listen to your friend share the details of a difficult time over and over again – until they have “gotten it out of their system”.
  • Communicate as openly as you can. Tell your friends what you need and want and ask them what they want and need from you. Do not share so much information about details that the other person gets bored. Watch the response you are getting from the person or people you are talking to so you can know if this is the right time to be sharing this, or the right subject for this person.
  • Avoid giving advice unless it is requested.
  • Never make fun of what the other person thinks or feels. Avoid judging, criticizing, teasing or sarcasm.
  • Never betray the confidence of a friend. Have a mutual understanding that anything the two of you discuss that is personal is absolutely confidential, that you will not share personal information about each other with other people.
  • Have a good time. Spend most of your time with your friends doing fun, interesting activities together.
  • Stay in Touch. Keep regular contact with your friends and supporters, even when things are going well.
  • Don’t overwhelm the person with phone calls or other kinds of contact. Use your intuition and common sense to determine when to call and how often. Don’t ever call late at night or early in the morning until you both have agreed to be available to each other in case of emergency (such as if one of you is sick or has gotten some very bad news).
  • Know and honor each other’s boundaries. People commonly set limits or boundaries around things like the amount of time and place of getting together, the kind and frequency of shared activities, phone call time limits – time of day, frequency and length, amount and kind of support given, connection with other family members, and the amount of physical touch. Say “no” to anything you don’t want. You have the right to ask for what you need, want and deserve.

Problems In Friendships

If a difficult situation comes up in your relationship with a friend, you will both have to use your resourcefulness to resolve the situation and keep the friendship strong. Some things you might try, depending on the situation, include:

  • talking with the other person by describing how you feel rather than making an assumption about how the other person feels;
  • working with your friend to develop a plan for resolving the situation that includes the steps each of you are going to take and when you are going to take them;
  • asking yourself what is really happening and deciding on solutions that will work for you;
  • being clear with yourself and with your friends about your boundaries, saying “no” when necessary.

Ending A Friendship

You may want to end a relationship with another person if circumstances arise that you cannot tolerate or there are issues that cannot be resolved. Some good reasons to end a friendship would be if the other person shares personal information about you with others, does all the talking and no listening, violates your boundaries, puts others or you down, teases, ridicules, “badmouths” friends and family, lies or is dishonest, wants you to be their friend only, wants you to spend all your time with them, wants to always know where you are and who you are with, doesn’t want to be seen with you in public, is clingy or very needy, talks inappropriately about sex or personal matters, asks questions that make you feel uncomfortable, asks for risky favors, engages in illegal behavior or is physically, emotionally or sexually abusive.

You may be tempted to pursue a relationship with someone even though they treat you or others badly. However, it is better not to have a certain friend than to have them treat you badly.

In Conclusion

The process of developing and keeping a circle of support goes on for as long as you live. I hope this column has been helpful to you in figuring out what you need to do next. Proceed slowly. Take small steps so you don’t become overwhelmed. You may want to begin writing about your efforts in a journal. Later you can read about your progress and honor yourself for your efforts. You may want to refer to my book, The Loneliness Workbook: A Guide to Developing and Maintaining Lasting Connections.

Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.