Numerous studies have demonstrated the critical importance of social support for physical and mental health. For example, one study showed that stressed middle-aged men with higher levels of available emotional support were significantly less likely to die over a 7-year period than those who lacked such support. Another study found that an absence of social support was a major predictor of depression.
In our everyday lives, we often have opportunities to provide support to friends, family members, or coworkers, but it can be hard to know how to do it in the most effective way. Research in social psychology has revealed some principles for giving good support that challenge common assumptions. Here are three of them.
1. Support may be more effective when it's invisible.
It may seem obvious that people should benefit more from support that they know they are receiving, but research suggests that this is not necessarily the case. One set of studies found that when participants knew they were receiving support, they experienced greater stress reactivity, and another found that romantic partners actually felt worse after they received support about a personal problem.
Why would support make people feel worse? Research suggests that receiving overt support can make people feel dependent, ineffective, or indebted, all negative feelings unlikely to make someone feel confident about their ability to handle stressors.
It turns out, then, that support may be most effective when it is given invisibly—that is, when the giver uses indirect and unobtrusive methods and doesn’t over-emphasize the giver/receiver distinction. Such support seems to be more likely to leave both people feeling good about themselves and their relationship. Researchers have noted that people who receive invisible support may still feel a global sense of being supported and cared about as a result of the positive social interactions they experience, even if they don’t encode a given interaction as supportive per se.
So what does invisible support look like?
An example could be casually mentioning a situation when someone you know had a similar problem and found that a certain approach was helpful, rather than saying something directive like, “You should take this approach.” This indirect style is less likely to feel condescending to recipients.
Another example could be telling someone that you admire how well they have handled a difficult situation. This makes them feel good about themselves and gives them a chance to express their feelings about the challenges they have faced without fearing that in doing so you will see them as weak or incompetent.
The principles of invisible support can be applied even if someone explicitly asks you for support. The key is to communicate respect for their strengths in addition to compassion for their hardships, and to show that you genuinely want to be there and are not feeling burdened. (If you do feel burdened, it is important to set boundaries and help the person find other sources of support. Otherwise your support might make them feel worse.)
2. As the support-giver, sharing your own experiences is not always helpful.
One strategy people often use when giving support is to share their own related experiences. This approach has potential benefits: It can make an exchange less one-sided and reduce the recipient’s sense of burdensomeness, making the support more invisible. It can also increase the recipient’s sense of common humanity by reminding them that other people have similar problems. This approach can be especially helpful for people feeling isolated or self-critical.
But diving into your personal examples too soon can sometimes backfire. Here's why:
First, although suffering is universal, specific experiences of suffering are unique, and people benefit from being able to express their experiences as unique. In addition, support is more likely to be effective when support-givers are higher in empathic accuracy, which refers to the ability to correctly infer another person's mental state. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes requires learning about that person’s unique perspective by asking questions, listening attentively, and withholding judgment. After all, just because you can imagine how you personally might feel if you were in a certain situation doesn’t mean that you know how someone else feels in that situation.
Sharing personal experiences can also backfire when those experiences implicitly minimize the other person’s experience. This can happen whether the experience you share is more minor or more severe. If you say that you can relate because of a similar but more minor experience, you may inadvertently communicate that you see the other person’s experience as no big deal. If, on the other hand, you contrast the other person’s experience with something more severe that you went through, in an effort to show them that things could be worse, the other person may feel like you’re trying to one-up them.
Research suggests that although downward social comparison (comparing oneself to less fortunate others) can sometimes help people feel better about themselves, telling someone “it could be worse” is unlikely to be helpful if things really could get worse for them. For example, people who are suffering from a serious illness won’t necessarily benefit from being told about the experiences of people whose similar illnesses took a turn for the worse. This form of downward comparison may only increase anxiety and feelings of vulnerability.
Before sharing a personal story, it may be helpful to reflect on why you want to share it, and then make your intentions clear. For example, you could preface your story by acknowledging that you know your experiences are different. But in general, it may be best to avoid statements like “I know exactly what you’re going through,” especially since it may not actually be true.
3. "Show, don’t tell" is not just good advice for writing.
It can be tempting to fall back on canned statements like “I’m here for you," or, "Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” when you don’t know what else to say. There is nothing inherently wrong with these statements. The problem is that we don’t always follow up on them, and that can make them come across as disingenuous or avoidant. One way to improve the quality of the support you give is to apply the “show, don’t tell” principle you learned in grade school:
• Instead of saying, “I’m here for you if you need me,” just show up. Bring dinner to someone recovering from surgery, or invite your friend who just went through a bad break-up out to do something fun. When someone reaches out and asks for help, try to respond promptly, and check in regularly when you know that someone is struggling with an ongoing issue. These little gestures can go a long way towards helping people feel like they can depend on you.
• Instead of saying, “Everything will be fine,” do whatever you can to increase the chances that everything will be fine. This could mean helping a friend who has been diagnosed with a serious illness research doctors and treatment options, or keeping an eye out for job postings for an unemployed colleague.
• Instead of saying, “Just relax"—which often has the opposite effect—do things that are likely to help the person feel calmer, like encouraging them to take a break after all the hard work they’ve been doing. Or, consider how you could change your own behavior so that they feel calmer in your presence.
• Instead of saying, “I love you no matter what,” express your love even when the other person has done nothing obvious to “deserve” it. (This post by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton illustrates this point well.)
The bottom line is that social support is not always supportive; it depends on how we give it. Good support is less about saying the exact right thing and more about putting in the effort to try to understand what another person is going through, and then helping, when appropriate, in ways that don’t minimize or magnify a difficult situation. Small acts of kindness that come from a place of genuine caring and concern can go a long way.
This post originally appeared on my Psychology Today blog, In Love and War.