Every month last year two friends sat down in their favorite café to do something most of us avoid: contemplating and documenting end of life decisions. For the first hour they sat at different tables reading and writing about medical directives, living wills, and funeral arrangements. As one of them told us, "I needed to let others know which life-saving medical procedures I wanted and how my body should be dressed for the funeral-no ruffles!" Afterwards they spent half an hour talking over the issues. "If we started off talking, we never got around to writing, so we saved it for the end."
They had tried to complete these documents on their own at home, but the subject matter was too intimidating. "Sitting in your kitchen alone describing your funeral is just plain depressing. Meeting once a month provided the structure and support we needed to tackle this stuff. It wasn't easy, but we got through it together."
These friends have come upon one of the most important ingredients for creating change in our lives: a good support system. The truth is that each of us is where we are for very good reasons. These very real reasons have built up over time, like so much good soil (or sludge). If we want to make a change, we need to find a way to dig into these reasons and begin moving things around. Sometimes we can do this on our own, but sometimes we need help.
So, who you gonna call? GhostBusters! (Listen to the Oscar-nominated song.) Whether you are combating ghosts or making changes in your life, you are often dealing with formidable and invisible forces. Your first task is to figure out what you need. Is it information, a change in the environment, or emotional or psychological support? Usually it's some combination of all three. The friends in the café found the information online and in books which they then shared with each other. Working in a comfortable space accompanied by a beverage and pastry of their choice helped them to deal with the difficult feelings that arose while working through this material, as did sharing the task and talking about it with each other. As a result they created a simple support structure to do something they were not able to do alone.
Friends and family are often our first source for support. Helping each other in this way deepens these relationships. It can also get us to sharpen our communication skills ("Please, not like that, more like this.") and to become more aware of how to balance give and take. We encourage everyone to find ways to become both a good supporter and a grateful supportee with the folks in their inner circle.
When we can't get the support we need from family and friends-or as a way to supplement it-it's time to reach beyond our immediate network and tap into the vast world of support buddies, groups, mechanisms, and yes, professionals. There is a lot to choose from: books, programs, apps, websites, workshops, coaches, advisers, etc. The real challenge is finding a good fit, and to do this you need to know what does and doesn't work for you.
For some of us the anonymity and convenience of an online program is just the ticket; others long for the pulse of a personal encounter in a one-on-one or group setting. Other considerations include how much structure you need and what kind of prompts work for you. Some of us need encouragement, while others seek accountability and even negative consequences. For example, stickK.com offers to donate your money to your least favorite organization when you don't meet your goal (!).
While we may be tempted to tout the latest and greatest support system we've found-be it the grapefruit diet, the thigh master, the Secret, or a new app-it's important to remember that we each vary in terms of the ecology of support we require. What works best is to identify the factors we need and then tailor a support system to fit our personality and resources. This is true at every stage of our lives-and beyond, such as when we want "no ruffles!" for our final act.
Think back on one of your most successful efforts to make a change in your life. Maybe it was a move, an accomplishment, or a new attitude or habit. What type of support did you have? Who and what was instrumental to your success? What support was missing that might have been helpful?
Next time you are talking with a friend, ask them what kind of support you could offer to help them with something in their life. If you already know, just go ahead and offer it. (Remember: listening well is a form of support.) How does it feel? What kind of support would you like in return? Try this with several members of your inner circle. What changes for you as you do this?
So ? Who you gonna call?
Beth Meredith and Eric Storm