Having a support system around us is an important factor when we are struggling to deal with the challenging life events or the emotions that arise as we work through unresolved past traumas. A support system refers to those around us that love us and have our best interests at heart. These individuals can be family members, close friends, colleagues, support groups or mental health professionals, and all play an essential role when we are not feeling so strong. Our source of support allows us to better cope with the situation or our emotions about an event. However, each of us have unique needs when it comes to support and likewise each of us provides support to others in a unique way, and whilst the best intentions are there to assist in providing emotional support, at times our ways of providing support may be different and incompatible with the needs of the person who requires it. 


There are different ways to provide support and the way we support someone can be based on their personality or it can be situation dependent. Here is an outline of ways to support someone and some examples of when it can be effective or not.  

1.Support through guidance or advice

This method entails providing advice or assistance regarding the situation, this can be helpful when someone feels so overwhelmed that they are unable to make sense of things in that moment and this approach can help someone to get some perspective and see that there are some options and provide some hope that a way forward is possible and can include suggestions of seeking professional help to better manage their emotions or the guidance received through therapeutic interventions. This approach is appropriate when someone has feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness, and you, as the support, are in a position to offer insight. This approach can be used if someone asks specifically for guidance but can be unhelpful if we offer unsolicited advice to someone who requires a different approach to support. We need to practice this approach with caution if we are not experts in the area or have no relevant experience of our own to draw from.

2.Be an active listener

The opposite approach to giving advice is to simply listen, this works best when someone just needs to get something out, to ‘vent’ about a situation and to talk. The support provided by listening without countering anything or interrupting by excessive commenting, means that the individual feels that they can disclose information honestly in a way that is not judged. This approach should involve active listening techniques whereby we can nod to agree or to ask short open-ended questions to allow for the person to explore the situation in more detail. An open-ended question cannot be answered by a yes or no, and therefore encourages further discussion through explanation or clarification. This shows that we are really listening, and that the person has our full attention, and that their situation matters to us. We can lean in towards the person to show engagement and interest. Often, when someone wants to talk, they have the ability to find their own solutions through this process and we can be the catalyst by quietly listening. If after the person has disclosed their situation, they may ask what we think or what we would do, this is when we can then offer guidance or advice, as it has been asked for specifically.  

3.Provide a safe space for someone to be themselves

Another type of support is to be in the company of the person who is struggling and to be a source of distraction and relaxation for that person. This is the best approach when someone says: ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ or ‘I’m sick of explaining’. The support provided here is by providing a safe space for this person to be themselves and to focus on something other than their challenging situation or traumatic event. This approach can work when you know someone well and are in a position to arrange an activity that we know this person would enjoy or to steer conversations towards topics that they find interesting. This allows that person to take a mental break from their challenge and to be more in the moment. An example could be where you are aware that someone is currently seeing a therapist and is discussing the matter with the therapist already, you do not have to be ‘therapist no. 2’. Another reason to use this approach is if you know that the person is actively involved in discussions around the situation regularly and the situation is ongoing, an example could be a divorce, where there may be back and forth with lawyers about assets or custody of children, so there may be ‘discussion fatigue’. Another instance may be if some process is ongoing for a prolonged period, such as legal action or a health condition. 

4.Positive Affirmation and Encouragement

Another form of support can come in the form of positive affirmations. This approach is for encouragement when confidence is lacking and there may be self-esteem issues. When a person has been faced with a difficult decision and they did their best in the moment, but that the situation will still be challenging, this approach can work. An example could be when a person you care about has gathered the strength to walk out of a very abusive relationship, positive reinforcement of the decision is essential because they may regularly question their decision, especially if they have come out of a relationship where their confidence has been worn down systematically and have been made to feel incapable by an abuser. This approach can also work well for someone who has recently had a big life change such as going from full-time employment to being a business owner, where there is a natural fear of what lies ahead. Positive reinforcement such as ‘you can do this’ or ‘you got this’ can be helpful. The person would be aware of the risks but these words show that you have faith that they can overcome the challenge. 

  • Don’t fall into this trap if you don’t know what to do or say 

Whilst words of encouragement and emotional validation are important, regardless of the approach to support, it is important to understand what things may not be as helpful as we think they are. Generally, our intentions for support are well-meaning but, in these moments, we may be unsure of the best approach and often in the spirit of ‘positivity’ and ‘optimism’ are tempted to say things like ‘just stay positive’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. These statements can feel demeaning to someone’s struggles or dismissive to the true severity of the situation. The term for this is loosely referred to as ‘toxic positivity’ and can have the opposite effect of being positive. It can lead to feelings of guilt or avoidance of true emotions by ‘sweeping things under the carpet’ or the person may feel that you just aren’t being authentic. Instead, we should show support through validating the person’s feelings, and not risk invalidating them by using these phrases. 

Where does physical touch fit in? 

With support often comes hugs and physical touch such as hand holding or a hand on a shoulder. Because we live in a diverse society with many different cultures and perspectives, we must be aware that we may have different feelings or tolerances towards physical touch compared to others. Whilst some people see a hug as a source of comfort and an expected event, for others it can create discomfort and awkwardness. Unless we know the person very well, we must always be aware of this and not assume anything. If you feel compelled to hug or take someone’s hand and you do not know them well then either refrain from any physical touch or ask if they would want a hug. Get permission from the person, anyone wanting to provide support would not want to make the person feel uncomfortable. 

How do I know what approach is best? 

When considering how to be supportive, we should first understand that support comes in many forms and then, based on the situation, circumstances and relationship or closeness to the person, we can decide the best approach. If we are unsure, we can ask the person what support they need, but all approaches would start with listening, understanding and validating the person’s feelings. We can then look at what the specific needs may be. You could continue listening, provide some advice or guidance or to be the source of encouragement, or distraction.   

Consider how you have provided support to others in the past, do you have a set approach that you relate to more as a supporter? Now, think of a time when you needed support, were those that supported you helpful in their approach or did you identify some ways that made you feel invalidated, unheard or uncomfortable. Were their approaches compatible with your needs?

Author: Karyn Pitcher