Like most people, my heart was broken last Friday by the shooting that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. I could hardly bring myself to watch the news coverage or to read the stories without breaking down and, of course, thinking about my own children.
There are lots of issues at play here and most of them are political in nature—gun laws and mental health access and treatment, for example. But there is one issue that is inherently about relationships. Nearly every person who has committed a mass shooting is a disenfranchised young man. He usually suffers from some type of mental health problem and he often lives at the fringes of society. He was bullied or ostracized in some other way and he likely hopes that his final statement of violence will “get everyone back” for treating him so poorly.
We are all sickened by these behaviors and most of us feel powerless to make any positive difference. Our culture is infected with violence and anger, mistrust and isolation. These problems often seem too big for any one of us to fix alone, but what would happen if we all started supporting each other a little bit more? What would happen if we all knew the secret of social support?
We must start taking care of the people in our lives. In doing so, we should think not only about our close friends and families, but also the looser network of people who surround us every day. A co-worker you don’t spend a ton of time with, the bus driver you never really talk to but see every day, a member of your church, other children at your kids’ school.
Social support can be defined in a lot of ways, but it is generally understood as the feeling that you are being cared for by your social network, or the actual assistance you get in times of need. There’s a physical reality component (the literal act of support) and a perceptual element (the feeling of being supported). Both are vital, but the size of the gesture is not directly correlated to the effect it can have on another person. The secret of social support? Do it invisibly.
The best support is, as the researchers Maryhope Howard and Jeff Simpson put it in a recent study, “support in disguise.” Invisible social support is defined as support that is outside of the target’s awareness. In the last five years, researchers have repeatedly shown that invisible support is more effective, and this is true with both strangers and our loved ones.
Suppose your friend is struggling with a tough breakup. The literature on invisible support would suggest the best way to be helpful is not to send a thoughtful note or to buy him/her a gift, but to do something potentially “undetectable” and under the radar like exercising together. Activities that help someone get their mind off a difficult topic are indeed supportive, but they are often invisible because the other person doesn’t realize you’re trying to help. In fact, sometimes the knowledge that someone is actively supporting you can diminish the positive effects.
How can you act invisibly in your social network? In their paper on invisible support, Howard and Simpson outline several routes for making this happen:
For those people who know, but not well enough to know when they’re hurting, you can still provide invisible support by just being there. Say hello and thank you to your bus driver. Bring coffee to your cubicle-neighbor. Arrange a playdate with one of the quieter kids in your son or daughter’s class. It might not seem like much to you, but it could mean the world to them.
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