Caring for yourself

How To Build Your Support System

6 minutes

During hard times, everyone needs extra support. Learn how to build your support system of friends, family, & other loved ones.

During hard times, everyone needs extra support. But figuring out what kind of support you need and how to get it can feel like another project you don’t have time or energy to tackle.

You might feel stuck because you’re worried about asking too much of others or because you’re just not sure where to turn. You might be thinking:

  • “They have their own problems to deal with. I don’t want to take more than I give.”
  • “How can anyone help? Even I don’t know what I need.”
  • “My biggest sources of support are gone. No one can support me now.”
It’s normal to feel vulnerable when sharing feelings or asking for help, especially if you’re not used to needing support. But when you’re facing an Option B, you can’t do it all on your own.

  • Tip #1
    Give yourself permission to lean on others

    If asking for help feels hard, remind yourself that everyone needs extra support sometimes. In healthy relationships, the balance of giving and receiving support will ebb and flow over time.

    Even when you’re the one getting support, you’re not just taking. The benefits of helping flow in both directions. Research shows that performing acts of kindness often makes people happier.1 Talking about hard things makes relationships stronger and closer.

  • How to do it

    To ask for the help you need, you might say:

    • “I’m having a hard day. Do you have time to talk?”
    • “I’m having a difficult time staying on top of things right now. Would you be able to walk my dog or run an errand for me?”
    • “I have no idea what to do. Can you help me think it through?”
    When you share your own pain, it lets your loved ones know they can reach out to you when they need help, too. So ask for what you need now, knowing one day you’ll be able to pay it forward in the future.

  • Tip #2
    Pause to consider what kinds of help you need

    In life’s hardest moments, it’s common for people to need several different kinds of help.

    • Emotional support to help you feel better, like having someone listen or even just sit with you.
    • Practical support to help meet your needs. Like having someone give you a ride or loan you money.
    • Informational support to help you figure out what to do. Like having someone research treatment options or figure out how to access mental health support or community resources.

  • How to do it

    If you’re feeling too overwhelmed to even figure out what you need, that’s normal and a great place to ask for help! Consider asking a friend, family member, or professional helper, like a counselor, to sit down with you and help you think through what kinds of support you need most.

    Often, people who want to offer support hold back because they aren’t sure how to help and don’t want to intrude. To point helpers in the right direction, consider making a list of unmet needs. That way, when someone says, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” you’ll have ideas ready.

    You might ask people to:

    • Bring or buy you dinner
    • Help you with chores like vacuuming or grocery shopping
    • Keep you company while you zone out and watch a movie
    • Spread the word to others about what you need—whether that is practical support or a bit of space

  • Tip #3
    Build your ring of support

    If you’re not sure who in your life might be able to help, creating a “ring of support” can help you map out people or resources to call upon. In this model, the people most affected by a crisis sit at the center of a series of social rings. People who are less directly affected sit in surrounding rings.

    The rule is “Comfort in, dump out.” People at the center should be able to draw support from any of the surrounding rings. People farther out should direct support to people in the center and look outward if they themselves need help or an opportunity to vent.

  • How to do it

    To draw your ring model:

    • Place yourself and anyone who you’re directly supporting in the day-to-day, like a child or a second parent if your other parent is sick, in the innermost circle.
    • Draw a ring around this circle. Here, include people who are next most affected by what’s occurred—perhaps family members, partners, or friends.
    • Keep creating larger circles, adding people based on how close they are to the crisis. This may include coworkers, neighbors, or acquaintances facing a similar challenge.
    • In the outer circle, include community groups and organizations that can offer support. These could include support groups, online communities, workplace employee assistance programs, health providers, religious groups, schools, nonprofits, or social services.

  • How to do it

    Looking at your ring of support can give you a new perspective on the range of people and places that may be able to offer you support. Seeing yourself at the center may give you permission to lean on others. Looking at the outer rings may reveal sources of support you hadn’t thought of or overlooked.

    Your model may also reveal that resources have been flowing in the wrong direction. If people in outer rings have been leaning on you for support instead of dumping out, it’s okay to draw boundaries around what you can offer them. That might mean encouraging them to get support from someone with more capacity or even limiting contact to focus on your own needs.

    As you start asking for help, you’ll find that people in your support system have different strengths. Some will be better at offering a shoulder to cry on, others at taking action to solve problems. You may also find that people try to help in ways that aren’t actually helpful. That’s normal, since everyone handles hard times differently.

    It’s okay to be direct about what would work better. You could say,

    • “I just want to vent today, not dive into problem solving.”
    • “I need a break from hard conversations. Could we just go on a walk?”
    • “I’m all set on food, but I would love some company.”

Building your support system is an ongoing process. It can take some time to figure out what you need and to learn who you can count on for different types of support. You may even have some disappointments. This is totally normal.

Even so, reaching out for support can make a real difference. Letting people in can help you get through the hardest days and give you the support you need.

Other Lessons


  1. Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, et al., “Happy to Help? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Performing Acts of Kindness on the Well-Being of the Actor,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76 (May 2018): 320—29.