A Support Role Taxonomy

Close-up of a life preserver.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

A universal human dilemma: you need social support, but the type of support you need isn’t the type you’re getting.

You just want to vent, but your partner jumps in with advice. A sick person gets tons of gifts, but all they really want is someone to come over and spend time with them while they’re stuck in bed. Everyone wants to come hold the newborn baby, but nobody’s offering to do the parent’s laundry or make some meals for them.

This is complicated by the fact that most people find it difficult to articulate exactly what they need in terms of support, especially when they’re already in a rough spot. Even if they do know, and could verbalize it, many people feel like they shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. So, sure, you don’t need all those nauseating frozen meals while you’re dealing with chemo, but at least they were nice enough to think of you, right?

It can help to learn how to identify what it is that you do need and how to communicate that to people. On the flip side, it can also help to learn which types of support you’re best suited to providing and look for opportunities to do those things—as well as to be careful not to push those types of support onto people who don’t need or want them.

This article is a taxonomy of different types of support that people might need. There are probably many more, although just about anything I can think of fits into one or more of these types. Some are subtypes of each other–advocacy is a type of assistance; perspective could be considered a type of information.

There are three major types of social support. Emotional support involves directly creating space for the person’s feelings and helping them to express or process them. It includes validation, affirmation, comfort, and perspective.

Intellectual support requires using your knowledge and critical thinking to help the person find ways to move forward. You can offer it through information, advice, feedback, or motivation.

Practical support helps people set up their lives and environments in ways that promote coping and healing, and is an ideal way to help if you struggle with emotional labor, listening, or other interpersonal skills. You can provide practical support by giving resources or assistance, supplying distractions, or simply being physically present.

Here are the twelve support roles, broken down in detail. They’re in order (roughly) from least involved and complex, to most.


1. Presence

Presence is the gift of intentional togetherness—the simplest way of “being there.” When you’re present with someone, you are physically[1] there with them. Even if you’re both doing your own separate activities, the person you’re supporting knows that you will shift your focus to them if they need it.

You may need presence if: You just don’t want to be alone.

Ways to be present with someone: Sit with or near the person. Don’t check your phone or start doing other things until they do, and stop if they stop. If they aren’t speaking, resist the urge to fill the silence with talking.

2. Distraction

When the person who needs support isn’t ready yet to actively resolve their problem, or there isn’t a realistic way to resolve it right now, you can help them distract themselves so that they can have a few hours of relief from what’s troubling them. Your main role here is to be the one who suggests the distractions and obtains or sets them up.

You may need distraction if: Focusing on the problem at hand is doing more harm than good; you can’t keep yourself from ruminating and feeling even worse; there’s no practical or effective way to resolve the issue right now, and you just need to get through the next hour(s).

Ways to provide distraction: Take the person out to do something they enjoy. Come over and watch TV or movies together. Talk to them about your own life or tell funny stories. Play games together. Let them play with your pet.

3. Comfort

When two people have an attachment bond, they can comfort each other—a social process that actually reduces the body’s physiological stress response. [2] (Remember oxytocin from all that fear-mongering about casual sex? This [among other things] is what it’s really for.) Comfort can involve touch or words, but the words are just there to make those bodily changes happen. People don’t have to be sexual/romantic partners to be able to comfort each other this way—these types of bonds are common between family members (even adults) and close friends, as long as those relationships are healthy and consensual.

You may need comfort if: You feel unsafe or scared, and there’s someone you trust to reassure you.

Ways to comfort someone: Hug, cuddle, or hold hands with the person (with their consent). Reassure them verbally that everything will be okay, that you’re here, that they’re safe. Keep repeating any words or phrases they find soothing. It’s okay to be repetitive—this isn’t about conveying information to them, it’s about facilitating a physiological response. Give them your full attention, or it won’t work.

4. Validation

Validation is often the first and most important significant process that occurs in therapy. [3] It’s important in other types of relationships as well. When going through difficult times, almost everyone struggles on some level with feeling like their thoughts or feelings don’t make sense or aren’t reasonable or proportional to the situation. For whatever reason, humans can’t really start to heal until we start to understand that it’s completely okay to feel and think as we do. If you’re finding that your attempts to support others fall flat, it may be because they needed validation first, and you skipped over this step. [4]

You may need validation if: You’re struggling with feeling like your experience isn’t real, visible, recognized by others, or “that bad”; you have people actually telling you that it’s not “that bad”; you feel ashamed of your own thoughts or feelings; you worry that you’re being “overdramatic” or irrational.

Ways to provide validation: Listen. Verbally acknowledge what you’re heard. (“I hear you.” “I’m still listening.”) Remind the person that it’s okay to feel the way they do. Reiterate that what they’re saying makes sense to you; if it doesn’t, ask open-ended questions until it does.

5. Affirmation

Closely related to validation, affirmation is the process of helping someone feel that you like them and think well of them. Just as people typically need to feel that their internal experiences are valid, they also tend to cope and heal better when they are reassured that the people close to them still respect them and want relationship with them. It may seem irrational, but I think it has to do with how fundamental our need for social connection is.

You may need affirmation if: You feel diminished or beaten down by your experience; you worry that people think less of you because of it; you’re receiving lots of negative feedback or criticism.

Ways to affirm someone: Tell the person why you admire or respect them. Compliment them. Give them genuine positive feedback about how they’re coping with the situation.

6. Resources

Sometimes, throwing money and/or stuff at the problem really does help. The prevalence of crowdfunding campaigns online is a testament to this. If you can afford it, supporting someone with resources can make a huge difference.

You may resources if: You’re faced with a financial crisis you can’t handle alone; there are tangible things you don’t have and can’t find or afford that would help; dealing with your situation has left you without money to spend on small pleasures or self-care that would help you cope and heal.

Ways to provide resources: Donate/contribute money. Ask what they need and buy it for them.

7. Assistance

If you don’t necessarily feel up to supporting someone emotionally, don’t forget the importance of practical assistance. It’s common to offer this when someone is going through a serious physical illness or has recently had a baby or lost a loved one, but people need it in all kinds of situations. Mental illness or stress can make it difficult to do basic “adulting” tasks, and helping someone with basics like food and laundry can free up time and energy for them to resolve whatever they’re going through.

You may need assistance if: An illness or disability is making it difficult or impossible for you to do something that needs done on your own; managing your current situation is taking up so much time you can’t do other necessary things like cooking, housecleaning, etc.; you lack transportation; you’re concerned about caring for your children or pets while you deal with things.

Ways to assist someone: Ask the person (or someone closer to them) what you can do for or with them. Offer rides, household help, childcare, petsitting, or other types of practical help. Identify what your skills are when it comes to helping people: Are you handy around the house? Great with kids? Skilled at making nutritious frozen meals? Let the person know that you are available to do this thing for them, preferably in writing so they have an easier time remembering to reach out to you if they decide they need it.

7. Information

Information is an often-overlooked form of support, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a social process. But it is—even if you get it from a book or from the internet, you’re still receiving it from someone, hopefully someone you trust. Some people are very resourceful and tend to quickly learn what they need to know. They may not even realize that information is a specific type of support someone else might need. Others struggle with resourcefulness, and may not realize that they’re missing information, or that someone trustworthy may be able to provide it. Some people have been resourceful their whole lives and flounder when a crisis they’ve never faced before makes them suddenly incapable of finding the knowledge they need.

You may need information if: You don’t understand the facts of what’s going on; you’re feeling stuck because you don’t know enough to feel confident that you’re making a good decision; you feel like there’s nothing that can be done in your situation; you have a serious medical condition that your doctor didn’t adequately explain; you’re facing a situation that involves legal issues, financial decisions, or other specialized knowledge that you don’t have.

Ways to provide information: Suggest books, articles, or other educational materials. Recommend a doctor, lawyer, accountant, therapist, or other professional that you trust. If you specialize in this issue, donate some of your time to provide some education around the issue (within the boundaries of your professional ethics, of course.)

8. Advice

Advice is without a doubt the most-given and least-wanted form of support, which is something we have to acknowledge before we can even talk about helpful advice. While it’s almost always a good idea to get consent before offering support, advice is one of the most important types of support to never give if it’s not asked for. Unsolicited advice isn’t just useless much of the time; it also tends to directly interfere with other vital support processes, such as validation and affirmation. Nevertheless, people do often want advice—they just tend to want it from specific people, and only when those people have the context they need to give advice that’s actually useful.

You may need advice if: you want to know how other people would handle the situation if they were in your shoes; you want to hear from someone else who’s been through this.

Ways to give advice: Ask first! Consider how you’d handle the situation, but take the person’s own needs and values into account. Ask what they’ve already tried or considered, and why it didn’t or wouldn’t work. Make sure you have all the information you need to give helpful advice.

9. Motivation

There are many things that can mess with our executive function—ongoing conditions like ADHD or autism, situational factors like sleep deprivation, long-term emotional states like grief or stress, or simply having way too much to do. Internal motivation is one of the main executive functions, and often one of the first to go. Thankfully, motivating each other is something we can easily learn how to do.

You may need motivation if: You have the capability to do what you need to do, but can’t seem to get started; anxiety, perfectionism, or depression are getting in the way or resolving your issue; you need someone to hold you accountable.

Ways to motivate someone: Check in with the person about the things they’ve said they’d do. Offer encouragement and positive reinforcement. Ask helpful questions (“What would be the next step?” “What’s keeping you from doing that?”).

10. Feedback

Sometimes people need a more involved version of advice or motivation—that’s feedback. Note that sometimes people want constructive criticism specifically, and other times they may only want “negative” feedback if you see something actively wrong with what they’re thinking or doing. It’s the difference between “Do you think I handled this wrong?” and “How could I handle this better?”

You may need feedback if: You’re not sure if you handled a tricky situation appropriately; you’re not sure if you’re interpreting something correctly; you want constructive criticism.

Ways to provide feedback: Point out the person’s strengths or what they’re doing well. Offer suggestions for improvement, or alternate interpretations of a situation. Ask useful questions (“What’s your goal here?” “What other options are you considering?”)

11. Advocacy

Advocacy is a very special type of assistance that involves using privilege, social skills, or knowledge that someone else doesn’t have in order to communicate on their behalf. This usually comes up when someone needs something from some sort of institution or authority figure, but it can also apply to mediating an interpersonal issue or backing someone up when they set a boundary.

You may need advocacy if: You need something from a person or institution and don’t feel empowered to try to ask for it; you feel that it might help to have someone (perhaps someone with more privilege or with skills you don’t have) in your corner.

Ways to advocate for someone: Accompany the person to appointments and help them express themselves effectively. Make sure they are being understood. Resolve an interpersonal issue on their behalf, or serve as a mediator. Obtain their consent to speak to their doctor, therapist, or insurance company to appeal a decision or provide collateral information.

12. Perspective

One of the rarest and most precious gifts you can offer to someone who is suffering is perspective. Like advice, this one is offered much more often than it’s actually available to give, and that’s because many people don’t have as much perspective, or as useful of one, as they think. Perspective isn’t “it could be worse” or “I’ve suffered worse.” Perspective never minimizes the problem; if anything, it shines a clarifying light on it. It can come from a religious or spiritual approach, but doesn’t have to. It can also be thought of as wisdom.

You may need perspective if: You feel lost or hopeless. You have no idea how anyone could get through this. You need someone’s wisdom.

Ways to provide perspective: Make sure you actually have perspective to offer on this issue. (Have you been through something similar? Are you knowledgeable in the person’s faith tradition?) Share an empowering, comforting, or personally meaningful way of looking at the issue. If appropriate, provide a religious, spiritual, or secular interpretation. Use perspective-finding tools that the person values, such as a tarot reading. Recommend a work of art, a book, or an essay that offers wisdom. Perspective is not the same as advice, and does not necessarily include any guidance on what the person should do. It’s more about providing a new lens for them to look through if they want to.


It’s a good idea to explicitly make sure you know what the person wants before providing any type of support. This is especially important with comfort, resources, assistance, information, advice, feedback, and advocacy, as these things are the most likely to cross boundaries when they’re unsolicited. But any type of support can come across as invalidating, tactless, or even violating if it’s not wanted. Nonconsensual touch that’s meant to be “comforting” can be actively harmful.

I’ll break down some of the more complex support roles in later articles. For now, I hope this taxonomy helps you give and receive support to others.


[1] Sometimes presence can be virtual, as when people hang out together via video call or have an ongoing text chat that they know they can use at any time. But it’s much harder to demonstrate presence without a face-to-face (or side-by-side) connection.

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453013002369

[3] https://www.miriammogilevsky.me/blog/2018/8/21/what-is-therapy

[4] https://the-orbit.net/brutereason/2015/06/29/dont-tell-people-how-not-to-feel/


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A Support Role Taxonomy
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