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Alicia Salzer, M.D. Headshot

Social-Circle Makeover: The Key to Coping with Crisis?

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SOCIAL CIRCLE COPING

It's that time of year when we open wide the closet doors and reassess. The weather is starting to change, and it's time to see if we have what we are going to need. What's funny is that we do this with our clothes, but we don't do it with our circle of friends. How diverse and up to date is your social circle? Have you been diligent about cultivating and maintaining friendships with the kind of people who are not just fair-weather friends? Do you have a social safety net of people whom you could really count on in difficult times?

Whether acquiring clothes or friends, most of us don't really plan. We know what we like and gravitate in that direction. The problem is that in a fashion sense, this results in a closet of all the same stuff. I am a clothes-horse, but I am a one-trick pony. If the gang from "What Not to Wear" looked in my closet, they would probably pronounce my look "casual-Friday funeral" -- a preponderance of faded black, all to be rapidly donated, but preferably not to the same person. I don't have a system of assessing my wardrobe needs and filling in the blanks, but perhaps I should.

My cavalier style of impulse-buying the bargains has resulted in the fact that I have dresses that I've never worn for lack of the right-colored tights, tops with the tags still on (which requires an elusive type of bra) and whole outfits for which I have not found shoes to match. If I unexpectedly got called to a boardroom or a bar mitzvah, I could probably cobble something together, but should it involve something fancy -- a date, perhaps, or a swank party -- I would have to capitalize on the fact that I live in New York City, where if you have enough confidence, mismatched can (hopefully) pass for hipster.

I'll tell you one thing, I am a better shrink than I am a wannabe-hipster. So I'm going to give you some advice: now, not in the midst of your next crisis, is the time to make sure you are outfitted with what you will need.

My fashionista friends do something with their wardrobes that I really admire, not just because it results in actual outfits, but because it's a great skill to apply to the fine art of assembling our social lives. They imagine a host of occasions that might come up, and they see to it that they don't find themselves literally scrambling for cover. Then they actually go out and shop for the boring stuff that pulls it all together: the tights, the bra, the shoes. The result? They are prepared, down to the details, for what life throws at them.

Apply this same preparedness to your social life and we are looking at a principle that is at the core of resilience.

If you are like most people, your friends and acquaintances tend to fall into categories defined by shared interests. You've got your mommy friends, your volleyball friends, your work friends. We don't tend to categorize our friends in terms of the kinds of support they offer, the types of comfort they excel at.

I propose -- and this is based on having spent my professional career guiding people through crises -- that maintaining a social safety net that is diverse and free of holes is a matter of good mental health.

When a crisis hits, you need a real spectrum of types of people. You need a host of friends who are action-oriented, the ones who show up with cleaning supplies, the one who has the patience to get on the phone with the insurance company and pretend she's you so that you can start to sort through all the bills, the one who can take your smelly dog off your hands. But you also need friends who can provide for your emotional needs, whether that means making you laugh or letting you cry.

One characteristic of resilient people who weather the unexpected with relative ease is that they keep their social safety net in great repair. They see to it that they maintain a circle of friends who are emotionally interdependent or who at least can be rapidly mobilized to be so. People with healthy and supportive social safety nets don't just hang out with party buddies or fair-weather friends. And they make sure that they are not so busy adding Facebook friends and "tweeps" that they find themselves without someone to call at 3 a.m. who can actually show up.

Wardrobe emergency analogies aside, it is an enormous comfort to go through life knowing that your people have your back, just as it is an enormous comfort to know that you have that Suze-Orman-endorsed, six-month emergency fund sitting in the bank, or a financial portfolio that can save its own neck when the worst-case scenario hits. So why does it leave a bad taste in people's mouth to think about their friends in a way that asks, "Who will be there for me?"

This is the resilience equivalent of keeping your medicine cabinet well stocked so that when the moment comes that you are slicing a bagel and veer radically off target, you are not faced with the additional challenge of wondering whether or not there is gauze in the house.

So take 15 minutes and a piece of paper divided into two columns and imagine what you would need tomorrow if the shit hit the fan. On the left-hand column list the things you would need help with in a tangible sense: childcare, dog-walking, a cash loan, legal advice. Next, but also in the same column, list the less tangible needs you might have. Think back on what helped you emotionally the last time you found yourself in a crisis. Are you the kind of person who benefits from a friend who helps in a "don't worry about this, I've got it under control" kind of way? Or perhaps you are the kind of person who is comforted by information, data and lots of it so that you can reach your own decisions in an intellectual way, leaving the emotions out of it. Do you need people who help you express your feelings, or people who help you contain them? Add to the list any emotional needs you might have, like comfort, distraction, humor or advice.

Now, in the right-hand column, try to match each item with a person in your life who might fill that need. You will undoubtedly find gaps, or people whose names appear too many times, or people whom you could call but with whom you've fallen out of contact. Now is the time to get back in touch. Now is the time to cultivate relationships that fill in the gaps -- to give unsolicited and generous help to an acquaintance in need, knowing that life happens and that there will be times when you will want to be able to accept support and help without guilt.

Is it morbid to sit down on an ordinary day and imagine terrible things happening? No, it's just good, common sense. After all, when you diversify your stock portfolio or stock your first-aid kit, what you are actually doing is planning for a worst-case scenario. From where I sit, this kind of activity, executed for 15 minutes once a year, is as reasonable as seeing to it that there are jumper cables in your trunk.

Or better yet, it's the emotional equivalent of a roadside assistance service. Because who's kidding whom? The fear of electrocuting myself with my jumper cables is far greater than my fear of finding myself with a dead battery in the middle of the night. When the inevitable happens, I know that I will need to call in the troops. And it is a tremendous comfort to me to know who my troops are, what talents they offer, and that they will willingly and lovingly offer those talents because I have actively cultivated a relationship with them in which it is clear that we can count on each other.

Maintaining your social safety net is like building a form of emotional equity. And now is always the right time to cultivate our greatest asset: our people.

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