Expanding Your Social Network

Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago-Brain Injury Team, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, LIFE CENTER
Expanding Your Social Network

Everyone is looking for friendship and support — it is part of human nature. When we reach out to others, it not only takes the focus off of ourselves, but it provides us with an opportunity to live our life to the fullest.

Sometimes a life-changing event, can leave a person or family feeling alone. Some feel that no one quite understands what they are going through. In fact, family, friends and caregivers may not know where to turn. Some people report feeling overwhelmed by their new disability and the information that they must learn in order to live as independently as possible.

It may feel awkward interacting with others as they may not know what to say to you or you to them. Sometimes people stop visiting or calling because they don't know what to do or say. These situations are not unusual. As a result, many people begin focusing on themselves and all the things that have changed or are not in their control. If this continues, it is more likely that the isolation will increase and they may feel stuck. If this sounds familiar to you, the following examples of individuals with disabilities may help you see how they were able to connect and re-connect with others.

Real People-Real Situations

Judy Panko-Reis — wheelchair user, head injury due to violence: Many people are scared, others feel stranded by the scarcity of transportation and caregiving resources. Many folks are in the process of losing friends and others don't have a clue on how to make new friends. For example, I had no new friends-disabled or able bodied-post injury for at least 10 years. First, I had lost my ability to drive and walk, secondly transit options were terrible. And when I finally got involved with others to improve transit options for the disabled I got a double surprise—my transit options improved—I made a new set of friends. If you sit home and focus on all of the negatives, you will NEVER stand a chance for improvement or building new relationships.

Karen Boyd-wheelchair user, congenital cerebral palsy: Children come up to me and ask, "What's wrong?" and the parents tell their kids "Don't ask her that or be quiet!" and I will say "Please don't stop your child from asking me what's wrong. Don't be afraid to ask questions, if you don't ask, how is your child ever going to learn that it's okay to be different." I am finding that by taking this extra time to explain my disability or why I am in a wheelchair, I am connecting with others in a positive way and helping educate them. Therefore, I know that the next time they see someone who is different, they will see the person first, not the disability.

Research has found that individuals who are surrounded by people, have others available to assist them, give positive feedback, or show concern generally experience a higher level of well-being. It may be family, friends, co-workers or neighbors. We are all part of a community — be an active participant! When you connect with others, you avoid isolation and reduce the risk of depression. Here are some helpful tips on how to get started.

Focus on what you are capable of doing, helping, giving and living rather than what you can no longer do.

  • Make a list of all the things that you like to do and how you can help others. This will enable your self-esteem to soar and you will see that others can benefit from your abilities, skills, and knowledge.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. It will keep you grounded in what really matters to you.
  • Set realistic goals and include others in your journey. Sometimes sharing your personal goals and accomplishments helps you stick to your plan. Once you start this process you will feel the effects of the love you have inside yourself, and it will motivate you to continue a healthy lifestyle and feel good about yourself.

Treat your body with respect. Honor yourself and your abilities.

  • Learn to laugh at yourself, keep your sense of humor, and be flexible so you can roll with the punches.
  • Look for healthy alternatives to stress such as meditation, relaxation techniques, and exercise.
  • Try to avoid excessive alcohol, caffeine, smoking, drug usage, and overeating.
  • Plan the amount of time to be spent on the activity, stick to it, and leave when you still feel good.
  • Surround yourself with positive people that support you.

Take initiative.

  • Take the initiative to make an acquaintance a friend. How many times have we heard "We should get together or I'll call you", and we never do. Take that opportunity and make the call. It may feel awkward at first but really, what do you have to lose. So what if they say no, move onto the next person or opportunity.
  • Get that individual e-mail address or phone number and actually call them within the next 2 days. It may be a good idea to just get your date book out then and set up a time to meet. Maybe the first time you can meet for a shorter period of time like for coffee or to listen to a speaker. It is easier to get to know someone when you are doing an activity together. It gives you something to talk about, and it takes the pressure off of trying to make constant conversation.
  • If you are homebound, ask a friend over for a visit.
  • Don't be afraid to go somewhere or do something alone.
  • Embrace your fears and take a risk. You may fail but just pick yourself up and try again and again. Soon, you will have more successes and fewer failures and others will look to you for guidance and support.

Try not to be your own worst enemy.

  • Negative self-talk is extremely harmful to one's ego. If you are continually telling yourself that you can't do something, then you probably won't.
  • Raise your expectations, hopes, and dreams. If one expects little, one achieves little.
  • Practice is most helpful for change. You're worth it!

Smile! Show people the real you.

  • People are naturally attracted to others who are non-threatening and inviting.
  • Don't forget the little things that you can do to show others that you are thoughtful.
  • Have a candy bowl at your work area will always draw people over, providing a chance to talk.
  • Donate your time to a local school, church or shelter.
  • Keep a journal to remember important dates such as birthdays, anniversaries and/or promotions. This lets everyone know just how thoughtful you are.

Get out there!

  • You have to be around people to meet people.
  • You can meet people at the hospital, park, support group or even the waiting room of you Dr's office. Make eye contact with others and don't be afraid to strike up a conversation. You never know whom you will meet.
  • If you are homebound, utilize the telephone or computer. Get out from behind the TV!
  • The ideal way to meet others is in the living of our own lives as we enjoy our hobbies and passions. This helps us connect to others with similar values while being meaningful in itself. Take some time and some soul searching to find out what they are.


  • If you are interested in sports, joining a team can be a great way to meet others. Locating an interest group such as a book club, wheelchair dance, meditation group, religious activities, choirs or outdoor activities such as hiking and/or gardening. The options are endless. If you have an interest in helping others, then you may consider volunteering. There are environmental groups, political causes and mentoring programs to name a few.

The art of conversation.

  • Sometimes it's hard to know what to say. It's a good idea to offer information but also ask questions.
  • The most important thing is to be a good listener. You can find out a lot of information about someone by just listening. If small talk is difficult for you, the information that you get from listening can help you with your questions. For instance, if someone says that they just moved here from the East Coast, there are several opportunities for getting to know the person from that information. Try to ask open-ended questions such as, "What brought you here to Chicago?" Then that gives the person the opportunity to answer the question in a way that they feel comfortable and thus they may disclose further information that can help you learn more about them. It can also help them get to know you. Maybe you have family out East. You never know, it is a small world.

The best way to make and keep a friend is to be a friend.

Once a connection has been established, it must be maintained and cultivated which takes intention, attention, courage, creativity, and love. These things all take work but the rewards are rich, and friends can make the intolerable tolerable.

Posted on BrainLine November 4, 2008.

Copyright 2008 Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, LIFE Center, reprinted with permission.