When I had my allotment, it was hugely important to me.
I couldn’t believe how lucky I was – real land, for me, to work on!
(I’d always wanted a vegetable patch when I was a kid).
Working that allotment was hard. It was an absolute slog, cutting down grass and digging over soil and constantly, constantly, weeding.
It was also the space where I began to recognise a lot of value in processes I’d previously ignored.
There’s nothing like planting, trimming, picking, storing and doing it every single year to teach you about patience.
And nothing like learning how plants live together to understand the importance of support systems.
There’s a planting system savvy gardeners use called ‘companion planting’. It’s when you plant vegetables or flowers or fruit near each other that can help each other out.
So you plant garlic and onions near the tender veggies slugs like, because the smell keeps the slugs away.
Or, like the first peoples of America, you plant squash, corn and beans together in a trio called The Three Sisters. The beans get a framework to climb on from the corn, the corn gets the first sunlight, and the squash gets plenty of ground cover to spread out.
The plants support each other to grow in the best possible way.
You’ve heard that statistic about how we share 50% of our genetic material with bananas, right?
In truth, the way DNA works means that we share a lot of what we’re made of with most of the other stuff on this planet.
I fundamentally believe we’re all connected in some way – whether that’s expressed through scientific exploration or spiritual belief, it doesn’t really matter. You, that banana on your desk and the office dog are all connected.
And like the Three Sisters, like garlic and onions, like companion planting, we need each other so we can grow in the best possible way.
This is what having a support system is all about.
When I first got that allotment, I didn’t know how to make a garden. I knew, in a sort of off-hand Gardener’s World way, that trowels and ‘potting on’ were involved, but that was it.
I had to learn how to cultivate an allotment which could live. Not just live, but thrive. And of course, when you’re learning to do anything, you make a lot of mistakes.
(Like that time I left the radishes in too long and they came out like tough old carrots).
In the same way, I had to learn how to cultivate a support system which encouraged me and all the other people in it to thrive. And I made mistakes doing it.
There’s no one right way to create or cultivate something you value. All I can do is share with you the experience I’ve had, and some of the methods I use, so you have a starting point.
The fertile soil
One important aspect of cultivating a support system to help you thrive is that it takes time. Not just the actual cultivating bit, but the groundwork – the soil.
For a long time, I wasn’t in a place where I was ready to cultivate a support system. I had too many barriers – the belief I wasn’t allowed to be supported, the fear no-one would understand me, the sort of distancing behaviours which meant I didn’t open up to anyone.
That foundation, that soil, to even beginning to cultivate a support system took a long time … well, it took my whole life.
If, right now, you feel far away from recognising your own value, from feeling valued or feeling like you’re part of something you value, I sense you’re likely to be at a point just before cultivating a support system where you do feel all those things.
In Women Who Run With The Wolves, the author talks about how fertile the black mud is at the bottom of the well. Maybe you’re there, in that just before place. That means you are the seed, and you will start to grow.
Breaking the ground
It takes a huge amount of courage to begin to cultivate a support system where you feel valued, because you have to ‘break the ground’ first.
There’s this great quotation from Rumi, an ancient mystic and one of my favourite poets: “The wound is the place from where the light enters you.”
I feel it’s only by breaking the ground, or making the wound, or opening up, that we can let all the good things in. And that’s painful! Just like digging over my allotment was painful and bruising, so is breaking the ground in yourself.
What this means in everyday life is being the first to say something.
No-one is going to know you want to cultivate a support system unless you tell them you need support. That means using phrases like “I need help” or “I’m not okay” or “I’m in pain”. And that means being vulnerable.
Brene Brown’s work informs my stance on this topic; that only by being vulnerable can we really start to make significant changes in how we connect to other people.
To begin to cultivate a support system where my wellbeing could thrive, and where I could feel fully valued, I had to open up and let that light in.
Please don’t think that was fun. I hated it.
I hated feeling weak, and stupid, and dependent. I hated this version of myself, who ‘needed’ other people. Gross.
Yet the horror I felt in being vulnerable lasted only moments. The support I felt from being vulnerable has lasted ever since.
Support systems require maintenance – just like my allotment needed weeding. Like, constant weeding.
The idea of weeding my allotment every day was frustratingly dull. I didn’t dig up all that ground just to keep it tidy – I dug it up to plant new things! Eat courgettes! Pick beans!
I really don’t like dull things. And, historically, I’ve been fairly bad at being consistent too. In generous terms, it’s capriciousness; in less generous terms, it’s flightiness.
That means my friendships and support systems have suffered. I forget to call people, send birthday cards, even reply to messages. It’s frustrating for them and me.
But being out of the country for five months meant I had to maintain my support systems in ways I hadn’t done before. I had to make efforts to call people, or text them, because I wasn’t just hanging around in the same city as them.
Successful maintaining your support system, I feel, means finding realistic and consistent ways to keep in touch with people. It’s not about having a perfectly weed-free environment, but rather the knowledge you’re going to keep it up as best you can.
Some of the ways I do that with my support systems are:
- Setting daily times for check-in texts when we’re both doing a big project
- Having code words (or emojis) for emergency wellbeing situations
- Always messaging someone when I’m thinking of them
- Being completely present when we’re together, to show how much I value them
Maintenance is sometimes boring, often repetitive … and always worth it.
Moving and removing
One of the vegetables I tried to grow on my allotment were tomatoes. And a certain variety of potatoes. And broccoli.
They all failed. I put them in the wrong place, or maybe at the wrong time, or maybe they just weren’t going to work for me.
There is a point at which I had to acknowledge not everything in this allotment ecosystem was working. Not everything was tasty or flourishing. Some things were just not meant to be.
Removing someone or something from your support system is a deeply sad process. Fundamentally, I think, all of us want to believe people are kind, loving and generous, and that there is always a chance for them to be different.
I believe there is always time for a person to make changes for the better. But I also believe that, often, we won’t be there to witness those changes in action. And that’s absolutely okay.
There’s this famous book called ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ that my mum has. Pretty self-explanatory; put plants in the places they’re going to grow best.
It’s the same with people: we can put them, and ourselves, in the places where they are going to flourish. To do that, we may have to remove them from some other place first.
The fertile soil. Breaking ground. Maintaining. Moving and removing.
This is what I’ve done in my life to try and create a support system where I and all the people in it feel deeply valued – and we can communicate that feeling to each other.
In the workplace, this process happens too.
Someone will be the first one to be vulnerable, we will all work to maintain the support system, and we will all identify when it’s time for ourselves or someone else to move on.
This is true whether you’re employed or run your own business. You might have a team around you, or a network of peers, but either way that support system is still there, able to be cultivated and nurtured.
I believe we are all connected. We all need each other to not only survive, but grow, thrive and become our true selves.
I feel our workplaces are fertile ground in which to grow support systems that can change how we feel about who we are and what we’re contributing to the world.
Whether your workplace is an office, a café or a Facebook group, you have the opportunity there to cultivate something which can change how you value yourself, your work and your creativity.
You are the gardener. Plant some seeds.