Peer Counseling: What, Where, When, Why, and How?
I’ve always believed change is internal. I also have seen that we can influence each other in changing. Human beings are social animals and are motivated by the group they are a part of for support, encouragement, and motivation.
When there is a break / a change in the status quo, a shift in the habitual mode of being, acting, and thinking, often one of the most pressing points is that there is a lack of connection with the people around who can relate with similar experiences. Even though spiritual emergence is often accompanied by relatedness to the whole on one hand, the other side also brings up a lack of connection and social isolation.
When a most profound experience is not only legitimized by significant others, but relegated to the unthinkable, there are parts of one’s self that doubt one’s reality and legitimacy as a person. This can be in the form of embarrassment and a certain longing ensues to integrate the experience further.
I’ve found that healing requires a re-connecting, especially with people who can listen and witness non judgmentally as peers for each other.
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What happens when the most profound and transformative time of one’s life is marginalized and/or pathologized?
Often, people think that group support is only about telling the story of the trauma or emergency or division in whatever form it has come that is needed. This is simply one stage out of many. I’ve found the value of peer support gets deeper as the members begin to trust that the net will be there for them. This is when the healing of the wanting, and the opening to the desires, whether old desires or new desires, gets a chance to be met in a supportive group, and sometimes challenged. The group, any group, can and will bring up family dynamics long buried and has an opportunity for that to be healed especially in the places that hurt the most, or the places we feel most often not heard or seen. How does expansion meet contraction and dissolve in its duality within community?
When one enters a process of waking up and a personal transformation occurs, how can a peer support group help facilitate this?
I’ve found open ended questions that address the possibilities of shifting paradigms can be useful to initiate and invite conversation. It is beneficial to hear ourselves enunciate what we think and also hear others share their own renditions of their versions. There are so many metaphysical assumptions we all hold. In a peer group that is mixed, some individuals will have a mental illness framework, while others won’t. The cross pollination of dialog can assist in opening each individual to consider not just the psychological paradigms around safety and risk taking/adventure, but also the boundedness and boundlessness, and its relation to childhood psychodynamic as it is appearing in real time in the peer group. So the group opens up to the possibilities along with the dangers experienced, in the past or currently, when coming out to others. It is simply not about the content of consciousness, but the context as well.
What happens when we speak of the “break” in a trusted container, versus brooding in isolation? The containment of a spiritual paradigm may be helpful on one’s own, or also can be shared with others who believe similarly. What happens when there is no container of transcendence or a quality of perceived transformation to this break? The peer group can hold a container for the scrambling and allow support in finding meaning over time.
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A peer group has the opportunity to provide a place to be seen, to be held, to be witnessed, to be received, and also to give. In this process of community making, we touch many layers, boundlessness, and cul de sacs within our individual and collective psyche. In other words, the peer group has the gift to allow the spectrum of separation and connection to arise within its participants.
My perspective comes from being an energetic somatic healer in addition to a background in psychology and spirituality. I’ve seen that people can easily access expanded states and contracted states, but are not so familiar with the terrains in between. How can expansion include multiple variations? Escape from one’s present reality may be one variation. This may be an aspect of spiritual bypassing, when spiritual principles are used to bypass psychological shadow material in order not to own fully parts of one’s self. If the psyche goes into psychosis in order to unscramble what was old and no longer working for the new to be born, who are the midwives that can assist? Peer support groups can be one midwife in a plethora of assistance.
Spiritual Emergence(y) often comes with so much information that can be used for spiritual food. In Chinese medicine, digestion has four parts. There is the ingesting, the digestion, the taking/absorption of nourishment, and the excretion of waste. First you have to eat good food. But even if you eat the best food, and your system doesn’t know how to absorb the nutrition, what good is it? How much information do you take into your life, that it simply becomes stimulation, without its essence really being taken in to nourish your deepest needs and longings? The peer groups allow this digestion and absorption to happen in community.
Peer groups, based on a shared agreement on confidentiality, respect, and holding space for each other are best when the members offer support rather than tell or fix others in the group. There is a tendency in most human beings to believe one’s view is right, but the gift of a peer group, is the shared agreements. Many times, people want to share feelings of unity, feelings of objectivity and reality, transcendence of space and time, a sense of sacredness, deeply felt positive mood- joy, blessedness, peace and bliss to highlight the mystical aspects of expanded awareness. However, there are also frightening aspects such as being ostracized, or traumatized by the hospitalization, or experiences that William James referred to as “negative mysticism.” So the peer group can serve as support for both the heights and depths of where the psyche goes. It can assist its members’ access to deeper meaning and importance for them, as individuals and as a group.
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With deeper trust and intimacy, the peer group can be a place where shame can be seen in a loving, respected way. According to Gershen Kaufman in Shame: the power of caring, “to feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense.” Shame is directly linked to the failing of an ideal self.
For some individuals, the core wound is not being seen nor appreciated. We are not in our optimal expansive selves when we feel less than. The power of the group, to see one coming out, restores wholeness within the present time interpersonal seeing. The being witnessed nonjudgmentally can heal early developmental strategies of being stuck. Integration is an important part of Spiritual Emergence. While all these happen in the peer group, one still has to do one’s own work outside, of course.
Behavior and character are different. Behavior is learned and changeable. Character is what we often refer to as the personality of a person. Human beings are wired as learners. When we confuse behavior with character, however, we often get stuck. This is true whether we are looking at ourselves or another.
The more someone’s behavior is frightening or unacceptable to our ways of perceiving and value ordering, the more we will judge, label, conflict, distort, ostracize, and isolate our loved one. Consequently, we also will do the same things to ourselves. The ground to move forward with change becomes easier if there is stability in love.
Current neurobiological research points to the plasticity of motivation as well as the plasticity of the effect people have on each other’s behavior. You can affect others and have a great impact and influence your loved one’s choices in his/her behavior, and vice versa. We are not islands. We do change each other.
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How does the peer group do this best?
We help each other associate positive experiences with positive actions of relationships. We all respond well to kindness and respect. Positive communication skills help and allow for lower defenses. This means there is more room to accept a change in behavior, rather than fight it because the way it is delivered is not an attack or confrontation. That is why we don’t “fix” people in the peer group, or give “advice”.
The suffering of change is softer when there is kindness and love. People in the dialog have to be willing to engage and put aside a black and white approach. The relationship becomes a dynamic fluid give and take, based on mutual respect. The journey to acceptance of self and others is easier. Change can then have more of a possibility of excitement, rather than fear and coercion. It becomes a gift one welcomes with more joy.
The peer group’s focus and benefits are stability, empathy, shared insights, a safe container to express unacceptable or overwhelming feelings, and recognize and acknowledge fears, joys, confusions, and embarrassment.
Participants have to decipher the cost-benefit balance of the support group for themselves, checking into their level of toleration of psychic material shared by one’s self and others.
The group may also provide a place to be part of care, listened to, contribute one’s insights, share one’s vulnerability, and integrate more fully one’s unaccepted parts of self.
My vision is to see small circles or pods of peer support groups everywhere. This could be in person or online via zoom groups. Each group would be 8-10 members. It could be weekly or bi-monthly. And each session would be two hours long to allow each member time to share.