If you launch in to an account of your story from how bad it was to where you are now, you will probably overwhelm Sylvia. We need to consider what part of our story Sylvia is actually interested in knowing about? It is likely that she wants to know if you have been a client too. This is the time to simply establish a mutual relationship by identifying your common experience. You might say, ‘I used to access services in the mental health system and I’d be happy to share some of my experience if you’re interested.’
The key thing about sharing your experience is to maintain hope within the peer support relationship and to do this we need to:
- Seek to discover common ground
- Recognise that each person is unique
- Understand that each person’s experience reflects what they have come to know because of where they have been.
As we have learned from discussing our own recovery experiences and the value of role models there is a difference between sharing an experience that focuses on recovery and one that focuses on illness.
A focus on illness communicates just how bad it was and tends to elicit sympathy rather than inspire hope. It can also distance you from the person you are trying to share your experience with by overwhelming them with the futility of even trying to cope.
Sharing a recovery experience, on the other hand, creates an opportunity for others to learn what you know because of where you’ve been; what helped you move beyond your challenges and what you do now to continue your journey and maintain your wellness.
It illuminates aspects of the challenge and the hope in reclaiming your life. It is rarely told in one sitting.
But what do you do if you and the person you are supporting don’t have a common understanding of your shared experiences? For example, you might be from completely different cultures or backgrounds and what they might describe as trauma, you might not.
How do you communicate that there is hope in recovery from mental health issues when this is the case? The answer to this lies in the fact that shared experience in peer support can in some cases have less to do with similar experiences and a lot more to do with understanding some of the consequences of living with a diagnosis.
While the sharing of experience is a highly powerful tool, it must be done in a way that continually provides space for each person to explore for him or herself and find their own solutions. A person might say, “Have you been through what I am going through? Can you tell me how to deal with this?”
In such circumstances an response which is mutual, authentic and intention could be “Yes, I have experienced some similar things. I’d be glad to share how I worked through them, but first I’d like to hear some of your ideas. What have you tried so far?”
It is also important to consider what you may need to avoid when sharing your own experiences to ensure that your interactions remain intentional;
- Shifting the focus too much onto yourself and your story.
- Taking up too much time with my story.
- Using the peer support meeting for the primary purpose of releasing my own pain/working through my own challenges.
- Comparing my own story to my peers “What I have been through is worse!”
- Sharing parts of my story to ‘steer’ my peer into doing what I did
- Including specific details about trauma and other experiences.