In module 9 we learned that trauma can affect people’s sense of safety and trust. While people can have very different responses to traumatic events there are some fairly common responses that can affect relationships including the peer relationship.
When people have had experiences that leave them feeling constantly overwhelmed, powerless and/or disconnected, they might have developed coping strategies that, to them, feel quite soothing. Some of these strategies could feel frightening to others. For example, sometimes people who have been in combat have learned to bury their emotions. When they come home, they can have a very difficult time sharing their pain with their partners, and simply explode when things feel overwhelming.
People who have experienced abuse can have difficulties with their bodies. This can sometimes result in them developing eating disorders, self-harming or even feeling chronically suicidal. Others might engage in high-risk activities to re-enact the trauma.
Traditionally, these coping strategies have been understood as symptoms of illness to be treated, rather than adaptive reactions. This has left some people either keeping their strategies a secret or leading them in and out of services and treatments. Without a forum to talk about these strategies and feelings they can continue to be automatic responses to current stressors.
Peer supporters can offer a very different kind of conversation. While there may still be the responsibility to report something risky, peer supporters can talk to people, empathise, seek to understand, and share your own stories as well as your fear. The most important thing is to maintain trust (or re-establish it if it’s been broken), stay open, and work towards something that will help both in the peer relationship learn from the experience.
Approaches to this different type of conversation will include:
- Being aware of our own discomfort with the situation and instinctual reactions such as trying to ‘fix it’;
- Reflecting on what the person is feeling when they engage in behaviour deemed to be risky such as self-harming or suicidality;
- Seeking to empathise with or validate the person’s feelings to build mutuality;
- Using open questions to open up a constructive dialogue;
- If expressing their own fears, the peer supporter needs to do this in a way that does not alienate the other person.
Learning to think about behaviour deemed risky including self-harm and suicide as a language of pain can help us talk about feelings in a way that doesn’t involve power being taken away. It helps peers learn to understand and express a range of emotions in the safety of mutual relationships, and it builds depth, trust and learning for both people.