A significant challenge in the peer supporter role is managing reactions to emotionally difficult situations which relate to past experience.
Past experiences and self-care
In this exercise students working in small groups consider two scenarios and discuss what they feel is happening and how self-reflection and self-care could help in managing such situations.
Anne is a peer support worker at a service where she has been employed for just a few months. She has overcome many obstacles in her life, including life with a father who had a drink problem. Life was pretty unpredictable for Anne. She made a decision when she left home that she would never associate with anyone who drank.
Anne is meeting Holly for the first time as Holly’s new peer support worker. Holly has only been coming to the service for about a week, so is just getting used to things. Anne greets Holly and immediately smells alcohol on Holly’s breath. Anne’s face gets red, her heart starts pumping, and she suddenly feels angry. Holly, seeing Anne’s reaction to her, assumes that she has done something horrible to offend her, but she doesn’t know what. Later, when Anne meets with her supervisor she states, ‘I can’t help her. She’d been drinking.’
Consider this scenario and answer the following questions:
- What do you think Anne is reacting to?
- How would knowing more about herself and her own reactions to certain people or situations have helped Anne to respond differently when she smelled alcohol on Holly’s breath?
Katy is a peer support worker and she is very worried about Daniel. Daniel has not been showing up for his meetings with Katy or his support team. He’s also been alluding to dropping out of services altogether. Katy is very worried that if she does the wrong thing with Daniel he will disappear. This causes Katy some concern. In fact, for Katy, there have already been a lot of losses in her life. She’s not sure she can handle one more.
Consider the following:
- If Katy were able to self-reflect, what would she be paying attention to in terms of her own fears and concerns for Daniel?
- How might Katy ‘check out’ her interpretation of what is going on for Daniel in a way that allows Katy to also speak to her own fears, worries and concerns?
With scenario 1 we explore the fact that we all have vulnerabilities and issues that prompt a particular type of emotional response. Anne’s are related to alcohol. It is one of those seemingly instinctual reactions to things that have historically made us uncomfortable and come up all the time in peer relationships.
Some people prefer to describe them as triggers.
For example, we might misunderstand the tone of what someone is saying, we might have strong beliefs that contradict the other person’s or we might get frustrated when something that was easy for us is difficult for the other person.
Being aware of this is an important element in the practice of relationship development. It is also an important element of self-care in peer working, so it’s important to work on increasing self-awareness of these potential triggers.
Since you can’t always avoid the people and situations that elicit strong reactions in you, what can you do to become more in control of your responses? While your supervisor is not your therapist, you can talk to them as a way of thinking through some responses to difficult situations.
This kind of conversation is the same for any employee who is aware of their own vulnerabilities.
In scenario 2, we see that self-reflection could help Katy to separate her own fears and concerns from those she has about Daniel. It could help her to understand that her worldview could be colouring what she thinks is going on with Daniel. Self-reflection is a powerful tool that can help us to understand how our own vulnerabilities (in this case Katy’s multiple losses) can play into our relationships with others.
When peer support workers take on responsibility for another person’s wellbeing, or see themselves as responsible for the outcome of another person’s decisions, they are contributing to the existing culture of disability in which people seeking services are viewed as incapable of taking responsibility or contributing to the relationship. Seeing and responding to others as ‘less than’, or ‘fragile’ within a relationship replaces compassion and respect with power and control and can lead to work stress and burnout.