Connection and Over-Relating
“Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” ~Brené Brown
One of the things that makes peer support so effective is that it harnesses the power of shared experience.
When we are in struggle and we meet someone who sees us – really sees us – and says, “Me too.” When that happens, connection begins to form. We feel acknowledged. The shame we’ve been holding onto slowly begins to melt away and we start to believe that we might not be alone.
This kind of relationship is rooted in mutuality. It can flourish when we are treated with empathy. We have the opportunity both to know and to be known. There is so much power in that.
This is peer support in action.
The shadow side of this beautiful connection is the tendency to over-relate. Over-relating means that because we have commonalities with another person’s experience, we assume there are more similarities than there really are. When we over-relate, rather than asking powerful questions about the other person’s experience, we fill in the blanks of what we don’t know with assumptions that stem from our experiences and perceptions, In the process, we don’t listen very well, and the other person doesn’t feel heard.
Let’s look at an example
Kristin is working a peer support shift at the student center. She is from Nova Scotia and came to B.C. for school. She is adjusting to her new life but often struggles with feeling homesick. Jas comes into the center looking for support. Jas is an international student from India. She has been in Canada for a few months and is having a hard time adjusting to the new culture. She misses her family and many things about her home country. She understands English pretty well but struggles with some more nuanced language like slang. She heard about peer services and decided to check it out.
If Kristin responds to Jas by saying, “I know exactly how you’re feeling! I’m not from here either. I’m feeling homesick too,” she is at risk of over-relating to Jas’s experience. Kristin is not considering that Jas’s experience is different than hers because she is not just away from home, she is also adjusting to a significantly different culture. If Kristin doesn’t realize this difference, she could start giving unhelpful advice that will just make Jas feel even more unheard and alone.
Instead, Kristin can share her understanding of what it’s like to be away from home, while acknowledging that her situation is different than Jas’s since she is still living in the same country. Kristin can choose to listen to what Jas has to say about her experience. Perhaps she can share some resources that might be supportive as Jas adjusts to a new culture.
Kristin can choose to harness the connection that comes from missing home, while choosing to be intentionally mindful of differences and curious about Jas’s experience.
The connection of “me too” can start to break down when we assume that someone else’s experiences are the same as ours. We risk disconnection when we don’t create space in our peer support relationships for different perspectives and approaches.
Disconnection can be so much worse when we dish out advice either openly or subtly. Our advice is always based on our own experiences and worldview. When we speak from our own frame of reference without questioning it, we fail to see that the other person’s path is different than ours, and we are unintentionally stealing someone’s self-determination.
In communication, we can’t really begin to understand another person’s perspective unless we choose to listen from a place of curiosity and not knowing. Otherwise, everything we say and hear will be filtered through what we already know, and we won’t be able to acknowledge or make room for their unique experience.
- Think about one of the first times you felt that “me too” connection with someone. How did you feel when someone shared that they had a similar lived experience as you? How did that feel in your body?
- Have you ever been in Jas’s position, and felt like someone was making assumptions about you without really listening?