In peer work, we must navigate the challenge of keeping the space between us and the people we are supporting open without eroding their self-determination with our well-intended advice. This means we must sit with the discomfort that comes with not giving all the answers. We can’t possibly fix anyone; it’s not our role.
As peers, we are there for the mutual relationship–the connection and the support. It’s important to regularly reflect on the core values of peer support because it can be so easy to get sucked back into that “fix-it” role.
Here are some things to keep in mind as we work to create safety in our peer support work:
- Be mindful about the words we choose in conversation.
- Remember that all change comes from within.
- Avoid giving clinical advice. (Especially about medications or diagnoses.)
- Let go of any agendas aside from supporting others to explore their inner wisdom.
Silence can be a wonderful thing. To feel safe with someone and be able to spend time together in silence is a gift.
Here are some wise words from Parker J. Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness (2008):
“In the face of our deepest questions — the kind we are invited to explore in circles of trust — our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side. If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: ‘If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem. If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough. If you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could. So I am covered. No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.’ The shadow behind the ‘fixes’ we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that ‘no one really sees me, hears me or understands me.’” ~Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (p. 117)
“When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honoured. If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods. So the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.
“But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience. As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do. Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life. Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, ‘I tried to help’. I walk away feeling virtuous. You are left feeling unseen and unheard.”
~Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (pp. 117 – 118)
- When you read Parker J. Palmer’s quotes, what comes up for you?
- As a peer support worker, it is important to build safety and trust. How will you do that? How will you sit with the discomfort of holding back on advice-giving?